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Paris’ bike-sharing system “unsustainable” says operator

Posted by on February 11th, 2009 at 6:23 pm

[NOTE: Streetsblog has a different perspective on this story. They say Velib corporate sponsor JCDecaux is manipulating this story in the media to their benefit. Read more here.]

Over half the original fleet of 15,000 specially made bicycles have disappeared, presumed stolen…vandalism and theft are taking their toll…The company which runs the scheme, JCDecaux, says it can no longer afford to operate the city-wide network.
— The BBC

Paris’ “Velib” bike-sharing system has been heralded as the most successful implementation of its kind in the world. Cities around the globe have pointed to success in Paris in order to justify their own bike-sharing systems. However, an article published Tuesday by the BBC reports that 18 months after its launch, Velib has hit a rough patch:

From the BBC:

“Over half the original fleet of 15,000 specially made bicycles have disappeared, presumed stolen. They have been used 42 million times since their introduction but vandalism and theft are taking their toll.”

Story continues below


Surprisingly, the story also reports that the company that runs Velib — advertising juggernaut JCDecaux says “it can no longer afford to operate the city-wide network.”

(Graphic: BBC)

Making matters worse, according to the article, is a YouTube sensation/trend known as “Velib Extreme” where people are taking the bikes down staircases and on BMX courses just for kicks.

The fate of the Velib program is sure to put a damper on plans by several major cities who have already launched — or were planning to launch similar systems.

Here in Portland, officials began seriously looking into a bike-sharing system in February of 2007, but then shelved the idea in June of the following year. (Mayor Sam Adams’ Chief of Staff Tom Miller wrote a six-part series for BikePortland on Portland’s bike sharing plans (here’s Part One) back in November.)

The theft troubles faced by Velib in Paris are sure to remind some folks of a similar situation with Portland’s Yellow Bike Program, which was launched by the Community Cycling Center in 1994. Here’s a snip about it from the bicycle sharing program entry in Wikipedia that’s eerily similar:

“Portland’s Yellow Bike Project was an amazing publicity success, but proved unsustainable initially due to theft and vandalism of the bicycles…”

Read the BBC article here.

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  • tonyt
    tonyt February 11, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Sounds like they need some sort of bike lowjack sort of thing. Or maybe a slightly more involved check-out process.


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  • Hart February 11, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    I’m going back to using the term Freedom Fries. Lousy French.

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  • Brad February 11, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Well I am certain that sort of tomfoolery would never happen here! It is a well documented fact that Americans are so much more refined and respectful than Europeans. Besides, with our bulletproof economy, bountiful social safety net, and our strong streak of civic responsibility, no one here would think to steal a bike or trash one to attain 15 minutes of Internet fame.

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  • John Russell February 11, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Can they not track the people responsible for the incidents? You would think that information would somehow be recorded upon checkout.

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  • Paul Tay February 11, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Looked good on paper just like this dog, eh?

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  • John February 11, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Math time!
    42,000,000 uses.
    Divided by 15,000 bikes.
    Over 18 months.
    11.5 uses per bike per day.
    Not bad, even before substantially correcting for reduced availability due to theft and vandalism.

    So, since we don’t know the repair cost, let’s try on replacement cost:

    7500 thefts over 18 months, per 42,000,000 trips: .00013 Euros per trip would be slated towards replacement cost. I’d bet they spent exponentially more on property: placing the things where people can use them. Replacement falls into a minor expense.

    Forty two million is a big stinkin’ number. Plenty, with a little careful attention, to cover for this amount of use.
    How much use, you ask? If no bikes had been stolen or vandalized, this would still result in an (lowball!) average of 2,800 uses per bicycle. It would take me riding my bike to work every single workday for over five and a half years to equal this number of uses. I’d say those rental bikes are holding up pretty well, don’t you think?

    Given the evidence that they had more than enough opportunity to anticipate and deal with these events, I would assume they fell victim to the same thing that kills the majority of new businesses within the first two years: Financial incompetence. Not stolen bikes.

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  • joe adamski February 11, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    We had our “Yellow Bike” experience. The Community Cycling Center wisely killed YellowBikes as a resource hog and replaced it with Create a Commuter. Ownership has its place. That sense of ownership and financial responsibilty goes a long way to keep the CCCs efforts from vandalism and theft.

