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Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 15:41 GMT
French get on their 'smart' bikes
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click Online

Traffic in many areas of the world has become almost unbearably busy, and many cities are imposing high-tech solutions to try to solve the congestion problem. But in Lyon, the solution to traffic hold-ups is much less complicated.

A bike station
By 2007 there could be 4,000 Velov bikes available in Lyon
Overcrowded cities, nose-to-tail jams, all of us sucking in other people's fumes - a combination of hi and low-tech could unblock some of these clogged up arteries.

In Lyon, southern France, commuters are escaping the crush and the cost, leaving their cars at home, and exchanging horse-power for pedal-power.

It is sort of peer-to-peer public transport, with people renting bikes from one part of the city and then dropping them off elsewhere at the end of their ride.

The system is called Velov. Velo as in bike, and love as in, well, love.

It is open to anyone with a credit card or a bus pass and is run by the billboard company JC Decaux, who get to advertise for free for providing the service.

Signing up

In the first few months they have signed up 22,000 subscribers, each with their own Velov card and pin number.

"It is very popular, way beyond what we expected, beyond what we imagined," said JC Decaux's Regional Director for Rhone-Alpes, Franck Ponsonnet.

"Last week, for example, we had 11,000 customers who rode for 100,000 km - that's two and half times around the world.

"It's considerable, you couldn't imagine that people would do so much cycling."
Franck Ponsonnet
This bike can be considered a smart bike
Franck Ponsonnet

When they have finished the initial roll out, there will be 2,000 bikes and 180 stations to park them at.

Aiming for 4,000 bikes by 2007, you should not be able to walk more than 300 metres before bumping into a load of bikes.

The problem with schemes like these is the person who rented the bike before you.

Luck always lumbers you with a buckled or broken bike; peddle missing, wonky seat, wobbly wheel.

Fault sensing

To combat this, Lyon's bikes are wired with tiny detectors, so if say - a standard piece of wear and tear - the brakes are worn, the bike is automatically locked after the last rental.

You cannot take it out, and there are no unwelcome surprises. Well, almost.

If we had not warned her, one woman would have been riding around in circles on a bike with one pedal. "I'm taking the metro," she said.

Usually, however, the system works a little better than this.

"The first thing is that this bike can be considered a smart bike," said Mr Ponsonnet.

"The bike has sensors and chips that communicate in the first instance with the bike stand, and then with central system and wider network."

So if a bike needs fixing, the sensor sends a message through the bike stand to someone sitting behind a desk who dispatches a guy to do the work.

The centralised system also means he knows where there are bikes missing, so he can move them to where there's most demand.

All in all, for locals Velov is a gift from above.

The one weakness in the system seems to be human error.

The project has, however, impressed enough to get Amsterdam, Geneva and Barcelona talking about doing the same sort of thing.

Soon, there will no longer be any excuse for doing no exercise.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two as part of BBC Breakfast: Saturday at 0645. Also BBC World.

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