Can Cincinnati learn from Paris’ famed Velib’ bike sharing program?

When I stepped out of the Edgar Quinet Metro station and onto the street for the first time something immediatley caught my eye in this neighborhood of Paris, France. Within just a few minutes I noticed something that I did not expect. Not only were there a ton of people riding bicycles around the neighborhood, but most of them seemed to be riding the same model bike. It was slightly different than a normal bike, and stood out in a way that made them all noticeable and different than a more normal bike on the street. I thought to myself, what is it with these Parisians and their funky bikes?

It didn’t take much time walking the streets to continually notice these bikes just about everywhere and once I came across a whole bunch of these bikes parked at a station it started to make sense. Then there was another station; and another station. No wonder these bikes were everywhere, they were available everywhere.

What I had stumbled upon was the Velib’ bicycle program which was started four years ago in 2007 and was championed by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe. It is a bicycle sharing program that is available throughout the city of Paris and is designed to be a short term rental where riders can pick up a bike at one station and drop the bike at any of the other 1,800 stations (averaging one every 330 yards) throughout the city.

All it takes to get started is scanning a credit card at one of the stations and off you go through Paris on two wheels. A subscription is necessary which can be purchased in daily, weekly, or annual incraments and range from $2.50 for a day to $41.50 for an annual pass. The first thirty minutes of each ride is free, which of course encourages Parisians to use the bikes on short commutes, and after thirty minutes the rider must pay service fees.

The program was reportedly a wild success when it was rolled out four years ago, but it is not without its problems. There have long been reports that the program which was funded and is run by ad agency JCDecaux is too costly considering the maintenance, theft, and vandalism to the bicycles. Through the contract the advertising agency has exclusive rights to the over 1600 outdoor billboards throughout Paris, but all of the money from the fees for the program itself go back to the city of Paris.

Users of Paris Velib’ – Photographs by Dave Rolfes.

Clearly, Cincinnati is not Paris from its sheer size and even bicycle friendliness at this point, but seeing this program made me wonder what our city could learn from it. Sure we cannot support 1,800 stations and of course we do not need 20,000 bikes on the street, but is there a scalable way to do this type of program in our region?

I would propose that there is. With a focus on the urban core, stations could be set up both north and south of the river from historic Over-the-Rhine in the north, to Bellevue, Newport, and Covington in the south. Our urban core is relatively flat and allows for easy riding from one place to another.

There could be stations set up in other neighborhoods as well throughout the city, Uptown and Northside come to mind as obvious choices, and even some of the other city neighborhoods could support a program like this. It would definitely help to change the culture in Cincinnati, as it has Paris, by putting more bikes on the road and helping our citizens become healthier. Additionally, as there are few other programs like this in the United States, it would continue to further position Cincinnati as a city that can be environmentally friendly and progressive in its thinking.

  • Michael

    I have never been to Paris, and I’ve only visited Cincinnati (I don’t live there), but Cincinnati is a long ways off from a large number of persons choosing to bike. A bike sharing program would not be fiscally sustainable or practical. I love the idea of bike sharing, but the streets and the city need to be designed for the bicycle first. I wouldn’t rind a bike in Cincy in a kevlar body suit. Ohioans in general have a lot of relinquishing to do with their love affair of cars. You did mention the idea as culture changer, and that’s not a bad idea. Strategic station locations to reduce bike-car interaction is a good place to start.

    Next step; removing the interstates from going through the city center.

  • I think that the new Bike Mobility Center at Riverfront Park will be the first step to changing the culture- there will be hundreds of bikes to rent, and it will be both a tourist attraction and a cycle commuter station.

    As a regular cyclist (for work, pleasure, and getting around town), it can be a little scary biking in the rights of way, but that shows the importance of continuing to obey bike laws and “own the road” – car drivers will not learn unless they have practice sharing the road, so it’s up to us to help them 🙂

  • Carl Finkmortimer

    I was just in Paris and was fascinated by this. I think it would absolutely work in Cincinnati at a smaller scale, particularly if the investment was from private money. Perhaps a similar deal to the Paris deal.

    Instead of 1,800 stations, why not 200? Downtown, Findlay Market, OTR, up to Hyde Park and Clifton, west end, and down to Covington to Bellevue.

    I know when Paris initally did this, it wasn’t considered a bike friendly town. Now it is. Perhaps it could have the same effect on our town?

    We just need a few hundred miles of bike lanes next!

