Interview with Eric Britton


“You share public space. You share time. You share public transport. You share taxis. You share…you are in contact with other people, and you’ve entered into a new way of organizing your life. And believe me, just because you’re sharing, you’re not going to be poor, you’re going to be much richer.”

Eric Britton is an American sustainability activist living and working in Paris. As the founder of The New Mobility Agenda, he pushes cities to adopt sustainable transportation policies.

Interview with Christopher Sumpton

What has Paris done to make cycling safer?

This is one of the 8 to 10 different ways that we have of protecting cyclists in Paris. This is a lane which is reserved for buses, taxis as public transport, taxis with people in them, and cyclists. It’s also reserved for emergency vehicles. These lanes are 3 metres 75 across each of the. The lanes that go just in one direction are 4 metres and a half, but between the buses and the cyclists and the taxis we’re carrying more traffic than the cars in the other lane.

This particular kind of system is often called a BRT, a bus rapid transit. The French, who really invented this version for themselves, call it Mobilia, mobility and lia for link.

You know, the bicycle is so fragile relative to the other vehicles, to the buses and cars. We have to figure out a way to protect the cyclist. One way is this. You put the cyclists and the buses together. It works well in Paris because the bus speeds are not very high, because the city distance is relatively short, say relative to Phoenix or Houston. So the buses really can’t get up to much more than 30, 40 kilometres an hour and the cyclists will be doing 15 or 20, so they kind of get together.

With Velib the number of cyclists on the road has gone up a lot, what has happened to the accident rate?

Obviously there’s always a certain incipient danger in riding a bicycle in traffic with cars and trucks and buses bigger than we are and stronger and sometimes not necessarily sufficiently attentive. So, if you put 20,000 new bikes on the street and this in addition, tens of thousands of people or more than 10,0000 people go out and get themselves a new bike because they see that people are travelling around by bike, then the number of accidents invariably has to go up. But what has happened here in Paris is that we’ve had an enormous, more than doubling of bicycle traffic, and accidents have gone up by less than a third. So, overall, it’s not a problem.

Most of the accidents have involved tourists unfortunately. The tourists just do not know about how to get around in traffic in Paris. In fact, in many cases they come and it’s joyful and it’s a beautiful day and it’s a great looking city, and they say let’s get around by bicycle. But they don’t do it in their own city, so their proficiency as a cyclist is probably not sufficient.

How has Velib changed Paris?

You can think about Paris as before Velib, BV, and AV, or apr Velib. How has it changed Paris? Well, first of all there are hundreds of thousands of people who are taking the Velib. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are taking bicycles that weren’t taking them before. There are new partnerships being negotiated every day because we have to figure out how to work with car drivers. And car drivers, taxi drivers, bus drivers. And so, we’re in a process of consistent negotiation. And if there are just a couple of you, the negotiation is they run over you. But when there are hundreds of thousands of you, the negotiation begins to be serious and so a learning curve is engaged. And so people’s behaviour changes.

I can give you a very large number of examples of the kinds of changes that have taken place because of Velib but let me give you one small one since sometimes small things send big messages. The transportation authority here in Paris has put bicycle bells on the bus. So that when they come behind a bicycle they go ‘ding ding’ with a bicycle bell so as not to frighten the person on the bicycle. It’s an example of the kinds of solidarity, the kinds of changes. It’s a very small example, but I think it’s a telling one.

The main contribution of Velib is to have broken the ice. Suddenly there was, truly a critical mass in the best sense for bikes, that appeared. And so all of a sudden the city is aware of the fact that it has to do it’s part of the deal. And so as a result of the program for the development of bicycle infrastructure has been substantially excelerated as a result of the existence of Velib. So there would be fewer safe provisions for safe biking. There would be fewer bikes because when people use Velib they say, but I could also use my own bike and a bike isn’t that expensive. And so the bike stores are doing a boom business in selling bikes.

And so the Velib has actually clued or instigated a part of this bicycle revolution which would not have taken place without it. Now, that said, what would happen if Velib disappeared tomorrow? Bikes would not disappear from the streets of Paris. In a way Velib has already made its biggest contribution, just by simply having been there for these two years. But it’s not going to disappear. It will continue to make a contribution. The bicycles will continue to be refined. More people will be using them. There will be more provision for safe cycling. There will be more slow streets in Paris. And so we can expect that the bike revolution, which is just kind of starting, will continue in force.

What have been the social implications of public bikes?

The social implications from the beginning have been extremely important. Both Mayor — and Deputy Mayor — are extremely aware of the fact that if this service in a modern pluralistic democracy is to have its fair role in society, it has to be available in all parts of the city. So, in the wealthy sections, in the poorer sections, we’re seeing a Velib´┐Ż station at that magic 200, 250 metres from your house. So, it is universally available to everybody throughout the city. Unlike the car. Now, I think in Canada it costs something like $10,000 a year, maybe $8,000 a year to own and to use a car. It’s more here in Paris because everything, gas is higher, et cetera. So, we’re going on 8 or 9,000 Euros a year which is a great deal of after tax income when you’re thinking about it. I mean, it is an albatross.

