Despite what has happened in Paris, the Vélib, if brought to Australia,could narrow the divide between the haves and have-not, writes Anthony Tan.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

Around mid-2007, when the Vélib program began in the city that plays
perennial host to the final stage of the Tour de France, I thought it
was a great idea.

More people on bikes equals less cars equals a safer
and greener city, were my initial musings.

However there was a spanner thrown into the spokes of this worthwhile program.

"The symbol of a fixed-up, economically friendly city has become a new source for criminality," mourned French newspaper Le Monde of the Vélib, Paris' bicycle rental system.

But in Rome for the
final stage of the Centenary Giro d'Italia this May, I noticed the
uber-cool Italians had also adopted their version of the Vélib program,
which led me to think that it was only a matter of time before Lord
Mayors of cities in Oz would follow suit.

With a Federal
government pro-climate change, what better way to spruik our desire for
a cheap, healthy, low-cost carbon alternative to the car or bus?

But in Paris, the bicycles are being vandalised by an anarchic youth.
Others are being stolen and showing up on the black market in Eastern
Europe and northern Africa.

80 percent of the initial 20,600 bikes – that cost $3,700 each – have so far been stolen or damaged.

And so, a program designed to create a utopian ideal has seemingly gone
sour, where the Vélib is seen as a trendy urban middle-class accessory
– "an accoutrement of the bourgeois-bohemes", Le Monde writes.

Sociologist Bruno Marzloff told the New York Times
that social revolt is behind the vandalism – which in two years, has
risen 54 percent; in particular, from those who live in Paris' less
glamorous outer suburbs, many poor immigrants.

Despite this,
I still feel such a system can work in Australia, and would in fact go
some way to narrow the social divide between rich and poor.

Even the Parisians are undeterred, where over there, daily use averages
50,000-150,000 rentals a day (the variation based on the time of year),
with more than 63 million rentals since the program's inception.

But with cycling-related accidents and fatalities also on the rise in
countries like Australia and the US, we must first build the
appropriate infrastructure to accommodate the Vélib or cycle-friendly
pathways, particularly in Sydney. (In Kristina Keneally, at least NSW
now has a premier who rides to work.)

Copenhagen, the city
that will host this month's United Nations climate change conference,
does not have a Vélib-style program, but 36 percent of the city's
people rides to work or school each day.

Why? The city has
over 300 kilometres of bike paths and more in the making, with many
lanes "green" – the term given to thoroughfares for cyclists only. Plus
they have a goal to be the world's first carbon-neutral city by 2025.

Maybe not in Paris, but over time, disenfranchised youth may even find
inspiration from the bike, while saving the planet at the same time.
First, though, there are some of those "green" paths to build.