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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 boulangeries, 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 vélos. 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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