Autolib’ to the starting line

This weekend saw the first public testing of the much bruited Autolib’ carshare project currently getting underway here in Paris. And as you wait for our in-depth coverage, on-the-spot  interviews and film  we thought you might find it handy to refresh your understanding of the basic objectives and challenges, with this reprint of our 10 December 2010 article in which we try to take a balanced view of this ambitious transportation project.  You will be hearing a lot more about Autolib’ in the coming months. If it works, it will be a major transformative project and will make a lot of people start to think in quite different terms about how they are going to get around in the city in the future. (For a quick print update try here and here.  And for a short video, here)

Paris bets big on new carshare technology

A sustainable transport system is a system of choices – quite the opposite in many ways of the old all-car no-choice model that all too often spends most of its time in taking up scarce space but not moving. With this very much in view, the City of Paris has just stepped up to the plate and is now in the process of bringing into service what they propose will be a new link in the chain of sustainable transport options: a carsharing system not quite like any other. No less than three thousand cars to come on line in shared service in just nine months – and electric cars at that – working out of 1000 to 1200 stations spotted over not only the central city but a number of surrounding communities as well. The biggest and most daring carshare bet of all time.

Below you will find a machine translation of an article prepared for World Streets by Sylvain Marty, director of the much-awaited Autolib’ program at the City of Paris. (The full original text is available in French here.) Autolib’ is a seductive idea, whose oldest historical antecedent was the excellent Witkar project of the mid seventies in Amsterdam which even today looks like a great try.

World Streets very much hope that Autolib’ will succeed. There are four critical areas in which we in particular wish them great good luck:

1. The vehicle: We hope that the vehicle they have chosen will do the job, both in terms of comfort, safety and reliability, and also when it comes to cost, both purchase and overall operating costs.

2. The network/service package: The biggest jump that Autolib is taking is not just the vehicle but above all the concept of record-setting, very large scale one-way carsharing, which with just a couple of recent exceptions that are still work in process (Ulm Germany and Austin Texas) have not been the rule of successful carsharing in the more than one thousand places in which these service are available today in various parts of the world. (World Streets will shortly be featuring an analytic piece on successful carsharing that will appear in these pages).

3. The market: Off the top of our heads we would guess that this is going to be the least of their problems, though it is predicated on three unbudgeable factors: vehicle reliability: a network package that really works (i.e., makes sure that there are cars where and when you need them, and available parking slots where you wish to leave them off); and the costs of service to the client.

4. Democracy: Will Autolib’ turn out to be a democratic transport system which is open to and used by all layers of society and all the communities and sections of Paris and its diversified and unequal region, including the poorest and most needful?

And finally there is a matter which is of bottom line importance to World Streets and our readers –namely: is Autolib’ going to prove a strong partner in the move from unsustainable transport (i.e., massive car dependence and all that goes with it) to something far better?

What we have learned over these last years is that sustainable mobility is not one thing but a chain of many parts, links, and that its performance and strength depends on not only the viability of the individual links – which must be many and complementary — but also the way they link and work together. Will Autolib’ draw off a public who otherwise would have been using the city’s already high quality system of public transport, bikes, taxis or walking? Or will it prove to be a key link in the strong chain, reinforcing the entire “bouquet” of services because it offers one more viable and complementary new mobility option.

Let’s keep our eyes on Paris and wish them great good luck in this large and important project that will soon be on the city’s streets.

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Autolib’ – Ready to roll on the streets of Paris

– Sylvain Marty, Directeur du Syndicat Mixte Autolib’. City of Paris, 18 Dec. 2010
Note: this is a lightly edited machine translation.

1 / In the beginning

The success of the hugely popular Vélib’ public bike service from its inauguration in July 2007 opened up a new space for mobility between the traditional public transport (metro, regional rail, trams, buses) and private modes of travel (car, bike or walking staff walk): there is now room for “individual transport”. Certainly, this new mobility family could also group taxi services and car-sharing that have been around longer; but the former are insufficient in number to radically change the Paris region, and the latter struggling to reach maturity in France.

Autolib’ claims by name a direct link with these new forms of urban mobility. The concept is very similar to Vélib’: it would make available to users of electric vehicles accessible self-service and “direct evidence” that is to say by offering the option of filing the vehicle at a station different from where it was borrowed.

The parallel with Vélib’ does not apply absolutely however, for purposes which are by nature very different: Vélib’ is widely used for commuting, which generates the transition effects for commuters very restrictive regulation. Autolib’ speaks about to travel more casual, private or professional, and of short duration.

2 / Designed for the metropolis

The ambition of the Mayor of Paris in initiating the concept was to propose a mobility solution covering a coherent territory in terms of density and variety of land use and travel needs. 80 municipalities of the dense heart of the city area have been consulted to participate. 41 of them and the Ile-de-France have decided to join together in a public institution called “Joint Association Autolib’ “, to launch the consultation with private companies. They will number fifty in a few weeks.

Already, the member municipalities represent a pool of almost 4 million inhabitants.

Preliminary studies have determined that a design service to around 3,000 vehicles for the start was good. These 3000 cars will be distributed in 1000 to 1 200 stations with an average of 6 vehicle parking points. The very large dispersion of the stations strengthens the network dimension and creates a close relationship with users.

3 / Goals – Economic, social and environmental

The aim of Autolib’ is often summarized in terms of its environmental benefits, primarily the question of choice for electric vehicles in terms of reduced emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. It should first be recalled that the main environmental benefits of the project are expected both in terms of changing mobility patterns of users on the gains arising from the change of engine. Also, do not limit the environmental benefits of electric vehicles that reduce emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. The first source of annoyance reported in opinion surveys in urban areas is the noise, and the benefits of electric vehicles is that it is perfectly quiet.