How is Velib financed?

I think it’s important to understand kind of the basic building blocks of the system. What we have here is we have a city who is a client, and we have an operator, so it’s a public/private partnership. Now the operator approached the city, based on the relationship that they had established earlier in Lyon and they said, we will supply the Velib service for you, which we will define together in terms of a certain number of parameters. A certain percentage of availability of bikes, we will be repairing bicycles to keep up to a standard, all of this is part of the contractual negotiation. That service cost tens of millions of Euros a year, that’s for sure. The original startup cost is often said to be something like 70 million Euros plus or minus 20.

Now, the City of Paris has given 1,600 billboards, which it will be interesting for you to have some pictures of, which are the other half of the deal. The contractor, J.C. Decaux says, good, you give us the billboards, we will sell the space on the billboards because that’s what we do, we’re an outdoor advertising company, and we will maintain that system at the level of our contractual obligations with you. So that’s how it’s worked up until now.

How does the maintenance of the Velib system work?

J.C. Decaux has a contract with the City of Paris, and the contract specifies parameters, performance parameters. That says that 90, 95, 98% of the time when you go to a station, you’ve got to find a bike that’s free, you’ve got to find a parking space, you’ve got to find a bike that’s in good condition. And so Decaux as the contractor is obliged to maintain the bikes. They have a staff of some 350 people and they carry out a certain number of tasks.

There are people who…there’s a flying squad, one or two guys who’ll be assigned 7, 8, 9, 10 stations, and they will simply travel to them each day and verify that the cycles are in good shape. There’s another crew that comes and washes them. So the cycles are washed about once a week, on average, they’re always clean. That’s one of the most important things for Decaux, they say our equipment must be clean. So there’s a cleaning staff. There’s an electronic staff that comes in and checks out the electronics on the station, possible electronic problems on the bikes. Who else is there? Then there are the schleppers, the movers, who come around and they adjust the flow of bicycles so they’re reasonably well distributed.

How long would it take, if they did nothing, for the system to break down?

It’s something that just probably doesn’t occur to very many people. And that is that these are maintenance intensive operations. So this staff, somewhere around 350 people who are, many of them are working 25 hours a week for legal reasons, for tax reasons, they take care of the bikes and they’re also part of the neighbourhood, because they tend to keep them in the same neighbourhood. So you see the guy there and you thank them. There’s a certain amount of social dialogue that goes with it. But, if they’re not there…I would like to try to think this one through for myself. But certainly two weeks maximum the system closes down.

Why would it close down?

It closes down because the bike will not be properly distributed so they will not be where they’re needed to be used. They will close down because there will be the nagging maintenance problems. Every day something on the order of 1,500 bikes need to have a human touch. It might be to change, to tighten a chain, to change a tire, to signal that it has to go into the atelier for big time care. There are little parts, they fix the light. They have a little parts box. So they can do quite a bit there. So they capture about 90% of them, 85, 90% of them are captured by the guy who’s on the spot. But that still leaves us with on the order of 10% a day which means 150, sometimes 200 bikes that have to go into the atelier for big time help.

Probably the most debilitating thing is when the bike falls out of the system, and that means that it can no longer be plugged in so we know where it is. So that would mean there would be some vandalism and I’ll show you how it works. There is a joint in which a plate goes in and locks in. So if that is broken, and it can be done. If you give a couple of karate kicks to the bike and you weigh 100 kilos, you can break that. Or sometimes just sheer ignorance. People don’t know how to fit it in and they jam it in at an incorrect angle. They have reinforced it. That’s been one of the repairs that they’ve done on all of the existing bikes. So that is probably the most fundamental problem that you can have with these bikes.

Is vandalism a threat to the survival of Velib?

You are asking me now about the whole problem of vandalism over the, soon to be two year experience of Velib’. A pretty definitive report was prepared on this at the end of 2008, which showed that over the 18 month period something like 100% of all of the bikes were either destroyed by vandals or made inoperable or disappeared. And there was a newspaper article on it here in Paris, in Magazine de Paris which kind of told the story with illustrations and there was a great deal of panic saying, you know, does this mean that Velib’ is going to disappear? Well, if you take it back and you take a look at it in its dynamic context, it’s really much less of a problem.

First of all, if a bike costs 200 Euros and you have to replace 20,000 bikes, that’s $4 million or something like that. It’s not a huge number given the benefits. What you always have to keep in mind is this huge quantum of benefits that you are getting out of the system, which swamp any of these detailed considerations.

Velib’ is not a mechanical system, it’s a social system. And as a social system, it’s part of a metabolism, it’s part of a collective mechanism of behaviour. And so what happens is when something which is very unfamiliar comes into place, there might be…people will play with it in ways which are far too aggressive, and there is not much of a sort of a self-policing in the early days. But what we are seeing is that the vandalism was, over the course of the first six months, much higher than it has been of late. You used to come into, in the autumn of 2007 and early 2008, you’d come into a Velib station, you would see a fair number of bikes in which something was wrong, which had actually been vandalized. This number has gone down. My perception as a user is that there is far less. So, I believe that we’re going through a period of social learning, collective learning. And if you look out on those J.C. Decaux street signs today, you will see one which says, Velib belongs to you, it can’t protect itself so you have to protect it.

