European Transit Strikes Give Bicycle-Sharing a Push

European cities, which have been promoting bicycle-sharing programs as a way to cut pollution and ease traffic, have another selling point this week: transit strikes, such as those hitting London and Paris.

When London rolled out Europe's latest bike-sharing program in July, environmental and public-health groups embraced it. Mayor Boris Johnson called it a "revolution in cycling" and said he hoped it would lead to tens of thousands more bike trips in the city every day.

London officials are expecting huge demand for its so-called Boris bikes on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the transport authority said. The agency provides bike-route directions on its web site, but cautions that during the 24-hour transit strike, bikes will be hard to find during peak hours.

People can join London's bike-sharing system, which is run by the agency with financial support from financial services company Barclays PLC, for a fee that allows them access to a fleet of about 5,000 bikes stationed at more than 300 sites around London. More than 40,000 people have signed up.

Ashley Thompson, a 30-year-old working at an investment bank in London's financial district, says the program, known as Barclays Cycle Hire, has allowed him to save money, but he worries about inexperienced cyclists and tourists.

"You have to be ready to brake at every moment and have to be mindful of lorries and large vehicles," Mr. Thompson says. "I am surprised wearing a helmet isn't mandatory."

Indeed, advocates say that to insure bike programs' success, authorities need to improve safety and prevent vandalism and theft. Other cities with bike-sharing programs have experienced increases in bicycle-related accidents. In 2007, the first year of Paris's Vélib bike-sharing program, there were 694 bicycle-related accidents and five deaths.

As drivers and cyclists have gotten more accustomed to sharing the road, however, those numbers have declined, according to the Paris police. In the first half of this year, injuries to cyclists fell 5.7% from the same period a year earlier. There were no fatalities.

Vandalism and theft of bicycles also has been a serious problem. Virtually the entire fleet of 20,000 Vélib bicycles in Paris has had to be replaced since the program started. Some bikes ended up tossed into the Seine; others were taken home by foreign tourists.

"The vandalism beat our expectations," said a spokesman for Paris city hall. "We didn't expect as many bikes to be stolen."

In London, cycling organizations are urging riders to bike defensively. "Cyclists have to be aware of their surroundings in a busy, congested city like London," says Martin Gibbs, director of policy and legal affairs for British Cycling.

Mr. Gibbs says he expects that over time, as more cyclists take to the streets because of the bike-sharing program, the roads will become less dangerous. Tthere will be "more people on the road and the more people there are, the safer it is, because drivers become more aware and more careful."

Authorities say cyclists themselves also need to be more responsible. Françoise Hardy, chief of road safety for the Paris police, says that in her city, bikers "don't behave well on the street." She said cyclists often ignore traffic signals, speed and ride on the sidewalk where they pose a risk to pedestrians.

Paris wants to double the number of bike journeys in the city by 2020. To that end, the city decided in early June to spend €25 million ($32.2 million) to add 162 miles of dedicated bike lanes, including one in each direction along the iconic Champs-Élysées. The city also plans to add 10,000 bike-parking places by 2014.

Ms. Hardy expects the new lanes to help cut the number of bicycle injuries by segregating cyclists from automobile traffic.

Advertising company JCDecaux runs the Vélib program in exchange for the right to operate ad panels around Paris. The company won't say how much it spends to run the program. A JCDecaux spokeswoman said thefts were such a problem that the company renegotiated its contract so the city will pay replacement costs above an undisclosed amount.

In London, early adopters seem pleased. "I wasn't sure London was up for it and was worried that I would get hit," says Paul Robinson, a retired police officer who regularly uses Barclays Cycle Hire bikes.

But, he says, "I have been really surprised by the general awareness from buses and taxis on the roads."

The real test is whether the bikes can be properly maintained, he says. "They are fine at the moment as they are shiny and new. I just hope they stay that way."

From Wall Street Journal