A quiet drive in Paris

The open-top tourist bus has been the traditional way to see the Paris sights by road, but the millions of visitors venturing to the French capital now have an enticing alternative.

Autolib’, Paris’s unique car-sharing system and the latest move in the green transport revolution, is up and running, albeit quietly thanks to the vehicles being powered by silent electric motors. The four-seaters, called Bluecars, emit zero pollution, have a top speed of 130km per hour and can travel around 250 kilometres on one charge.

To some visitors the thought of jumping in a car and cruising past the Eiffel Tower or driving down the Avenue des Champs-�lys�es to the Place de la Concorde would be a new ‘must-do’ activity on their itinerary, but to others the fear of getting harassed and honked at by the city’s notoriously impatient drivers might be daunting.

But Jean-Paul Huchon, president of the �le-de-France Regional Council, told me he wanted to see tourists taking advantage of the scheme. “It will be very good for them because it is unique in the world,” he said. “There is probably nothing else like it for tourists. The Autolib’ will be one of the best activities here in Paris; it will be the best way to see the city and you are guaranteed a place to park.”

The first 250 Bluecars were seen in Paris in December last year; by this summer Autolib’ operator Bollor� is hoping to have 3,000 cars on the streets of the capital and its suburbs, along with 1,100 docking stations and 5,000 charging points.

 

Clogged-up streets

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Autolib’ does have its detractors. Taxi drivers fear the competition will harm their trade; some politicians rue the strain of the scheme on the public purse; and some environmentalists believe that the thousands of extra cars will exacerbate rather than alleviate traffic congestion on the capital’s already clogged-up streets. Another concern is that vandalism and theft, which have tarnished the success of the city’s Velib’ bike-sharing scheme, could also be a problem for Autolib’. Thousands of the sturdy bikes have been stolen since Velib’ was launched in 2007, with some being spotted as far away as Eastern Europe and Africa.

Bertrand Delano�, the forward-thinking mayor of Paris who first floated the idea of Autolib’ in 2008, accepts that the risk of theft is real and says precautions are being taken. Each car has been fitted with a tracking device so a control room will know exactly where the vehicle is at all times. If any are heading out of the country, officials should realise in good time. In addition to theft and vandalism the likelihood of the Bluecars picking up a few bumps and scrapes is high, especially if any brave tourists decide to tackle the world’s most notorious roundabout, encircling the Arc de Triomphe. As a result, Bollor� is faced with hefty insurance premiums of €3,000 per car, per year. Despite the critics, Autolib’ has had an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the Parisian public and judging by the number of foreign media present at its launch in December, the eyes of the world are watching to see how it fares.

 

Reasonable prices

The scheme’s creators insist it is not geared to any one particular sector of the population. M. Delano� said: “Autolib’ is for anyone who has an urgent appointment, professionals who need to make a journey on business, parents for picking up children from school and for anyone who wants to go shopping for heavy goods.”

The mayor is hoping that car owners, dismayed by the high cost of fuel and insurance, will steer away from buying their own vehicle in favour of investing in a membership pass for Autolib’. One factor that should help to persuade them is the reasonable subscription prices. A year’s subscription will cost €144, and weekly and daily passes €15 and €10 respectively; taking a car out costs an additional €5 to €8 per half hour, depending on the length of subscription.

Just days after the launch I took M. Huchon’s advice and road-tested the scheme. First stop was the Autolib’ station at the Place de la Catalogne, near Gare Montparnasse. Although the two attendants inside the information hub did not speak English, they ushered me towards a screen and at the press of a button I was soon linked up by video to a helpful English speaker at the Autolib’ control centre. He guided me safely through the registration process, which involved taking scans of my passport and driving licence. After agreeing to the obligatory terms and conditions, and handing over my credit card details, my own personal badge was printed. It felt too easy to be true.

Picking up the car later that evening proved slightly more troublesome. After ten minutes of trying to unplug the electric cord linking the car to its charging post we gave in and pressed the ‘Help’ button on the information post. Unfortunately, the woman at the call centre spoke no English and any of the advice she gave was drowned out by the noise of passing traffic. We gave up and decided to walk to the next Autolib’ station where, thankfully, there were no obstacles.

We were soon heading down Rue de Vaugirard towards Saint-Germain-des-Pr�s and the heart of the Left Bank. It was a Friday evening and traffic was light, so we were quickly heading over the River Seine, taking in Notre-Dame as we drove to the Right Bank, passing all the revellers and strollers, many of whom seemed slightly bewildered by the silent vehicles. It was certainly a thrill to be driving through Paris and using the Bluecar’s GPS reduced the risk of getting lost in the maze of one-way streets and boulevards.

As we approached our destination at Place de la R�publique all had gone smoothly until it came to finding a place to drop off the Bluecar. Some Parisian motorists have clearly taken advantage of Autolib’, but not in the way organisers had hoped. Parking spaces specifically dedicated to the scheme had been snapped up by other drivers. Luckily, the next drop-off point was not far and traffic cones were still out guarding the places. All in all it was a relatively smooth experience, apart from a few obvious teething problems that the authorities should be able to sort out over the coming months. M. Huchon was right in that there is nothing quite like driving your own car around Paris, but his promise that you will always be able to find a parking spot might prove a hard one to keep. Only time will tell.

For more information on the Autolib’ scheme visit www.autolib.eu