Vélib, the bicycle-sharing system in Paris, is one year old on July 15. There are some 20,000 bicycles and 1500 stations throughout the city. The system is cheap and designed for short-term rides: You pick it up at one station and leave it at another. With gasoline at $4 plus per gallon, perhaps some American cities should be considering this earth-friendly and pocketbook friendly alternative to gas-guzzling automobiles? (oh, and making Amtrak a truly national network would be great too.)
But for that to happen, some American political habits would have to change, including the practice of debating things to death until everyone is paralyzed into inaction. The secret of Vélib's success, in my view, was the determination with which Paris mayor Bernard Delanoë approached the project and the innovative way that he funded it. Instead of doing a "pilot" program like most American mayors would--you know, 300 bikes and then surprise, surprise when it was ineffective and people criticized it--the city of Paris committed itself from the beginning to creating the 1500 stations and ripping up the parking places necessary to make room for the bikes. Can you imagine the years of hearings in a city like Los Angeles before two parking spaces could be removed in front of a dry cleaners?
Perhaps I am exaggerating, and the centralist, authoritarian nature of French politics is not something many Americans would find attractive (and many on the political left would object to the way the Paris system was financed, which was to give the multinational company JCDecaux the city's billboards for advertising in exchange for creating and running Vélib.) But in America, we do need some sort of compromise between ultra-democracy and getting things done, or we end up with little real democracy (ie, the automakers rule) and little getting done.
If you read French, or want to practice, you can find out more about the spectacular success of Vélib here.
PS--Steven Erlanger has a good story about Vélib in today's New York Times.
Update (July 14): The Times editorializes today in favor of a bill doubling public funding for Amtrak. The editorial ends this way:
Even with a relative windfall, Amtrak will not be able to deliver a French-style bullet train that can hit speeds of 200 miles an hour. But the only sensible way to get there is by starting now, with the critical investment that Amtrak needs to keep the nation moving.
Actually, the French TGV not only "can" hit speeds of well more than 200 mph, but most TGV runs (including the Eurostar between Paris and London) average 186 mph along pretty much their entire trajectory. This required a very big public investment; but then, France is not spending $100 billion a year in Iraq.