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French revolution: Rentable bikes every 900 feet

Beginning July 15, Parisians can get one with the swipe of a card – and the first half-hour is free.

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The socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, has seen the future and it's got two wheels, three speeds, an adjustable seat, indestructible tires, a basket, and a bell. It's 50 pounds of ecofriendly handlebars, comin' at ya.

The French are turning Paris into a bicycle zone, pretty much overnight. Even now, astride small alleys and behind , paving stones are being ripped to fit 750 bicycle rent "stations."

On July 15, a day after the French Revolution anniversary, the city of lights will kick off a "vélorution" with 10,648 rentable bikes, or . By January, some 1,400 rent stations and 20,600 bikes are scheduled to be in place. In Paris proper, one will never be more than 900 feet from a set of cheap wheels. At least theoretically.

Similar programs have been launched elsewhere with varying success. But Paris officials say their city is the first world capital to adopt a major green biking initiative, and they are doing it in a way that may be too big to fail. The ambitious Paris project is titled Vélib' – wordplay for bicycle freedom. Read: freedom from too many cars and carbon fumes.

"When I first got involved with Vélib, I was amazed at the number of stations, 750 to start with, and the enthusiasm of everyone for reducing auto traffic," says Jonathan Pierson, a Paris native who's part of a team of young Parisians hosting questions at Vélib stations during the day.

Amsterdam, a city not unfamiliar with bikes, tried a similar experiment that foundered. But the French think they've conquered the kinks. A bike-rental program started in Lyon in 2005 is working.

One clincher for the Paris project: Vélib isn't costing the city anything, and should be self-supporting. The program is financed by advertising behemoth JC Decaux – in exchange for 1,600 billboards around the city.

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