The second goal of Autolib’ is to increase the mobility of Parisians who do not have access to a private vehicle, usually for economic reasons. Indeed, we often parking problems for the low rate of car ownership in urban center. But in reality, the scarcity of parking selects the owners of private vehicles by the income by increasing the overall cost of owning and operating a vehicle lot. Households who cannot do without a private vehicle (e.g. night workers) are more vulnerable economically to this increase parking.

The average cost of owning a private vehicle and is considered among the studies around 500 € per month. Households who cannot spend such a budget to the automobile are often forced to abandon a number of trips for which there is not necessarily an alternative. Autolib’ will be a relevant solution for these trips.

4 / The missing link in the “new mobility bouquet”

Any attempt to design a system such as Autolib’ disregarding the rich fabric of the city’s existing modes of transport is purely illusory. With 3,000 vehicles in service, Autolib’ is not able to solve the transportation problems faced by Parisians and cannot respond to issues of mass displacement for which public transit is the only appropriate response. Autolib’ can however be a complement in the panorama already provided the Paris Transport system: public transport, taxis, car sharing, bicycles and modes, etc..

However, as the newest and probably one of the most innovative and most technological Autolib’ has an important role to play in the articulation of the different modes of transport. By changing the traditional boundary between individual movement and transport, Autolib’ will bring a new fluidity in the design of mobility. In this sense, Autolib’ must not only be a new mode of transport performance, but also one that helps to rethink the services provided to users of other modes of transport. It is unthinkable that in time, operators are unable to agree on a “unified ticket” for mobility in the city regardless of the chosen mobility solution.

The members of the Union and the Region have strongly emphasized in the constitution phase of the specifications on the need not to think Autolib’ isolation but place it in the overall “mobility package” now in place.

5/ Un complex project at the crossroads of industrial strategies of carmakers and transport services.

Autolib’ does not only upset the landscape of public transport policies. It challenges the traditional strategy of large automobile companies, or rather it challenges the deep sociological model of the car.

This project impacts in two ways on the activity of car manufacturers:

– Car-sharing challenges the traditional ownership and operational model that drives the industry’ strategies and offerings
– The choice of the electric vehicle overturns the distribution of value in the production chain of the vehicle: tomorrow – given that the economic heart of the industry in the future will not be the engine but the battery. And the industrial groups who have mastered the battery problem are not necessarily the big car manufacturers who today benefit from their technological advance on the engines.

The challenge for the western automotive industry is very simple: they must reform their strategic positioning – or otherwise risk to be overtaken by new entrants or by Asian manufacturers, mainly Chinese and Indians who dream of gaining their advantage by starting with the almost entirely “white sheet” of electric vehicles. Without forgetting the operators of transport services who lie in ambush to achieve a new mobility system, and in the process relegate the role of the automobile industry as just one more provider and enabler of these new services.

Not surprising therefore to find in candidates for Autolib’ : two public transport operators RATP-SNCF, grouped on one side with Avis and Vinci as partners, with Veolia on the other), a new entrant (Bolloré) and ADA car rental company, and also a subsidiary of the G7 group, the city’s most important operator of taxis.

6 / An economic model to invent

There is no example, to scale Autolib’ comparable services. The closest experience took place in Singapore until 2008 with the initiative Diracc Honda and Ulm in Germany for a little over a year with Daimler CAR2GO. In both cases, the vehicles are used in combustion engine and the service has only about 200 vehicles, but the principle of direct evidence has been withheld. The results are encouraging, especially in Ulm, where success is very large with over 10% of the population is enrolled in the service.

The level of vandalism seen in Paris Vélib’ is often cited as an obstacle to the development of Autolib’ due to the constraint that it has on the economic equilibrium of the delegation of public service. The situation is not really replicable, and effective means of protection exist on cars while they are pretty ridiculous on the bikes. On the other hand, it must ask why such a high level of vandalism while other comparable systems in the Paris region or province does not have the same difficulties.

The success of the service and its economic viability depends mainly on the number of subscriptions and the rate of vehicle use. Surveys conducted before starting the project allow some enthusiasm, but we must remain cautious about the ability of respondents to project themselves into a mode of transport they do not know. Mesh quality stations, the level of service provided and vehicle performance will be key factors for the success of this project.

7 / Tough competition before the final partner choice

The competition, which began in February 2010 led to the December 16, 2010 election with the selection of the Bolloré public service package.

The three competing bids were of excellent standard, but that Bolloré has distinguished itself by providing a more humane approach of service, based on the presence of more than 800 agents to serve this project.

With lower rates, around 12 € a month for the annual plan and 5 € for the first half hour of use (4 € for the 2nd, 6 € for the 3rd), Bolloré has widely opened the service to families (10% discount on subscription) or youth will not be penalized compared to other users.

Bolloré has also agreed to take greater risks by investing € 50 million directly into capital. The group’s total investment exceeds € 100 million on a project expected to generate over a billion in sales in 12 years.

Autolib’ is a reality — in nine months it will be in service, and in the words of the Mayor of Paris, it will create a “mobility revolution” of the XXI century.

– Sylvain Marty, Director of the Syndicat Mixte Autolib’
Paris. 18 December 2011

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Some further references:

* Original article for World Streets as it appeared in French. –

* Announcement from the City of Paris –

* Short video introducing Autolib’:

* Witkar –

* Car2Go in Austin –

* Car2Go in Ulm:

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