The self-service, Parisian bike-for-hire – the vélib' – was intended mostly for short rides when it was introduced 12 months ago, reports The Independent.
More than 3,000 of the sturdy grey bicycles have gone missing since then. Some have turned up as far away as Romania and, according to one report, Australia. Another 3,000 have been deliberately destroyed or damaged. But the 16,000 bikes in circulation have proved extremely popular.
The idea – a cheap, computerised system of self-service bicycles in racks on almost every street corner – has been exported to countries across the world, including Austria and Spain, with plans for a similar system in Finland, Australia and the United States.
The Parisian service will shortly be expanded into the city's suburbs. The Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, also hopes to extend the concept within a couple of years to self-service, electric cars, which will encourage commuters and Parisians to dump their own exhaust-emitting run-abouts.
In the space of one year the vélib' has become a Parisian institution, giving the streets and boulevards of the French capital a vague air of Amsterdam or Cambridge. M. Delanoë plans to celebrate his success by inviting 365 vélib users – or vélibeurs – to take part in an older, two-wheeled, French institution, the Tour de France. Vélibeurs, chosen at random from the 27,000 long-term subscribers, will be invited to cycle part of the course of the final day of the race just before the professional riders reach Paris on Sunday week.
The vélib' has had its problems. Three vélib' users have been killed. Motorists complain that the bikes have tempted thousands of unskilled, unwary cyclists on to the unforgiving streets of the French capital.
The 1,200 automated vélib' racks have also occupied thousands of spaces which used to be available for on-street parking. One enraged motorist ceremonially "hanged" a vélib' bike on a parking sign.
To hire a vélib', you have to buy, with a credit card, a subscription which costs €29 (£23) a year, €5 a week, or €1 a day. Each rental is free for the first half hour. The second half hour costs €1. The fee then rises steeply.
Each of the vélibs is used about seven times a day. The average journey time is 18 minutes. In other words, most vélib' journeys are free, apart from the subscription. You take a bike from one rack and leave it at another, anywhere in the city, so long as there is a space.
The vélib' has also been hailed as a triumphant, new form of win-win public service. All the proceeds go to the Paris Town Hall, which has pocketed €20m in the first year. All the costs are borne by the street advertising company JCDecaux. In return for providing and servicing the bikes, the firm has been given 1,600 free advertising spaces.