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Paris looks beyond 2-wheeled success

The French capital's popular system for using bikes prompts a plan for doing the same with electric cars.

August 10, 2008|Gaelle Faure | Associated Press

PARIS — Parisians and tourists so eagerly embraced a citywide bike-sharing plan launched a year ago that the mayor is setting his sights on a four-wheeled version featuring electric cars.

Under the plan, a driver could pick up a car on the Left Bank, snake up the slopes of Montmartre, then drop it off -- and only pay for the minutes spent behind the wheel. But the cars are already proving more divisive than bikes.

With the price of gas steadily rising and Paris parking a permanent headache, some drivers are delighted by the new project. Others, though, see it as a step backward, fearing it could mean more traffic and dependence on cars in an already congested city.

The program dubbed Autolib' would launch in late 2009 or early 2010 with a fleet of 4,000 electric cars -- 2,000 within Paris and 2,000 in the suburbs.

Abeykoon Kapugoda, 50, a maitre d'hotel who lives in the suburb of Villejuif, owns a car. But within Paris, he prefers to take the bus because he finds parking a headache.

"If it's easy to park at Autolib' stations, I would use that," he said, as he waited for his bus. "And I would definitely prefer to drive a car that doesn't pollute."

Car-sharing is a growing trend in many countries, with private companies such as Zipcar flourishing in cities in the U.S. and elsewhere as gas prices go up. Autolib', however, will be run by the city of Paris.

As happens with bikes in the Velib' program, Autolib' users would be able to rent cars from one of 700 planned lots, both under and above ground, and drop them off at any other lot. Organizers say it is too early to discuss details, such as how the lots would be monitored or whether non-French driver's licenses would be accepted -- or even how much the cars would cost.

According to Annick Lepetit, deputy mayor in charge of transportation, Autolib' would target those who are considering buying their first automobile -- in the hopes of deterring them from ever buying a polluting car. By putting lots in the suburbs, it also would encourage occasional commuters to choose a gasoline-free alternative to getting downtown.

Elsa Bergamo, 21, a university student, has been a Velib' fan since Day 1.

Like many young Parisians, she doesn't have a driver's license, which can be expensive to obtain. But she's still intrigued by Autolib'.

"It's true that not everyone can afford to buy their own car, so it could be very useful," she said.

Yet some members of Paris' influential Green Party have been vocal critics, even though the Autolib' project calls for electric cars. They want to reduce car use, period.

Denis Beaupin, a Green deputy mayor for the environment, occupied Lepetit's job before her and saw through the inception of the bike-sharing program.

He says the Greens would rather see a system in which shared cars were returned to the lots from which they were rented, to ensure that they are only used in exceptional situations.

But Pascal Husting, executive director of Greenpeace France, says he thinks Autolib' would be a step in the right direction.

"Today we have consumer habits, whether it's going to IKEA or elsewhere, which necessitate that once in a while, even those who can't afford cars need to use one, and in this sense I think this will complement public transportation," he said.

"We should be open to this type of initiative, knowing that there is not one solution to the problems of transportation and climate change."

Financing for the project is still in the planning stages, and according to Lepetit, zero-emission hybrids could be an alternative if the city doesn't find a carmaker with the capacity to provide 4,000 electric vehicles in time.

Should the future Parisian Autolib' meet with the same success as its two-wheel counterpart, it could provide a valuable boost for the capital's mayor, who hopes to clinch the leadership of France's Socialist Party later this year. Mayor Bertrand Delanoe has made fighting traffic and pollution a top goal during his seven years in office.

Velib', which debuted in July 2007, has changed the Parisian landscape with 16,000 silver bikes lined up at 1,200 parking spots throughout the city. It was quickly adopted by Parisians, with 29 million rentals in a year and more than 200,000 annual subscribers.

Velib' has earned the ire of some drivers, who say inexperienced new cyclists ride irresponsibly. Three Velib' deaths have been recorded since its start.

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