    At the same time, having affordable bikes readily available for visitors seems like something Portland could and should do. Riding in a bike mecca is something a lot want to do, but connecting with a bike is something you have to work at.

    I’m sorry to see it facing such challenges,but hardly surprised.

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  • John February 11, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    Whoops! 7500 thefts, x 400 euros, / 42,000,000 = .07 euros per trip.

    More substantial, but still something which should have been anticipated, given the use per bike.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Editor) February 11, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    glad you mentioned the CCC’s yellow bike program Joe. I was adding some information about it to the story when I read your comment!

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  • Matthew Denton February 11, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    To get a card to checkout a bike in the first place requires either a ~150 euro deposit or a credit card. It seems like they should be able to figure out if someone is stealing them/not returning them and 1) close their account and 2) bill them for a new bicycle.

    Vandals and people taking them down stairs in another issue, although if the bike has a lot of damage, (i.e. more than just a flat tire,) they should make a note of who rented it last. If that same person has returned several bicycles damaged recently, again, it seems like they’d be able to figure that one out, (and maybe match their pictures up with some videos on YouTube.)

    On average they service the bikes every 240 miles. It seems a little high, I probably go 400 miles between needing a patch/tube or new brake pads, or heavier maintenance. But if you count the very simple things like cleaning the chain, (okay, they have chain guards and I don’t, but still) or adding air to the tires (without changing the tube,) 240 miles is actually really impressive.

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  • Bjorn February 11, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    They have a 150 euro deposit for the bike, but it costs them 400 euro to replace a bike??? Maybe they should raise the deposit to be high enough to cover the cost of the bike if it is not brought back… Assuming it had no impact on the number of bikes stolen it would have meant close to 2 million more euros coming into the system. That would solve the problem of losses due to theft completely.


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  • Zaphod February 11, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    These data support a nearly opposite conclusion, that the lifespan and amount of use is remarkable. Maybe they need to reset expectations on shrinkage and wear.

    This shows just how comparatively unsustainable any of my bikes are. I fix flats, replace BBs, repack pedal bearings, replace brake pads, rims, entire drivetrains … the list goes on after FAR fewer miles. And I’m riding my own bike so I’m not trying to destroy it.

    While not the point of this article, this makes me think about getting a truly utilitarian machine with enclosed chaincase, drum brake, full fendered, etc. thus avoiding at least some of the ongoing maintenance. My apologies for digressing from the topic at hand.

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  • Spencer Boomhower February 11, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    John, thanks for doing the math. I had a similar thought: this report reads like a failure of the program, until you see that 42 million trips (!) number.

    It would be reasonable to assume a certain amount of wear and tear on – and even theft of – these bikes.

    The “Velib Extreme” phenomena obviously took them by surprise, but what does and doesn’t become a YouTube phenomena is notoriously hard to predict (ex. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yu_moia-oVI), and they can be excused for not seeing it coming.

    There’s the novelty of being first, and the novelty of the bikes themselves that is creating such a sensation. And there’s just plain bad behavior on the part of people who will exploit any exploitable thing that falls within their reach. These are not insurmountable problems, or at the very least they can be worked into a cost-benefit analisis, along the lines of what you’ve done.

    Giving up on this program now would be like giving up on a network of paved roads at the first sign of potholes. Even if the intial estimates didn’t account for potholes, didn’t see the need for further investment down the road, it might still be worth ponying up the extra cash.

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  • robert February 11, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    When something belongs to everyone it belongs to no one.

    Public toilets are another good example.

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  • Peter February 11, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    If it wasn’t theft or vandalism, it would have been something else – the weather, bad bikes, low adoption rates, Mars, whatever – the stated reason is unimportant. JCDucky had to give it a go for political reasons, and that was that.

    What is important is that there is no strong incentive for JCDucky, ClearChannelRush, or any other advertising company to run a successful bike-sharing program — it has only ever been an expense for them. Why would any for-profit company want to continue running an operation which only serves as a drag on the bottom line? Because they’re the opposite of the Obama administration and want to transfer wealth to working Parisians/Americans instead of from them? It’s absurd.

    And even more absurd is the idea that an advertising company should be in the business of…running a bike-sharing program. Who came up with _that_ idea?

    I’m glad the word ‘sustainable’ was used, though. That should preclude any for-profit corporation from ever running a public transit system.

