This is what happens when a transportation company can’t scale.
A Vélib user in happier times and a pile of bikes. Images: JF Gornet/Flickr/Agents Velib en grève/Twitter. Composition: Rachel Pick
There’s chaos in Paris this week as a lengthy battle over the failure to properly scale up a bikeshare system boils over into a heated labor dispute.
For months, Parisians haven’t been able to use the city’s popular Vélib' bikeshare program because Smovengo, the consortium responsible for upgrading the fleet, has been plagued by technical glitches.
The company promised to introduce electric bikes to its mostly mechanical fleet, but still hasn’t connected most of the new docking stations to the electrical grid. That means that most electric bikes can’t be recharged. It also means that once the dock’s power runs out, it can’t even unlock the mechanical bikes, leaving piles of inoperable bicycles throughout the city. It’s been a major inconvenience for the 300,000 members of the bikeshare program, and now #Velibgate on Twitter is awash with criticism for the total failure.
It’s a tale of caution as more startups rush to roll out bikeshare systems in cities around the world.
In 2017 Smovengo won a 15-year, €600 million contract to take over the management of the Vélib' fleet, which at the time was managed by competitor JCDecaux and consisted of 8,700 bikes, 41,101 docks, and 1,263 stations. (For reference, New York City’s Citi Bike has 750 stations.) The new management company promised there’d be no disruptions as the service changed hands officially on January 1.
There’s been nothing but disruptions, though.
On April 17, Smovengo’s workers went on strike asking for better working conditions, particularly for overnight, weekend, and holiday shifts. Today, the workers said they were offered a 27-cent raise, which they called “absolutely unbelievable.” The workers’ union is also accusing Smovengo of hiring scabs. Employee Oualid Aloui told local TV station BFMTV they’re prepared to strike for as long as necessary. Some workers are currently blocking access to the Vélib' bike depot in Alfortville, just outside of Paris, as a strike action. BFMTV also broadcast images of a small fire set at the depot’s gate.
Parisians are also pissed that their main bikeshare option is all but out of commission. Since its 2007 launch until this recent debacle, Vélib' had gained 300,000 subscribers and was used an average of 105,000 times a day.
The switch to Smovengo has been a mess since day one. Only 600 of the 1,400 planned stations have been installed, meaning there aren’t enough docks for all the bikes. Additionally, when it was announced Smovengo would take over the management of the bikeshare system, a 35 percent annual membership rate increase was also revealed. Right now Vélib' is offering refunds online for its poor execution, but it’s not enough to calm people down.
“@Velib users are in full mourning mode. After shock and denial comes anger (see photo). Me, I’ve already moved passed sadness and am approaching acceptance... What a bad deal! Too bad for Paris,” wrote one Twitter user.
Without their unionized workers and without scabs, Smovengo is a tight spot after receiving orders from Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s office to fix this mess by next week.
A striking worker, Hamid L., told Motherboard via Twitter DM that 60 of the 70 employees who do maintenance and fleet rebalancing are protesting salary changes that earn them nearly 1,000 Euros less per month.
They said many of the Smovengo workers previously worked at JCDecaux, where they earned higher hourly wages, more overtime and a 12 Euro per diem for food. At Smovengo, Hamid said, their overtime was cut down to almost nothing and their per diems were reduced to 5.73 Euros. The workers are also paid less per hour, he said. “Smovengo never gave us an explanation.”
Smovengo, which could not immediately be reached for comment, won the 15-year contract partly because it promised to use bikes made in France, unlike JCDecaux’s Hungarian-made bikes. Electrifying some of the fleet was another selling point.
Other transportation companies are looking to capitalize on Vélib’s misery. At least one electric scooter startup is planning on taking advantage of the bikeshare fiasco by doubling its Parisian fleet.
Update: This piece has been updated with comment from a striking worker.
Correction: This piece originally said Citi Bike had 330 stations. Motherboard regrets the error.
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