This lucky Parisian seems to have found a bikeshare station that's working. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Glitches and worker strikes have brought the world’s first modern bikeshare program to its knees.  

There’s a twisted sort of good news for Parisian cyclists this week. This month, monthly and annual subscribers to Velib, the city’s pioneering bikeshare program, will be able to use its bikes completely free of charge. In fact, anyone who has paid upfront to subscribe to the service since January can apply to get their money back.

This deal may sound pretty sweet, but the background to its introduction is more than a little bitter. The reason for the free bike policy is to manage the fallout from an almighty urban screw up, one that for much of the past 12 months has left Velib’s day-to-day functioning and its overall reputation in tatters.

The Velib meltdown has made bikeshare an unusually hot political issue—and may even be putting the wider car-control efforts of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on shakier ground. It’s quite a climb-down for a program that, when introduced in 2007, became a model that swept other cities. So what went wrong?

The problems started last May, when management for the Velib system was taken over by a new contractor that, in a classic burst of nonsensical Franglais, goes by the name Smovengo. As part of an ambitious new upgrade, Smovengo promised that a third of the 14,000-plus fleet of bikes would be battery assisted e-bikes, forming part of a new more online-and-app-friendly fleet that would make managing and using the system more streamlined. This move required a complete overhaul of the network’s 1,200-plus docking stations. That’s where things went pear shaped. By the end of last summer, only half the replacement docks had been created, with those left unfinished creating ramshackle mini-eyesores across the French capital.

Those that have actually come into service, meanwhile, have been glitchy in the extreme. Some have electricity supply problems that have required contractors to temporarily wire up the stations to batteries. These not uncommonly run out of juice, meaning that many bikes are blocked for use by afternoon. To cap it all, Velib employees went on strike last month, frustrated by a decline in working conditions and benefits since Smovengo took over the Velib concession from previous operator JCDecaux.

With functioning docks scarce, the number of Velib subscribers plummeted from 290,000 to 190,000. The number of daily shares dropped by April to just 10,000 daily—from an all-time high of 100,000 daily. For the world’s first large-scale bikeshare service, this was quite a tumble. The free bike plan is thus less a bold move to fully liberate the system than an effort to mollify frustrated customers. If the problems continue into June, the free bike offer will continue into the summer.

It’s Smovengo that has to foot the bill for this, having paid €700 ($835 million) for the right to all revenues for the next ten years. So far, the company has also had to pay €3 million ($3.6 million) in penalties for its failures. The affair also doesn’t look good for Mayor Hidalgo. Encouraging sustainable, green transit and pollution reduction has been a central part of her administration, but it’s also drawn criticism; Hidalgo is already reeling from an as-yet-unenforced court decision to overturn the city’s pedestrianization of the banks of the Seine, and Paris’ spirited push to banish cars and clear the air is looking increasingly embattled. As of March, the mayor had a disapproval rate of 58 percent.

Hidalgo has two more years to restore her standing with Parisians before another municipal election is due. That should hopefully be more than enough time to fix Velib’s wobbly wheels. Whether she can keep up the city’s car-free momentum until then is another question. In the meantime, Parisians can console themselves with free rides—if they can find a usable bike.

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