    I say hand the whole business over to a non-profit, worker-owned and controlled enterprise. Annual bonuses to the company, paid out as salaries, for hitting performance targets. Done.

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  • Krampus February 11, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    I agree, just put a 500 dollar hold on the debit card of the bike renter.. once the bike is returned the hold on the money is released.

    What I’d be more curious to find out is whether or not bike sales in Paris went up. I can imagine a lot of people rented the Velibs a few times, realized they liked riding but wanted to avoid the hassle of renting and returning all the time (or troublesome bikes in the fleet) and decided to buy their own instead. Does anyone know if bike sales spiked (or possibly even dropped) since Velib went live?

    Regardless, lame how immature vandals can ruin such a good thing. What’s wrong with people?

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  • John February 11, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    More math!
    So this comes out to one incident of vandalism per 3620 trips.
    One incident of irrecoverable loss per 5385 trips.
    One repair per 115 trips.

    They’re doing better than me! Maybe I should be handing my bike out to strangers?

    One incident of recoverable abandonment per 8624 trips! How’s this compare to, say, Hertz? If I could ride my bike twice a day, five days a week, for over 17 years before a single incident of vandalism, I’d seriously reassess my opinion of the human race!

    If Velib can’t cover what clearly exceeds in performance what just about any of us would consider as normal wear or depreciation on the provided equipment… With 42,000,000 customers in 18 months, nearly even with today’s current annual passenger load on the entire MAX line, or dead even day-to-day only a few years ago… And they can’t support 400 euro bicycles, where the same number of users seem sufficient to support an entire dedicated rail system in Portland?

    I still say financial incompetence. The numbers imply they knew how to rent bikes. The failure implies they failed to hire someone who knew how to run a business.

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  • Dan Kaufman February 11, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Stop with the math. The numbers a obviously bogus.

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  • Shaun February 11, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    I don’t recall the specifics, but IIRC JCDecaux ran the program as a condition of being allowed to dominate Parisian advertising space.

    If they drop out of the program, I would be curious what impact that would have on the base agreement.

    One of the unfortunate aspects of the Velib system is that it doesn’t work with most American Credit Cards – they lack the embedded chip that Euro Cards have.

    Every time I’m stuck hoofing it in Paris I get cranky over that lack of a chip…

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  • paul guermonprez February 12, 2009 at 3:18 am


    As a parisian i must tell you that yes the velib program is not that great.
    It was from the beginning a marketing op for both the mayor and JCD. the mayor was reelected last year so in the last months JCD tried to renegociate the program. Right now they have full and free access to all parisian pub billboards in exchange.

    The money would be better spent in other projects. The good side is circulation : a lot of bike lanes have been created, used by all cyclists not only the velibs.

    And guys from lyon in france would like to have credit for velib, as they implemented the exact same solution years before paris.

    bye, paul.

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  • Vance February 12, 2009 at 6:21 am

    I always thought, “Yellow Bike”, was the result of a single individual’s efforts. I knew that CCC was a benefactor, but I had no idea this was their baby. Huh, you learn something everyday. Remember the kid who robbed a bank on one? Hehe.

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  • bikieboy February 12, 2009 at 7:45 am

    Vance, my recollection is that the Yellow Bike program was initially started by a single individual (whose name i can’t quite recall) in the mid-90’s. i think the CCC inherited the program at some point, then discontinued it.

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  • Anonymous February 12, 2009 at 7:54 am

    The best thing about the yellow bike program was that they were easy to spot when they were thrown into the Willamette.

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  • Oliver February 12, 2009 at 8:25 am

    The numbers don’t add up (thanks for running them John)

    However, It won’t be so much of the bike lending program itself not adding up but the impact of the bike numbers a as a line item in the Advertising project.

    With ad revenue going down, or the original agreement for advertising access expiring, they are killing the program, and as a part of the ad program the bike program has to go.

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  • Zaphod February 12, 2009 at 8:46 am

    I watched the youtube freeride video and while the riders are not being overly gentle with these bikes, an average hybrid with a stout set of wheels could handle this “abuse” with no issue. The biggest drop they hit was ~ a foot. I was expecting an entirely different level of play.

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  • Coyote February 12, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Krampus (#16) according to the e^2 PBS TV series, private sales of bike doubled after Velib started. That is a wonderful episode and well worth watching.

