By Geert De Clercq
PARIS (Reuters) - China's Ofo launched its dockless bicycles in Paris on Wednesday, becoming the fourth bike-sharing scheme operator in a city set to banish all combustion-engine cars by 2030.
Ofo France general manager Laurent Kennel told Reuters the firm, one of two bike-sharing giants in China, had put just over 100 of its bright yellow bicycles on Paris roads on Wednesday and plans to ramp that up to 1,000 bikes by year-end.
Ofo comes hot on the wheels of Hong Kong-owned Gobee.bike, which launched in October and whose bright green bikes, estimated at a few thousand, can be seen on every Paris street.
A third Asian player, Singapore-owned oBike, has a few hundred bikes on Paris streets, and will also compete with the city's long-established Velib scheme.
Unlike the dockless Asian bikes, the Velib bikes must be parked in fixed docking stations of which there are some 1,800 in Paris, but which are often full in popular parts of the city.
"We want to be leader in free-floating bikes in Paris and France," Kennel said.
He added that to cover Paris well, the firm plans to put several thousand bikes on the road, although there are no immediate plans to match Velib's 24,000 bicycles.
Like Velib, the Ofo bikes have three gears - unlike the gearless Gobee and oBike bikes - but will be slightly more expensive at 0.50 euros ($0.6) per 20 minutes, compared to 0.50 euros for 30 minutes for the other two Asian operators.
Ofo's bikes will be free for the first 40 minutes until the end of the year. Velib is free the first half hour for users with a subscription.
Kennel said Ofo operate more than 10 million bikes in 200 cities worldwide, the vast majority in China, and a few thousand in Europe, including in Milan, Madrid, Vienna, Prague, London and Cambridge.
Ofo, which has raised more than $1 billion from Chinese venture capitalists, including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, will cooperate with Paris city authorities, which have said they want to regulate the dockless bike schemes to prevent chaos on Paris sidewalks.
The dockless bikes can be found and unlocked with a mobile phone app, and after use they can be left anywhere. So far there have been no pile-ups as have been seen on Chinese roads.
The new Asian bike share operators' entry into the Paris market is well timed, as longtime Velib operator JCDecaux is replaced by the Smoovengo consortium, which won a 600-700 million euro ($700-$825 million) contract to run the Paris city bike-sharing system from 2018 to 2032.
Dozens of Velib docking stations have been out of order for weeks as Velib's old docking stations are replaced with Smoovengo's new stations.
The Paris city government is building more bike lanes as it tries to reduce automobile traffic in a bid to cut pollution.
(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Adrian Croft)