The New York Times ran an article recently on the failure of another utopian scheme: Vélib’, the Parisian bike sharing and rental program, which has recently come up against “a prosaic reality”:
Many of the specially designed bikes, which, when the system’s startup and maintenance expenses are included, cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.
With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche.
“The Vélib’” wrote the French paper Le Monde, “was aimed at civilizing city travel. It has increased incivilities.” The failures of the bike scheme remind Parisians of other incivilities, like car burnings in the banlieues. This helps explain Parisian despair. The collapse of the Commune in the 19th century, the barricades of ’68, now this?
The real question is whether there are lessons for the rest of us in all this. One has to do with scale. The exorbitant $3500 price tag is just one outward indication that the Vélib’ was created at the wrong scale. No one ever denied that Utopia would come at a price; but only in a centralized, government-run scheme could bicycles for everyday use cost $3500. The Vélib’ was doomed by grand ambitions, engineered and administered from the top down, with the government developing a scheme for good living and well being and then expecting human beings to conform to it.
Scale matters. How much greater the chances of success if, say, a household, or an apartment building, or even a city block, decided to pool their bikes, or buy some cheap used bikes, and then gave everybody a set of locks that opened with identical keys. The smaller scale experiment may not have had the same civilizing influence that the Vélib’ promised to have, and it could never have turned all of Paris green, but it probably would have worked.
Imagine a thief trying to steal a bicycle from an apartment building or a block where everybody had a stake in keeping the bikes available and maintained. Or imagine if someone within one of these smaller communities decided to turn the bikes for a profit on the black market. There would at least be a good chance of deterring or catching the thief; shame and other forms of punishment also work best within families and very small, close communities.
The Parisian experiment reveals a deep flaw — in the experiment, because it was conducted on such a grand scale, but also in human nature; and the latter flaw should have been taken into account when constructing the experiment in the first place.
I know there are some people who will take issue with that last point, and say that what I am calling human nature is a social construct. Change the society, and what you took to be human nature will change with it. The trouble with this view is not just that it meets an objection to social engineering by calling for more social engineering, which means putting someone — who? — in charge of Hope and Change; the problem is also that it imagines we can step outside of history to do all this engineering, and then somehow populate our brave new world with creatures untainted by history — as if there is a place that is really no place, a utopia.
But our lot is this imperfect world. No amount of engineering — social, scientific, or social scientific — will ever restore us to grace. That’s no cause for despair; it’s just a reminder that theory has its limits.