Parisians and tourists alike so eagerly embraced a citywide bike-sharing scheme launched a year ago that the ambitious mayor is setting his sights on a bigger conveyance. With four wheels. And powered by electricity.
In Bertrand Delanoe's latest "green" dream, a driver would pick up an electric car at a lot in the Left Bank, snake up the slopes of Montmartre, then drop it off — and only pay for the minutes spent behind the wheel.
But cars, even electric, 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 see it as a step backward, fearing it could mean more traffic and dependence on cars in an already congested city.
Delanoe announced last month a program dubbed Autolib' that will launch in late 2009 or early 2010 with a fleet of 4,000 electric cars — 2,000 within Paris and 2,000 in the city's suburbs. As with the Velib' bike-sharing 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.
Car-sharing is a growing trend in many countries, with private companies such as Zipcar flourishing in cities as gas prices go up. The Autolib' project, however, will be run by the city of Paris.
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 making the purchase.
She cited a recent survey showing that a majority of Parisians are in favor of a car-sharing project like Autolib' — including many Parisians who have driver's licenses but no car.
Green Party a critic
Yet members of Paris' powerful Green Party have been vocal critics. Denis Beaupin, a Green deputy mayor for the environment, occupied Lepetit's job before her and saw the birth of the bike-sharing program through.
"I have no intention of being the deputy of Autolib'," he was quoted as saying in Liberation newspaper after the mayor first presented the idea.
Beaupin said the Greens would rather see a system where shared cars were returned to the lots from which they were hired, to ensure that they are only used in exceptional situations, according to Liberation.
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 to arrive. "And I would definitely prefer to drive a car that doesn't pollute."
Elsa Bergamo, 21, a university student, has been a Velib' fan since day one. Like many young Parisians, she doesn't have a driver's license, which can be expensive to obtain. But she's still intrigued by the Autolib' idea. "It's true that not everyone can afford to buy their own car, so it could be very useful," she said.
Financing for the project is still in the planning stages, and according to Lepetit, zero-emission hybrids could be an alternative solution if the city doesn't find a carmaker with the capacity to provide 4,000 electric cars in time.
Lyon has car sharing
A similar program — but with gasoline-powered vehicles — was pioneered in the eastern French city of Lyon in 2003 and now has a fleet of 50 cars.
Should the future Parisian Autolib' meet 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. Delanoe has made fighting traffic and pollution a top goal in 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.
Velib' celebrated its first birthday Sunday with a rare sporting honor: 365 users rode the clunky rental bikes on the final stage of the Tour de France, gliding across the finish line on the Champs-Elysees before the arrival of the Tour cyclists.