The good points to the Velib, Paris’s network of rentable bicycles, are easy to list. It’s cheap, convenient, omnipresent, simple, and requires no human interaction. The fact that Paris was able to get 20,000 bicycles installed almost overnight and then have the system function well is a testament to the public-private partnership that runs the program.
There is some room for improvement. The primary gripe I had was the condition of the bicycles. In my limited experience, nearly one in three had to be immediately swapped out for a different ride. This speaks to the problem of repairing and replacing bicycles.
Now, the system penalizes you if you report a broken bike, on top of it being a hassle to do so. Bikes languish broken or in disrepair because there is a flaw in the business process. I would recommend that Velib make a record of how often bikes need to be repaired, whether from vandalism, use or accidents.
There should also be no penalty for reporting a broken bicycle. ZipCar uses no-fault reporting to make sure their hour-by-hour rental cars are always in good shape. Reporting the broken bike should be a straight forward procedure. Velib could even go one step further and remove people from the equation. Certain behaviors may be closely linked with a broken bicycle, most likely of which is an immediate return on the same station the bike was originally taken from. Velib could also monitor if a bike isn’t taken from a station for an extended period of time, indicating a visible problem with the bicycle.
Another major issue I found was overcrowding. When a station has no available spots to return the bicycle, the rider must go to another station a few blocks away to try and find an open spot. If that one is also full, the same situation presents itself. This problem is easily solvable – all stations really should have a few extra spots at all times. The easiest way to see which stations are getting overcrowded is to analyze how many open spots a station has during certain peak hours. If a station is continuously overcrowded, than Velib can’t rely on the natural flow of traffic to move the bicycles around. Instead, an alternative form of transportation, possibly by fan, would be needed. Or maybe have some volunteers who can move bikes from more popular to less popular drop-off spots.
Ultimately I love Velib for its massive experiment in easily rented, short-term bicycles. It makes getting around the city incredibly easy and fun. Now that the physical system is pretty much in place, the public-private partnership needs to start collecting data on bike usage and needed repairs. This data will then need to be analyzed to implement improvements to the bike network.