By Kirstin Butler
From two-wheel ride to four-wheel drive, the French capitol wants to add a new low-emissions option to the urban transportation mix. In addition to its already successful bike-sharing plan, the Parisian government recently announced that it plans to implement a program for residents to share electric cars. If successful, the citywide proposal will put 4,000 new battery-powered cars on the streets by late 2010, which its supporters say could reduce annual carbon emissions by 22,000 tons.
Earlier this month BusinessWeek reported that Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë officially announced the plan to launch Autolib (from the words “automobile” and “liberté”) in Paris and two dozen other cities. The program will work like a hybrid of existing car-sharing and bike-sharing service models. As with most car-sharing programs, drivers will register for the service by presenting a valid driver's license and paying a subscription fee. But like most bike-sharing programs, Autolib will allow users to access available two- or four-seat vehicles without making a prior reservation, simply by swiping their credit cards at one of 1,400 proposed recharging stands (the hourly rate is projected to be between US $6-$9). And, also as with bike sharing, users may return the car to any of the 700 stands within Paris or 700 in the surrounding suburbs.
Paris already boasts a thriving community transportation option in Vélib, its bike-rental scheme. Since taking off in 2007, that model has since been cited as inspiration for other urban bike-share programs around the world.
Autolib isn’t without precedent, either. Paris has a non-electric car-share service, Caisse-Commune, that currently boasts around 5,000 members and has been operating since 1998. And the city of Antibes on the French Riviera started a smaller-scale version of the electric car rental system several years ago (several orders of magnitude smaller, however, on the order of 11 electric cars).
According to BusinessWeek, the service will likely be operated as a public-private partnership, and several companies have already expressed interest in the contract. But a number of logistical (and political) hurdles remain before the idea can become a reality. For one thing, electric cars require a lot more maintenance than bikes. Skeptics question whether it’s even possible to keep up and protect such a large fleet, and French newspaper Le Parisien claimed that it would cost the equivalent of $14 million just to build the rental and recharging stations. Autolib has also received criticism from the Green Party for encouraging driving over biking, ride-sharing, or walking.
Still, the audacity of Autolib is in direct proportion to the scale of transportation challenges faced by contemporary cities. If it can deliver on its carbon-reduction promises, a singular, high-profile project such as Autolib could play a huge role in jump-starting demand for non-carbon-based transportation and energy alternatives worldwide. And in that case the exciting electric vehicle sharing service would go beyond merely being très chic, to offering true change.
Kirstin Butler is a generalist editor, researcher, and writer who lives in Brooklyn. She holds a Bachelor’s in art & architectural history and a Master’s in public policy from Harvard University.
Photo credit: flickr/limaoscarjuliet, Creative Commons license.