Autolib to liberate Parisian drivers

PARIS -- The city previews its new public car rental program Autolib to a mixed response. Will the eco-friendly program really help ease traffic congestion in the City of Light?
Written by Bryan Pirolli, Correspondent (Paris)

PARIS This past Saturday, Mayor Delanoe invited Parisians to preview the public car service Autlolib with staff on hand for test drives.  Ten of the eventual 508 stations within Paris were open to introduce the compact and environmentally friendly electric "Bluecars" produced by French investment group Bolloré.  This is another step in Dealnoe’s attempt to reduce traffic within the City of Light.

The idea

The Autolib will officially debut on December 5 following the success of the revolutionary public biking system, the Vélib.  The idea, much like the Vélib, is to subscribe to the service and take an eco-friendly car from point A to point B without worrying about parking along congested Parisian streets.  The city hopes the system will help remove around 22,000 gas-powered vehicles from the French capital.

The various subscriptions are affordable, with a daily pass available for 10 euros.  Users will then pay between 5-7 euros per half hour of driving depending on their plan.  The cars themselves, designed by Italian designer Pininfarina, emit no odors, carbon emissions, or noise.  They are user-friendly, featuring automatic transmission, an internal telephone in case of mechanical problems, a video tutorial, and GPS system that allows drivers to reserve parking spots at their destination.

Stations across Paris will have four to seven cars available that are plugged into chargers.  Users can video conference with a service representative 24/7 in the booth where they will also have to present a driver’s license to purchase a subscription.

The critics

While seemingly a positive investment by the city, at 50,000 euros (68,000 USD) per station, the Autolib has its critics.  Until recently, the Vélib was unavailable to tourists and locals who did not have a microchip common in European credit cards.  Similarly, the Autolib is off limits to drivers without a French or international driver’s license, targeting instead Paris-based car owners.  Some, like American expat Alisa Morov, have considered applying for an international license expressly to use the Autolib.  "It seems phenomenal.  There are times I’d love to have a car for an afternoon or an evening," Morov said.

Additionally, according to ambassadors during Saturday’s preview, there is nothing in place to prevent intoxicated drivers from renting a car.  One Autolib employee at the station on avenue Parmentier explained that there will be no sort of control to prevent drunk individuals from renting a car until there is legislation passed requiring the company to do otherwise.

But the most vocal critics have been environmentalists who aren’t optimistic about the Autolib’s success.  French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur reports that increasing traffic, high costs of maintenance, and uncertainty about the performance of the Bluecars’ lithium battery are all on the list of concerns expressed by Green Party adjunct mayor of Paris Debus Baupin.

Primarily he laments the lack of focus on existing communal transportation.  "With Autolib, those who are accustomed to taking Vélib or public transport will begin to take a car.  It’s a counterproductive signal," Baupin said in the magazine.

Drivers will put the system to the test starting in December, and like the Vélib biking system, there are sure to be a few bugs to address.  More importantly the city will have to wait to see if Parisians opt for the system over buying their own cars.  Parisian car owners like Maimouma Bocoum aren’t getting rid of their automobiles anytime soon.  "I want to be able to use my car if no Autolib is available.  I want this kind of freedom," Bocoum said.

Still others, like American expat Caroline Wyatt and her French partner are currently shopping for a car, despite the Autolib system.  "You can't take the Autolib on road trips to Poland," Wyatt said.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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