  • Marshal

    Quite frankly, I could see a station in Washington Park and a station in Riverfront Park in 10 years, best case scenario. Cincinnati’s basin neighborhoods are structurally fine for biking. Hopefully the demographics catch up in 10-20 years of continuous improvement.

  • Aaron Watkins

    Though I do love this idea for Cincy, I feel that the money would be better spent improving our almost non existent bike infrastructure. We need more bike LANES! Sharrows are pretty much useless as people will drive their cars all over them, and they are only about 3 feet wide, which doesn’t even give enough space for a cyclist who is riding faster to overcome another one. I think that having bike lanes separate from traffic, and boldly specified, would attract a lot more cyclists to the road, especially those whom are older, or who have children. I know if I were a parent, I would not take my child on a bike ride on the sharrows down Clifton Ave.

  • Yes, we can learn from Paris, but the underlying infrastructure for this is still a long way off.

    Bike sharing is a last mile solution. Paris has an amazing public transportation system, and bike sharing closes that last mile gap between Public Transportation and destinations. Walking does this too, but bike sharing extends the reach the service area for public transportation.

    Since, we’re still waiting on the start of construction of the first mile of the street car system – Cincinnati still has a way to go.

    What we really should focus on is developing bike routes and making bike racks ubiquitous.

    Things are getting better, today I noticed the the Bank of Kentucky on Monmouth St. in Newport has installed a bike rack. When Banks realize a bike rack is a good investment in serving their customers this sends a message to the other business owners, “Hey if my bank has bike rack, maybe I should have them too.”

    With destinations(racks) and routes, bicycle commuting increasingly a viable option. It goes from being a fringe activity to normality.

  • Marshall Hunt

    I instantly remembered the story about Amsterdam’s public bicycle program, and how most of the bikes found their way into the canals if they were ever found again.
    I can’t see it working downtown right now, but I can see it working at UC or XU if you expanded the stations into the surrounding areas.

  • While the downtown area may seem flat, it still isn’t. Most of these public bikes are made to be deliberately heavy and with simple gearing to discourage theft. That makes navigating the terrain around here that much more difficult. Yes, it is much easier to get between downtown Cincinnati and Newport than to get from downtown to Mt. Adams, but even with a lightweight bike, the casual rider is still going to be surprised by just how much of a hill each bridge over the Ohio River is, or by how much of a grade there is between 3rd and 4th Streets, or even between the riverfront and 3rd Street. Newport is also noticeably lower than Covington, with a decent climb up to the 4th Street Licking River bridge from Newport, but with Covington at bridge level.

    Cincinnati’s terrain is an asset in many ways, but transportation is not one of them, especially human-powered. The most bike-friendly cities tend to be the most flat, since that allows anyone and their children to ride without getting sweaty from a difficult climb, or freaked out by losing control on a downhill. I’m not saying Cincinnati can’t do better, and some downtown-NKY program would be the best place to start, but it’s going to be much more difficult here than in some other cities due to the terrain alone.

  • Zachary Schunn

    Someone mentioned UC…

    The University of Cincinnati has had a bike share program for over a year now. It runs through a central location (Campus Rec Center) and is entirely free for students. From what I’ve heard, it’s been extremely successful, and the biggest problem has been wear-and-tear from so many riders.

    If there is enough demand for busy students to ride bikes across the uneven pavement and hilly campus of UC, I’m sure the response could be extraordinary in downtown, OTR, and N.Ky. I’m sure it’d be pretty easy to tie into UC’s program, too, once a city-wide (or partially city-wide) one got going.

    Let’s do it!!!

  • Zachary Schunn

    And is the terrain here really THAT bad?

    If a wheelchair ramp can be made to 8% grade, and a parking lot to 10% grade, I don’t see why a 2 or 3% grade should be that big a fear for cyclists. Yeah, not everyone’s going to be in enough shape to make it, but look at who’s mostly riding bikes anyway. I don’t think it’s fair to say cyclists won’t take the hills when, in fact, they do it all the time.

  • That 8% grade for wheelchair ramps requires flat landings to rest for every 30 feet of run. 8% is a very significant grade for cycling, and 2-3% is still a bit of a slog for anyone who’s not fit, especially if they’re on a heavy “public” bike. The issue of course isn’t as much the slope itself, but for how long it must be endured. Few wheelchair ramps are going to be more than 1-2 stories, and most of them are only a few feet. Whether on a ramp or on the stairs, you’re only going vertically some 10 or 20 feet. That’s easy. What’s not easy is riding or even walking grades like that which extend for nearly a mile in length, and 300-400 feet in height.

