Monday, March 31, 2008

Success of Paris bike-sharing

Or Robin eats humble pie.

For years and years, people have asked me if Zipcar were going to expand into bike sharing, or did I want to get involved with a bike sharing start up. Each and everytime I thought, why? What’s the point? Anyone who wants one can pick up a used bike for as little as $30. And the market for tourists is handled by bike rental.

Then, Paris launched Velib (roughly translated as Bike Free) last July, put 16,000 bikes throughout the city in groups of 10 and 20. It has been a roaring success.

Last week I was in Paris and used it every day, several times a day. I took the Metro only four times. Velib is great! Here’s why:

• You can get a bike in front of your house and go to a park.
• Lock the bike into a nearby Velib parking space way faster than it is to find a good spot for your own bike and lock it up.
• Wander through the park and come out the other side. Grab another bike, and keep going.
• Stop at the grocery store that doesn’t have Velib parking. Use the lock that is attached to the bike to lock it up while you shop (ugh, a real pain compared to the push-in locking at the Velib stations).
• Take the subway to a friend’s house for dinner and decide to ride a bike home because it is faster. It has front and rear lights powered by your feet.
• Ride a bike into work. End the day with a meeting away from the office. Take another bike home.
• Push it into the nearby Velib spot, buy some take-out, and go up 7 flights to your apartment. Don’t worry about rain, storage, maintenance, or parking.

Cost: 1 euro for 1 day; 5 euros for 7 days, 29 years for a year. That’s it if you keep your trips around town to under 30 minutes. And my trips always were.


Down sides:

Bike Upkeep: There was an inexcusable (from my operational point of view) number of dead broken bikes on the racks that had clearly been sitting there – tires ripped out; broken baskets and fenders, or smashed by hoodlums. Wise people check front and back tires, brakes, lift up the rear wheel and give it one pedal, and look for chain guards (I ripped my pants the second trip because it didn’t occur to me that every bike wouldn’t be intact). If the bikes don’t stay in good working condition, Velib will no longer be mobility contender.

Bike Availability Unpredictable:
On Sunday I rode to the top of a hill to visit Pere Lachaise cemetery. As predicted, when I got to the top of the hill and the closest Velib station, my bike proved to be the only one there. After I’d had my fill of famous dead people’s graves, I went to get a Velib for the return home. Of course, my bike was gone and that station was empty. The kiosk has a print map of the Velib station you are at, and shows you all the adjacent stations. Over the next 30 minutes (and snow flurries were coming down) I walked to four more stations. At each one I found: 2 dead bikes, 5 dead bikes, 5 dead bikes, 2 dead bikes. When I got home, I went to a website not maintained by Velib -- that has hacked their data. It shows you a map of Paris with:

green balloons (both bikes and parkings spaces available),
red balloons (racks completely filled with bikes, no space to park), and
black balloons (no workable bikes).

Gosh, wish Velib had that live data available at their kiosks!

My lesson from that day, and from the other days, is that with practice you will learn the pulse of bike and parking availability for your common routes, and adjust your use of Velib accordingly. If I’d been smarter, the obvious thing to do on finding no bikes at the top of the hill was to walk to the closest downhill station. I stupidly stayed on the top of the hill (7 black balloons mapped there on a cold Sunday afternoon). This means that I might or might not be able to rely on Velib for commuting to work. In general, I think Velib will work best in cities that have great mobility redundancy: the Velib’s weren’t at the top of the hill so I hopped on the Metro, no problem).

Read more!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Privatized roads are like casinos

Privatized roads are like casinos because we know that the owners will take their cut, meaning that it is not an even deal.

I learn from an article in the March 17, Wall Street Journal "Letting the Market Drive Transportation, Bush Officials Criticized for Privatization" that:

"the Government Accountability Office warned that tolls on privatized roads are typically higher than if the roads remain under public control, because of the need to generate steady profits for private investors. The report said the federal government needs to better protect the public interest."

Exactly. Read the GAO report that came out in January (which I couldn't find in my internet search) or my earlier scintillating blog on this topic.

Read more!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Should Casinos Subsidize Car Travel?

The Governor of Massachusetts has asked state legislators to seriously consider encouraging the building of several new large casinos in the state in order to raise revenues, the majority of which will be used for transportation shortfalls. I'm thinking there is another way to solve this financial crisis that guarantees a triple win. Ding, ding, ding!!!! Let's be winners!

Read more!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mesh Networks on Transportation: will it work?

A monthly magazine for technical types, Baseline, has a long article about me and the idea of using mesh networks in the transportation realm.

The article is well researched and interviews people across the industry. A sad omission is the lack of named attribution to Andrew Blumberg, my colleague who has done all of the work on privacy protection. The article also puts the cost of the in-car boxes too high by a factor of two.

My favorite is the closing paragraph:

“I see Robin as one of the global thought leaders of transportation technology,” Villa says.

Allies in the open-source community are hopeful.

“It’s completely doable with the technology that’s available today,” says Sascha Meinrath, research director for the Wireless Future Program at The New America Foundation, a Washington public policy institute and think tank, a leading expert on community wireless networks and a member of the Meadow Networks board.

“There’s pretty much no scalability limit and no throughput limit. We’re 80, 90 percent of the way there. It’s just a matter of finding a municipality, a company, a patron willing to fund this.”

Hey, it's my blog and I'll blog it if I want to :)

Read more!