    Peter(#15)“I’m glad the word ‘sustainable’ was used, though. That should preclude any for-profit corporation from ever running a public transit system.”

    Private for profit public transit exists all over the world. In fact it is the standard in most of the third world. Rail was for profit in this country until Amtrak in 1970. In many large US cities have grey market bus/taxi companys run at a profit. Calling medallioned taxis public transit is not a stretch either.

    Airlines, although heavily subsidized through airport construction, are private for profit public transit too. Then of course there is Greyhound. It is amazing that nobody ever brings up Greyhound as public transit that is no more subsidized than driving.

    Really the only thing that keeps public transit from being profitable within a city is the subsidies and legal loopholes that encourage all the darn cars on the road.

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  • Brad February 12, 2009 at 9:29 am

    What’s the first industry to get hit hard when the economy goes south? ADVERTISING.

    My guess is that JCDecaux is having trouble generating new revenue (ad sales) on the bikes and is cutting their losses. They likely have to “re-brand” the fleet every 30 days to hit their numbers and the pool of ad dollars has dried up. Rather than limp along for a year or more, they are pulling the plug to focus on more traditional media. Transit ads, billboards, etc. cost next to nothing to maintain.

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  • Brian Johnson February 12, 2009 at 9:58 am

    It just seems like poor planning on the part of JCDecaux to no anticipate the “cost of doing business”.

    Unfortunately, anything like this that is “public” will be subjected to abuse.

    They should have charged a full deposit on the bikes. If they disappear– it’s replacement is paid for.

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  • zuckerdog February 12, 2009 at 10:21 am

    I’ve had the pleasure of utilizing the velib last march. It was a great system.
    It actually required a 250 euro deposit on your credit card. It would definately make sense to raise the deposit to the replacement cost plus a small service fee – say 450 euro.
    From a user’s perspective, what made the Velib so convenient was the shear number of bikes and pickup/dropoff station around the City. Paris has the advantage over Portland with the regards to the density of population and that a much higher percentage of the populaion lives in the central “city”.
    Other observations: helmet use wasn’t that prevalent.

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  • Kt February 12, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Thanks, John #6 and #17, for running the numbers.

    42,000,00 is an abstract number– it’s too big. When you break it down like you did, well, that’s a whole ‘nother animal.

    I agree, it sounds like poor business management– and yeah, ad revenues are way down across the board for all business who rely on advertising, like newspapers, magazines, Velib.

    It’s a bummer, though, that they are pulling the plug on it without trying to find another way or another company/person to take it over.

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  • Peter February 12, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I agree, just put a 500 dollar hold on the debit card of the bike renter.. once the bike is returned the hold on the money is released.

    The problem is vandalism to bikes that have not been properly checked out. They are bashed while still sitting in the racks (bent back rims), or they are stolen from the racks and then trashed, or just sold on the black market.

    I don’t recall the specifics, but IIRC JCDecaux ran the program as a condition of being allowed to dominate Parisian advertising space.

    Just to drive that point home, this is exactly the same setup that ClearChannelRush has with San Francisco. ClearChannelRush runs SF outdoor advertising for Muni, our bus/light rail system (with all of its ad shelters), and JCDucky has a much smaller government handout in the form of babysitting our public toilets and whatnot for some prime public billboard ad space on Market Street, etc. These companies have no incentive to run these programs once they win the contract, except to give their city hall proponents enough political cover to protect the guilty.

    If they drop out of the program, I would be curious what impact that would have on the base agreement.

    Here in SF, ClearChannelRush has ‘the right of first refusal’. That is, if they think they can turn this expense into something that is ultimately profitable for the company – say, as some type of loss leader or something — maybe by skimping on service expenses, pushing risk off their stockholders and onto the SF public — then they will run the program. If the bike thing just looks like a hokey green marketing campaign for a mayor who’s about to run for governor, then they’ll do the required dance for as long as is necessary, weighing all the factors that concern their bottom line – and none of those factors will include ‘the public interest’.

    Private for profit public transit exists all over the world. In fact it is the standard in most of the third world.