What are the differences between Old Mobility and New Mobility?

Old mobility is probably the only kind of mobility that most people will know. Old mobility is when you’re in your car and you’re stuck in traffic and you’re spending more time stuck in traffic this year than you did last year. Old mobility is when your transportation budget consumes something like 20 to 25% of the total income of you as an individual or your family. Old mobility is when you’re a 55 year old lady with a bad leg who makes her living as a maid, has to wait in the rain for a bus that may or may not come. Those are all the symbols of old mobility. Old mobility is also marked by the fact that most of the people who are truly mobile are people who have economic circumstances that permit them to do it.

The difference between old mobility and new mobility is the difference between the 20th century and the 21st century. The 20th century was one that was based on the concept of proprietorship. Ownership of your home, ownership of your car, and this ownership gave you economic and social status, and that’s very important. So your car which you own is a manifestation of your economic and social status. That ball game, we’re coming to the end of that game. We can’t play that game any more with soon going on 7 billion people on this planet, and if we multiply and we will soon have one billion motor vehicles, and imagine if they were all Hummers. That would be something that is clearly unsustainable. So we need to move away from the concept of proprietorship to a concept of use.

What’s beyond bike sharing, then?

Part of the paradigm change is, in Paris today we share cars. We now have five separate car-sharing operations that are growing extremely fast. There are more than 1,000 cities around the world in which you can get a shared car this morning. They have doubled in the course of the last three or four years. You share public space. You share time. You share public transport. You share taxis. You’re sharing…you share of yourself. You share…you are in contact with other citizens with other people, and you’ve entered into a new way of organizing your life. And believe me, just because you’re sharing, you’re not going to be poor, you’re going to be much richer.

The bad news is…well, you will know about it. Just look at what is happening in our environment in terms of islands, in terms of what is happening to the north, what is happening in terms of water disappearing on this planet. How much time do we have? We have almost none. We need to look in terms and concentrate on what we can do in the course of the next 2 to 4 years, and we should be spending 100% of our resources on what we can do in the next 2 to 4 years, because we have to reverse the trends. And today, we’re talking about it, but every year, every day it gets worse. So we need to give ourselves a, a wonderful, exciting shared kind of straight jacket in time of what we’re going to do.

Now, our conceptualization of this is that we know so little about the change that we need to bring about that we cannot even think about 2020 or 2030 or 2050. We need to go to school. We need to go to college. And this college is this period of the next 2 to 4 years in which we start to do things in very different kinds of ways. One of my Japanese colleagues years ago when we were first starting our group said, ah, I understand, you are talking about invisible college. So we need to create an invisible college which is open to all with a higher sense of urgency than we’ve ever had before.

What has to be learned in this invisible college?

When you shift into a new mobility pattern, you have very many different kinds of vehicles and people sharing the street. So you will have bicycles, you will have the two wheel vehicles going like this, motorized two vehicles, with vehicles, you have skaters that appear, you have people even walking in the street because they begin to think the street belongs to them. And so you have this complex environment out there, and the truth is that most drivers re incompetent to drive in those circumstances. You have to be able to use all three rearview mirrors. You have to have, be able to turn. How many drivers can do a 180 degree turn with their neck? You have to have a high degree of awareness, because these things are all moving at different speeds.

So basically what should happen is two things. If you’re mayor and you want to prepare for this environment, you will create a new legal structure which we call the street code. Not the highway code, which is the old way, but the street code which is a legal setting in which the actors understand who is responsible for what. And in the street code, basically the pedestrian is always right. The cyclist is almost always right unless it’s a conflict with the pedestrian. And so it’s the weaker of the partners in any given intersection or incident that is legally the one who is favoured by the structure of the law.

This means that the driver of the car which has an accident with someone on a bicycle has to prove their innocence. Today under the law, the cyclist has to prove the culpability of the driver. So legally this is a very different kind of a universe. So the mayor should be thinking about this, creating a new street code, and this is starting to happen in Belgium, in parts of Scandinavia, in parts of the Netherlands. So the street code. This would be one thing that they could really do.

What kind of mental adjustments do cyclists need to make themselves?

The new world of cycling is very different from the old world of cycling. The old world of cycling is that of the cyclist who is on the city street who has to protect himself. He’s wearing a helmet, he’s dressed for cycling, he’s usually coming quite some distance, he’s going in parallel with traffic, and he has to be a very macho individual or woman in order to survive in that environment. And this, this…so he rides in a situation that we call the car wars. And what we are now trying to do is to evolve beyond the car wars, in part by slowing down the cars, by changing the law. And so now what happens is, you have your inveterate commuter cyclist who’s confronted with a new series of a new operating environment. How does he adjust to it? It takes time. It takes time and it’s interesting that these people who are heroes in a way, historic heroes, sometimes have difficulty adjusting to the concept of the public bike.