Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The French capital region just launched a bikeshare program for electric bicycles, and now it wants to help people buy e-bikes of their own.
If you live in or around Paris, there’s never been a better time to try out an e-bike.
The Greater Paris region, known in French as Île-de-France, launched an unprecedented 10,000-vehicle e-bikeshare program earlier this month. Then, just a few weeks later, Île-de-France came back with another offer: Anyone in the region who buys an electric bike can get €500 toward its cost, paid by the regional government. Consider this alongside the City of Paris’s existing e-bike subsidy (with a cap of €400), and it’s clear that e-bike boosterism is alive and well in Greater Paris.
These moves reflect more than an enthusiasm for cycling alone. Green policies are now coming to the fore as potential vote-winners, both in the city proper and in the greater metro area around it. The two governments—which often rival over public profile and influence—are vying with each other to appear the cleanest and greenest, and pro-bike activity represents a clear way for residents to see results.
This autumn’s Parisian pro-bike push started in earnest on September 11 with the launch of the Véligo bikeshare scheme by Île-de-France regional president Valerie Pécresse. Dealing exclusively with e-bikes and taking a notably different tack from regular bikeshare schemes, Véligo offers its vehicles not by the hour, but by the month. If users commit to a minimum six-month contract, they can rent an e-bike for just €40 a month, with half of that sum eligible to be paid by employers who can then offset their contribution against taxes.
That’s a pretty good deal for a vehicle that commonly costs upwards of €1,500 to buy new, and in a city where an all-zone monthly public transit pass costs €75.20. With 10,000 bikes on offer, Véligo could ultimately provide a stepping stone to e-bike ownership, encouraging riders to buy their own bike under the subsidy scheme.
Pécresse told Le Parisien that Île-de-France’s subsidy will run from February to June 2020, and possibly longer if funds remain unused. The region will pay up to half of an e-bike’s cost, capping out at €500 per person. Quality e-bike prices currently start around €1,500, so the subsidy will, in practice, cover about a third of the cost, though it’s possible some thrifty shoppers could find something they like for closer to €1,000.
Île-de-France’s e-bike subsidy is by no means unprecedented—Oslo runs a much smaller program, while the City of Paris’s similar subsidy capped at €400 has been on offer since 2017. Still, the new program is unusually large: With €12 million dedicated to the project, it could potentially stretch to helping 24,000 new e-bikes hit the road. There’s no cap placed on an applicant’s maximum income, reflecting of how heavily the region is pushing for a meaningful modal shift.
That Paris is experiencing a rush of new bike schemes right now is no coincidence. Elections are looming, and while Pécresse and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo don’t run against each other, each has been vying to present themselves as the proactive friend of green transit. Until recently, Hidalgo was virtually uncontested in that pursuit, placing herself at the forefront of such efforts as bans on polluting vehicles and the closure of the Seine quayside to cars. Pécresse first protested the quayside closure as anti-suburban, but has since come on board, undertaking proactive green policies herself, setting her administration a goal of increasing bike use in Île-de-France between now and 2021.
This productive rivalry has even prompted some friction between the city’s and the region’s respective e-bike subsidy plans. Paris Transit Secretary Christophe Najdovski complained on social media that the region’s plan wasn’t coordinated with the suburban municipalities that are substantially responsible for local transit policy, and as a result wouldn’t encourage those authorities to step up with their own bike subsidies.
This also created a potentially fiddly situation for inner Parisians. Île-de-France residents who live outside the City of Paris will be able to apply for the full €500, but inner Parisians may face something more bureaucratic: applying once for €400 from the city and again for €100 from the region.
It is nonetheless fair that the wider Paris region is now doing more on e-bikes. While inner Paris has hills at its northern and southern edges, electronic pedal assistance isn’t essential for the average cyclist. Farther out in the Greater Paris region, however, the landscape is hillier and the distances are longer. E-bikes could have much more of an effect in making daily cycling feasible and more appealing there, while also encouraging people throughout the region to expand the range they’re able to travel on two wheels.
There are still some barriers to overcome. Currently, this wider suburban region doesn’t have bike-lane networks fully in place that would protect and segregate cyclists from cars. Greater Paris already has a plan to remedy this situation in the works, however, albeit one that’s still at the drawing board.
If this plan were fully realized, it could truly make Greater Paris a paradise for power-assisted cycling. In the meantime, it will be worth watching to see if Parisians’ enthusiasm for e-bikes is sufficient to make the most of the generous programs that are coming on line.