    The difference in elevation between 3rd and 4th streets, for example, is about 30 feet. That’s three stories. How many people would just assume take an elevator for three floors than the stairs? The difference in elevation between the serpentine wall and 4th street is about 60 feet. Again, while the grade may not be steep, that’s real elevation there, and people feel that. We’re not talking about athletes here or even casual cyclists for the most part. It’s the general public who may never exercise and who drives to the store across the street that really needs to be won over. A 50 pound bike on the deceptively subtle terrain around downtown Cincinnati is not going to impress them.

  • Matthew W. Hall

    Something like this is planned for the the riverfront park. I think it will be popular. But, please nobody mention being inspired by Paris, or anywhere more than a few hundred miles from cincy or it will be immediately attacked as communist and foreign.We have to make the locals think it was a local idea to keep it from becoming yet another wedge issue in cincy.

  • Dave

    Thanks for all the comments! The bike center at CRP will be the first step I agree, but it would be nice to be able to rent a bike there & return it elsewhere. We are a long way from a mass system like this barring a significant outside investment, but I don’t think it is totally out of the question.

    @Zachary, I had no idea about the UC program. Might have to look into that further.

  • J

    Cincinnati is not as flat as Paris, which I think may be off putting for some people. That said, I’m sure something like that could exist here in some form.

  • Neil CLingerman

    As I live in one of the best cities in the US for bicycling (Chicago), and I commute to work regularly over a distance that’s comparable to Northside to downtown, I figured I should weigh in on a few observations.

    1) Sharrows are not a bad idea at all, eventually drivers get used to them, and passing other bikes is rarely a problem. Much of Milwaukee Avenue between Wicker Park and downtown in Chicago (“The Hipster Highway”) is only sharrows, and its one of the most heavily used bicycle paths in the city (were talking like more bikes than cars during commute time from Downtown). While a dedicated lane would be better, the sharrows do their job. I could see Central Parkway between Northside and OTR having a similar reputation in the long run.

    2) Someone mentioned that Cincy should focus on developing a bicycle culture before considering a bike sharing program. I couldn’t agree more, Cicninnati needs a better bike infrastructure before enough people would be interested in something like bikesharing. Chicago has been building bike lanes pretty aggressively over the last 20 years or so, and its only been with in the last few that bike sharing has even been considered.

    3) Cincinnati actually is a pretty good city for biking, if San Francisco can have a well developed culture and still be a hilly city, than Cincy can too. I rented a bike, and rode it through town, the narrow roads are kind of nice as you don’t feel as insecure as you would on a wide 4 lane highway. The hills are rough, but maybe this is a good excuse for the city to get off its rear end, and actually start doing something with the public steps its got. If it puts a groove in the side of the stairs (like the wicker park blue line steps in Chicago) then it would make the bit that’s required for going up out of the basin a lot easier to deal with. If the basin neighborhoods continue to grow, then Biking would be ideal for them – the built enviornment of Cincinnati is way more urban than most cities in the US it just needs people to repopulate those areas.

  • Zachary Schunn


    “It’s the general public who may never exercise and who drives to the store across the street that really needs to be won over.”

    I guess that’s where we differ in opinion. To me, these are the LAST people who will be won over. It’s the people who WANT to ride a bike but can’t, either because of no access to an inexpensive, reliable bike, no confidence that Cincinnati drivers will respect cyclers on the road, frustration with lack of infrastructure, fears about bike theft, etc…. (I’ll admit; I’m actually among these people.) THESE are the people who are going to be won over first.

    @Matthew: LOL at communist foreigners.

    @Dave: More info here:

  • I agree that Cincinnati doesn’t have a great bicycling culture or infrastructure in place, but I do not agree that the city is not designed well for bicyclists. Sure there are the hills, but other than that the city was inherently built for pedestrians and more intimate forms of transport like bicycling.

    I am currently in Seoul, and trust me, there are not many worst places on the planet for bicyclists than Seoul. With that said, they have begun implementing bike lanes and have a rapidly growing bike sharing system.

    Cincinnati, I believe, should pursue a bike sharing system that fits the city’s size. Obviously it should include the Northern Kentucky river cities as well.

