The city of Paris has been forced to pump taxpayers' money into the deflated tyres of its widely-copied, self-service, bicycle hire scheme.
After just over two years, Vélib, which offers bikes for hire on almost every large street corner in Paris, remains a free-wheeling, popular success. The help-yourself, electronic racks of sturdy bicycles have been copied worldwide and are due to reach London by next May.
However, vandalism and theft remain so rampant that Paris city authorities were obliged yesterday to come to the aid of the private company which runs the scheme. In less than two-and-a-half years, 8,000 bicycles have been stolen and 18,000 have been damaged beyond repair. In other words, each of the 21,000 Vélibs, which cost €610 (£550) each, have been replaced at least once.
Stolen Vélibs have been reported as far away as eastern Europe, Africa and even Australia. Originally, the City of Paris took all the proceeds from bicycle hire and paid virtually none of the costs. The global advertising giant JCDecaux set up and ran the scheme in return for extra ad spaces on the streets of Paris.
Vélib was, therefore, a win-win idea for Bertrand Delanoë, the Mayor of Paris. The self-service bikes cost the city nothing and pleased young Parisians. They earned money for the town hall, while helping to give the French capital a greener image.
More than 61 million Vélib journeys have been made since the scheme began in July 2007. The bikes have given the French language a new word – vélibeur, meaning a regular user of Vélibs. The computerised bike racks were extended earlier this year from Paris proper into the nearest ring of suburbs. There were originally 10,000 bicycles and 750 automated bike racks. There are now 21,500 bikes and 1,450 racks, scattered almost every 300 metres.
Vélibs are intended for short rides only. Users buy a subscription with a credit card. A bike can be taken from any rack and returned to any other rack, so long as there is space. Rides of up to 30 minutes are free. An hour costs €1. Twenty hours costs a punitive €151.
From the beginning, however, the system has proved unexpectedly vulnerable to theft and vandalism. In theory, it should be impossible to steal, or damage, a Vélib entrusted to your care without the authorities tracking you down. The identity, and credit card, of the last user is recorded in the central computer.
However, many "first users", especially foreign tourists, fail to lock their bikes firmly into the electronic rack after they have been used. Passers-by can then take them, or damage them, with impunity.
At a council meeting yesterday, the town hall agreed that the Paris taxpayer should pay a greater part of the cost of the stolen and damaged bicycles. Councillors also agreed that, beyond the €14m annual turnover, 35 per cent of the income should go to the company set up by JCDecaux to run the scheme.