Monday, November 28, 2011

DC vs. Paris: Part VII

Vélib’ in Paris

And in DC, Capital Bikeshare

Capital Bikeshare has been around since 2008, a year after the launch of Paris's wildly successful Vélib’ program, itself modeled after a program in Lyon. DC's program has been judged a success with over 116 stations in the District and Arlington, over 1,100 bikes, and more than 1 million rides taken. But that's just a piker compared to what you can find in Paris and 30 surrounding communities: a total of 1,800 stations and 20,000 bikes.

Why the difference? For starters, using bikes for transportation has a much stronger history in Europe, enduring from the days of World War II when traveling by car was out of the question. A second distinct but related point is that the vast majority of folks who bike in DC do so for exercise and dress accordingly. You may see a guy in a suit on a bike but trust me, you will never see a woman in heels. Third, Paris is a mixed use city: virtually every neighborhood is a place where people both live and work. There are mixed use neighborhoods in DC but the dominant theme is work downtown, live elsewhere.

A final issue, one still not fully dealt with in DC, is the issue of the helmet. While in my opinion, there are still far too many cyclists going helmetless, there is a sense that a helmet is essential to a safe bike ride. Capital Bikeshare acknowledges this but still hasn't figured out how to dispense helmets at unmanned stations, especially when helmets can't be adjusted for size and people understandably don't want to share headgear. Although the Vélib’ Web site notes, "Port du casque recommandé," you rarely see a Parisian wearing a helmet. If you do, it's a good bet, he or she is actually from the U.S. or Canada. In fact, there have been numerous serious accidents with Vélib’ (including at least six deaths) but thankfully nothing comparable has occurred in DC.

As for me, I'm sticking with the Metro as my preferred method of transportation in both DC and Paris. Kudos to those who long as they wear a helmet. If you're not convinced, I suggest you watch this short video.


  1. Great post! I learned several things that I didn't know about D.C. and Paris, plus a new word, "piker". Even though I'm still a velib virgin (I remember your post with the same name), my husband likes riding them. His reason - the environment. It's the same reason that we use public transportation whenever possible. If I complain about taking the TGV to Geneva rather than the car, he always plays the environmental trump card and it's hard to argue against it.

    I'm all for the metro but did see a pickpocket in action on line 1 yesterday.

  2. I use Vélib' all the time, day and night, without a helmet. Yes, there have been serious accidents, and six deaths. But the Vélib' system now has about 110,000 trips *every day*. That's 5 trips per bike per day. Over the course of a year, that's 40 million trips. And only 1.2 deaths per year? Would that cars were as safe. Of course, that's largely because traffic in Paris moves so slowly that collisions are rarely fatal, and the exceptions are in places where bikes aren't permitted. It's also that drivers in Paris look out for cyclists are are usually fairly friendly toward them, probably because motards drive so recklessly that cyclists seem good by comparison....

    By the way, how many of those 6 deaths would have been prevented by wearing a helmet? That's a serious question. Helmets do not prevent head trauma, though they can reduce its incidence and severity. And they do nothing to protect the rest of the body, including vulnerable joints like knees, elbows, and wrists. My only bike accident involved a broken elbow; my helmet did nothing to help me with that.

  3. Brian: I am glad that you had such good experiences with Velib. But I stand my ground on the importance of wearing a helmet. It won't help if you fall on your elbow but it's really important if you land on your head. These stats are from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a source that I trust:

    In particular, the results of a case-control study in Seattle in 1989 indicated that the use of bicycle helmets reduced the risk for bicycle-related head injury by 74%-85%. The findings of other studies that have compared the proportions of helmeted and unhelmeted riders who sustained head injury in bicycle crashes (13- 15) detected higher risks for head injury among unhelmeted riders (crude odds ratio=4.2 {13}, 19.6 {14}, and 4.5 {15}). Although other strategies may be useful in preventing bicycle-related injuries (i.e., proper road design and maintenance; improvement in bicycle design, manufacturing, and repair; and bicycle safety training {5,16,17}), the use of these strategies does not eliminate the need for bicycle helmets.

  4. You missed one other reason biking might not be so popular here in the DC area: the terrain. As a whole, Paris is a lot more level than DC -- & particularly Arlington. The causal biker can tool around Paris (Montmartre notwithstanding) without much effort. Riding a bike in Arlington (& DC NW) is a real workout.