  • Joe

    @Zachary – From what I have heard UC’s bike sharing program has been a disaster with bike’s being stolen, being unavailable, or not being in usable condition and in generally poor repair. From what I have heard from other students as well as read in the News Record there has been major problems in each of these areas since the beginning of the program and that for weeks at a time bikes have been unavailable and that the college administration has seriously considered ending the program but has retained it due to UC’s sustainability pledge and the overwhelming support of the program by student groups. But I do not use the bikes since I commute, so you possibly know more about the problems and successes of the program than I do ….

  • datdudemm

    I was in Paris last month and used the Velib to ride all around the city. It was fantastic, easy, economical, and fun! FYI, I am not normally a biker, nor am I in great shape. But the three gears on the Velib bikes made them easy to use and helped when we encountered hills. And we rode in few bike lanes; riding in Paris street traffic added to the adventure. I would love to see something like this in Cincinnati.

  • Zachary Schunn


    I generally only talk to those in charge of the program, so I have not seen much from those who use it. But my understanding is the program is popular, with the number of bikes growing over time. Theft and disrepair is an issue, but we all knew it would be when we were first brainstorming the program and the Sustainability Coordinator was studying programs at other universities. It’s a college campus, of course bikes are going to get banged up. The good news is, hired bike mechanics are now fixing up the bikes so they can quickly go back into use.

    Further, I would be extremely surprised if the college admin. was considering nixing the program. Given the ACUPCC commitment, it’d be silly for UC to start going backwards on its sustainability initiatives.

    As far as the News Record goes, I only remember one negative article about the Bike Share program and it was widely discredited.

  • Joe


    I’m just concerned that since the bikes are not the property of the people utilizing them they will abuse them and not be careful with them causing the need for constant repairs. Personally I believe that college students are a overall responsible group and that abuse and theft would be a more significant problem in a city program where anyone can use them. Is there any way to prevent theft (such as tracking devices) and make sure that the bikes are used properly (fees for damage/abuse)?

  • Juan De Bonia

    I know it’s very romantic to picture Cincinnati filled with rental bikes but please come back down to Earth. Is there really a situation where using one of these bikes would be advantageous? No one is going to ride one up to Clifton, out to Northside, or up to Mt Adams. Given that the streetcar is a go…do you really think paying money to ride a big heavy bike around downtown will be appealing? Even with bike lanes?

    Furthermore, a quick search of “velib bike program” will show that this experiment has been largely a failure.

    Utter silliness.

  • Zachary Schunn

    @Joe: I believe at checkout the person checking out a bike is assigned one in particular. That way they can track (via photo ID) who is responsible for which bike. Don’t quote me on that, but that’s what was in the works when the program started. The bicycles are also under surveillance when stored.

  • Ruth C.

    @Juan: Your delivery needs some work but I generally agree with your message.

    The author and most of the posters here seem to like the “idea” of the bike program but ignore the fact that the paris program has been a fiasco.

    I also agree that the program would not work with Cincinnati’s size and terrain.

  • MDcomments1

    Capital Bikeshare in DC opened last September and has been a huge success. The DC system has 1100 bicycles and 110 docking stations.

    In terms of bike vandalism and stealing, it is on your credit card so if you don’t return it in good condition they charge your credit card.

    For bikeshare to work, you do need good bike infrastructure/lanes as well as good technology like they have in DC.

  • MDcomments1

    Where is the source that velib is a “fiasco” in 2011?

    I know there were some growing pains with first generation bike share programs, but many kinks have been worked out in latest generation bikeshare programs.

    What new transportation technology does not have some growing pains? DC’s Capital Bikeshare is awesome. That being said, if cities put in a half baked bikeshare they are unlikely to work. However, there are multiple very successful models for good bikeshare systems utilizing the latest technology.

  • Zachary Schunn

    It would be interesting if someone were to do a feasibility study on whether a small-scale bike share program could work in Cincinnati, both logistically and financially.

    I generally agree that there are technical and cultural issues preventing a program the size of Paris’ or D.C.’s. But one more centralized to downtown, with say 5 locations with 15-20 bikes (I’m thinking the Banks, Govt Square, Washington Park, Gateway Qtr, and Broadway Commons), with a possible partnership with UC’s program would be much more popular than the naysayers think. I agree that it will serve the same area as the streetcar, but realistically they are entirely different modes of transportation and so it’s like saying you can’t locate a 5-star restaurant somewhere that there’s already a Chipotle.

    Hmm… maybe a DAAP urban planning student could (or already has) looked into this…