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article image'Emergency plan' for Paris bike-hire system as debacle deepens

By Fabienne FAUR (AFP)     May 4, 2018 in Travel

The city of Paris is scaling back its once-vaunted Velib bike-hire service after a chaotic change of operator that has infuriated cyclists, many of whom had hoped to be back in the saddle for the start of the summer.

Smovengo, which took over the system late last year, unveiled Thursday an "emergency plan" demanded by the city to end the crisis that began after it won the contract to run one of the world's biggest bike-share systems.

It has abandoned for now its target of opening 1,400 stations to replace those run by the previous operator, and pledged to fix the technology bugs blocking hundreds of bikes.

So far Smovengo has built only 670 stations, about 400 of which are powered by batteries -- a stop-gap solution while Smovengo tries to get them hooked up to the electrical grid but which has been fraught with problems.

It will also pull from service all electric bikes -- promoted as a key feature of the new system -- while replacing within a week some 3,000 of the 9,000 mechanical bikes rolled out so far.

The 9,000 bikes are still a far cry from the 20,000 bikes that were supposed to be up and running by end-March, a delay that has cost Smovengo millions of euros in fines.

Further slowing the rollout is an ongoing strike by Smovengo employees demanding the return of a 45 percent bonus for night shifts and double pay on weekends -- terms they enjoyed under the system's previous operator.

"The situation is bad and unacceptable," said Jorge Azevedo, the head of Smovengo, an upstart firm whose previous bike-sharing programmes were limited to much smaller schemes in cities like Vancouver or Moscow.

Cyclists are clearly fed up, with subscribers falling to some 220,000 as of end-April down from 290,000 for the former service.

And tourists to the City of Light are in for a shock as well, as Smovengo has upped the price of day passes to five euros ($6) from just 1.70 euros before.

The fiasco has become a public-relations disaster for Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose administration is accused by critics of severely underestimating the difficulty in tearing up and replacing thousands of docking stations.

City lawmakers aligned with President Emmanuel Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party on Thursday renewed their demand for the Smovengo contract to be cancelled.

"The design, the rollout, the management, it's all pathetic. Smovengo has to go," said Jerome Dubus, a spokesman for the group.

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