Vandalism, Velib, and Electric Carsharing

By Bill Moore

Posted: 02 Jul 2010

The above map indicates the location of bicycle sharing programs across Europe. Frankly, it took my breath away!

It is with a bit of embarrassment that I have to admit I had no freaking clue that there were so many of these program up and running. The program that gets the most attention -- good and bad -- is Paris' Vélib’ bike share system, and what is normally talked about is the rate of vandalism and theft, which is what a New York Times article highlighted last November. According to the Times, 80% of the initial 20,000 bicycles deployed in Paris by the advertising firm JCDecaux were either stolen or damaged. The company has to repair 1,500 bikes a day in 10 repair shops around the city.

Yet, despite this, the program is expanding. Since it's founding in 2007, Parisians have rented the bikes 63 million times. JCDecaux has introduced another 4,000 Vélib’ bikes into 29 communities on the outskirts of Paris.

While the "City of Lights" is the poster child for what's right and wrong about bike-sharing, it's only one of scores of programs springing up all around the world, including here in North America. Bike share programs are up and running in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia (see the short documentary below), and Miami Beach. The website for the Philadelphia program includes a list of videos about other bike share programs around the world. The developers of the D.C. and Philly enterprises also collaborate on a Bike Sharing Blog that highlights the latest developments in the bike share movement.

The reason I took an interest in this topic is because I am concerned about vandalism on what is, in effect, publicly owned/shared property. If Paris' experience with theft and vandalism is the norm for these types of programs, what impact will this have on electric carshare programs like the city's proposed Autolib, or here in America with any future MIT-type CityCar concepts?

Of course, a car is a lot harder to hang from a street sign than a bicycle, and maybe a bit harder to steal. But they are easy targets for vandalism; and Paris continues to have serious problems with gangs attacking and burning automobiles on a regular basis, in part, it is believed, out of anger and resentment. According to the European Working Conditions Observatory "the unemployment rate [in and around Paris is] between 35% and 54% for men, between 40% and 60% for women, and between 30% and 50% for young people." The country has serious racial divisions that only exacerbate the problem.

Yet, Paris' Vélib’ appears to be the anomaly, at least from the perspective of the attention it receives. Given the numerous other programs across Europe, little negative is heard from them. Presumably, bike-share operators in these communities have problems with theft and vandalism, but apparently not enough to warrant the kind of attention Paris' system garners. The question I'd like answered is, why?

From what I can tell, virtually all of these systems replicate a common business model: bikes can be hired for half-hour increments and rental stations are no more than a few hundred meters apart. Fees are reasonably low, especially if you're a program member, but membership is not a necessity: all you need is a credit or debit card. All the bikes are similar in styling; none are electrified. All of the bikes in each program are identical in color and branding, and hard to miss.

What I'd like to know is this, Is the problem of vehicle-sharing vandalism unique to Paris or more widespread? That's what I am proposing to find out. If Autolib and other electric carsharing concepts inherit the problems experienced by bike-sharing, such programs will be an expensive failure. If it's expensive to replace a stolen or damaged bicycle: replacing an electric car is prohibitively so. How do we prevent not just the theft of electric cars -- perhaps just for their lithium battery packs -- but what is more likely, their vandalism?

As I rode CalTrain last week from San Francisco to Palo Alto, I passed scores of railroad hopper cars, every one of them covered in gang graffiti. The problem is endemic, especially in urban areas where hundreds of rival gangs and "crews" vie for recognition and "turf." What's to prevent angry, alienated youth from troubled homes taking out their frustration and resentment on neatly stacked rows of MIT CityCars in downtown Baltimore, Chicago or San Francisco? Who's going to want to drive a graffiti-covered electric car festooned with violent gang symbolism ? How long will the enterprise operating the cars be able to stay in business; and what insurance company is going to insure them?

So, I have set myself a goal over the next few weeks and months: find out more about these other bike-share programs, what are their experiences with theft and vandalism, and how can that translate into lessons for future electric carshare programs. If you have any experience in this area, I'd love to hear from you. I am also interested not just in the sociological aspects but also the technological ones from vehicle tracking to electronic security. Feel free to comment below or send an email to

Philadelphia Bike-Share Documentaury

Journal Entry Viewed 1926 Times


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