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A whopping 9,000 bikes were damaged or stolen last year, costing the Vélib' system about €1 million.

While North America has been buzzing with enthusiasm over the relatively recent introduction of bike-share, there’s been some sobering news recently from a city that's had its system in place since 2007. Home to the largest bike-share program outside China, it turns out Paris has been losing its bikes to theft and vandalism. A lot of bikes.

According to figures unearthed by Le Monde last week, 9,000 bikes from Paris' Vélib' bike-share system were damaged or stolen last year. As of this summer, 35 bike stations across the city had been shut down for repairs or due to bike shortages, leaving gaps in availability that can’t be fixed even by the usual daily redistribution of bicycles back to outlying stations. The costs incurred by this wave of theft and vandalism are huge. A new bike costs €650, while repairs to damaged or vandalized bikes cost €450 on average. The Paris City Hall official responsible for monitoring the scheme reckons thefts and repairs cost €1 million last year.

Even with ongoing repairs and replacements making up some of the shortfall, Paris bike-share numbers have dwindled sharply. Of the 23,800 bikes that have been provided or promised since it launched, only 14,000 will now remain in service. What makes this crime wave more striking is that by contrast, London's bike-share system has seen only 143 thefts since it began in 2010. So why are Paris's figures so terrible compared to its northern neighbor?

The answer lies partly in the sheer ambition of Vélib'. With 12,000 docking stations, it extends beyond the boundaries of Paris Intramuros and out into the suburbs of the Petite Couronne area of greater Paris. This means that, unlike London’s scheme, which limits itself to a central area, 8,000 bikes and a meager but more easily monitored 570 docking stations, it’s of real use to suburban commuters. 

Unfortunately, it's in Paris's outlying districts where most theft and vandalism is taking place, with incidents clustering in the relatively lower-income 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements that form a crescent around northeast Paris. There’s also far less video surveillance in Paris. While London's public spaces are all but saturated with CCTV cameras, many of Paris's bike-share stations are not monitored, directly or remotely.

This means arrests are few, with a modest 15 made for Vélib' thefts last month. As for the perpetrators, there have been some instances of criminal gangs hacking the system's master codes and helping themselves to large numbers of bikes, while one Vélib' bicycle was even spotted on the streets of Bamako, Mali. The typical thief, however, is believed to be a teenage male from a lower-income suburb, who may in fact be excluded from bike-sharing because he doesn't have the credit or debit card necessary to register.

Various reasons have been given for the wave of thefts. Some have floated the idea that poor kids are hitting back at what they see as mainly Bobo bike-share users. Others have insisted that teens are simply bent on wanton destruction, while it’s also been noted that a minority of thieves are people stealing bikes to ride home on when they’re drunk.

Whatever the reasons, the huge losses are causing a rethink of the scheme’s scope. While remaining one of the world’s largest bike-sharing programs, City Hall estimates that the ideal number of bikes should be a slightly smaller 18,000, more than are currently in circulation, but less than its ambitious initial targets. This will inevitably mean decommissioning some stations, shrinking the scheme’s ambitions but possibly making it more viable. While it may save Vélib', there’s something singularly disappointing about this reduction. Many cities see their currently small bike-share systems as kernels from which larger programs will ultimately grow. They'd do well to look at Paris over the next few years to see what, if any, the manageable limits of bike-share should be.

Top image: paul prescott /Shutterstock.com

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