There was a definite up-tick in bicycle usage in Paris that I noticed on this visit compared to a few years ago. High gas prices have probably contributed to that - gas is $10/gallon equivalent there, so quit complaining about $4. But also the mayor of Paris has instituted a fantastic bicycle rental system called the Velib.
It works like this:
Stocks of bicycles are placed all over Paris at special rack stations.
You walk up to the touchscreen kiosk and register (placing a 150 Euro/$225 deposit on your credit card in case you don’t return the bike). You can buy daily, monthly or yearly subscriptions. There are additional fees per hour of using the bike. For the first 30 minutes it’s free, it’s 1 euro for the next 30 mins, and then the fees going up very steeply after that. So the pricing scheme is heavily biased toward short “rentals” and rides rather than keeping it for the day.
The bikes themselves are custom-made and are very cool looking in a retro way. All curvy and brownish-gray they are extremely size adjustable so they fit lots of people. They have generous splash guards, a basket, dynamo-powered head and tail lights, internal-hub gearing (so no delicate derailleurs to break or maintain) and cable locks for quick locking up. Because of their distinctive looks no-one is going to steal one and claim it belongs to them. Supposedly they are impossible to maintain outside of the service because they require custom tools, a further disincentive to theft (not to mention the deposit on your card).
People from all walks of life ride them, from young to old, people in business attire or people out doing shopping. You see them everywhere. And I think I only saw one person using a helmet…. Despite the craziness of riding in Paris traffic the Velib has proved a smashing success. It appears many were skeptical about it given how free bike schemes have not done so well in other countries. But the city has put an impressive amount of resources behind it. Not just development of the custom bikes and kiosks themselves, but there is an amazing infrastructure of staff and trucks at night that redistributed the bikes so they don’t get bunched up in certain areas, and of course clean and maintain them.
Would love to see something like this in San Francisco but I have my doubts about how well it would work. Paris is mostly flat, SF definitely is not, but there is also not the respect for communal property in SF that there is in France, and the bikes probably would not get treated well. Not to mention no-one would want to pay for it…