    I would say we don’t generally want to mimic the 3rd world here in America, but that does often seem where our politicians want us to go. There’s a reason third world countries allow these horrific transportation systems to remain in place — they have no choice. They’re ‘third world’ — that is, they are not sufficiently advanced enough to have minimally-functional governments which can wrest control from private power and bring that power under public control. The famed Transmilenio BRT from Bogota is a perfect example. Watch a video clip – maybe from that same e2 Series – of Penalosa describe the private companies/mafias he had to contend with to get Transmilenio put into place — it is now a public/private partnership of some type, with guaranteed profits to the operators, and the public pays for that profit, not improved service. Sounds like it was a highly risky and very delicate operation for the mayor. South Africa is going through taxi (small private buses) strikes and riots and violence, all because South Africa is trying to build their own BRT which will wrest some control from private operators. India is going through some of the same with their fleet of privately-operated killer buses. These competing, private operators – a Libertarian’s dream come true – are a complete disaster, with perverse incentive structures, that famously help to mow down hundreds/thousands of people a year in India and elsewhere. As soon as governments, which are answerable to the public, become strong enough to deal with outlaw private operators, they do so – moving those countries away from ‘third world’ status. ‘First world’ countries do not so openly tolerate criminal behavior among its working classes.

    Airlines, although heavily subsidized through airport construction, are private for profit public transit too. Then of course there is Greyhound. It is amazing that nobody ever brings up Greyhound as public transit that is no more subsidized than driving.

    The subsidization argument is a beast, and I’m not sure it’s important to discuss it here. Every major American airline has been bailed out, some repeatedly, etc. Spanish airlines are finally going away, now that Spain is implementing high speed rail. What’s important, though, imo, is that public transit should be accountable to…the public. It seems possible that can happen with some type of public/private partnership — the ‘public’ part being important so the operator is held accountable — so we should explore these options. Ideally, only non-profit private entities would be allowed to run our public systems. Or we could allow for some profits, if private operators have ‘triple bottom line’ targets, which would more appropriately align company incentives with the public interest.

    The problem with Velib and the to-be-launched SF bike share program is the incentive structure doesn’t make any sense, which will predictably and inevitably lead to perverse outcomes — just like a third world transportation system.

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  • El Biciclero February 12, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    I get one repair every ~51 trips:

    42000000 trips/18 months x 1 day/1500 repairs x 18 months/546 days
    42000000/(1500 x 546) trips/repair
    51.28 trips/repair.

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  • […] was reading a BikePortland story yesterday about the Velib system, and was dismayed to hear that the operator, advertising company JCDecaux, […]

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  • beth h February 17, 2009 at 8:38 am

    I am aware that at least three of the nicer Portland Yellow Bikes, all with nicer steel touring frames, were taken by individuals to d-i-y/backyard framebuilders to have braze-ons added (for cantis, bottlecages and better racks). I serviced all of these bikes in their reincarnated state at one point or another back in the 90’s.

    Two of those bikes were repainted and rebuilt with nicer parts. Their owners admitted that the bikes had once been free Yellow Bikes, but each said they’d bought them from someone else and would not admit to simply taking them off the streets.

    The third became someone’s cross-country touring machine, owned by an unrepentant low-income customer who figured that free is free and that only a sucker would pass up the opportunity. To make his point, he only touched up the areas where he’d had braze-ons installed (with some green spray paint) and left the pale yellow paint elsewhere on the frame alone. He didn’t try to disguise the fact that his bike had come from the Yellow Bike Program, and he didn’t care what people thought. He was broke, occasionally homeless, and needed a better bike. So when he found one sitting outside a coffee shop with a giant “Free” sticker on it, he helped himself.

    I’ll bet that public opinion didn’t bother most of the folks who helped themselves to free bikes in Paris, either. Free is free, after all.

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  • john macintyre February 18, 2009 at 7:49 am

    Have they thought of using RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Device) tags that are fitted inside the bike. I am working with 15 UK Police forces who are fitting the tags to bikes in an effort to prevent cycle theft. So far we have suppliued 50,000+ and we have found that tagged cycles are 10 times less likely to be stolen with a 100% identification if they are stolen and recovered because of the tag. The unique tag and warning label number are registered on a national database http://www.immobilise.com (for the USA http://www.immobilize.net) free of charge. In the UK there are over 1 million cycles registerd with another 25 million items of other property. The police can check the cycle details against their database and if it doen not come up as reported stolen then the details of the registered owner come up and they can be contacted. It is a brilliant system and the tagging is helping to reduce the thefts. If you want any more information please e mail me on j.macintyre@virgin.net and I will send you a newsletter.

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