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Vélib' – A New Way to Travel in Paris

The self-service bike transportation system

Tracey Stanard

Today, you can tour Paris from a bike, at your own pace, the way you would like without having to follow a tour or schedule for the metro or bus. This comes thanks to Vélib' – the newest transportation system in Paris: self-service 3-speed bikes that are sturdy, inexpensive and easy to pick up and drop off.  It’s a nice change to the alternative of being cooped up on a public transportation vehicle.  Also, unlike the metro, which closes at 1pm, Vélib' stations are opened 24/7.

Photo of a Velib Bike

Self-service 3-speed Vélib' Bike

The Vélib' terminal is designed to include 8 languages:  French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese.  Obviously, they want the system to work for tourists as well as residents.  This is a welcoming offer to Paris – the premiere world tourist destination with 27 million visitors a year.

How the Vélib' System Works

Just go to one of the Vélib' stations throughout the city, and select either a one-day card (1 euro) or a weekly card (5 euros.)  The first half-hour is free, then the cost is just 1 euro for the second half-hour, 2 euros for the third half hour and 4 euros for each half-hour after that.

After the purchase of an access card along with your own personal password, go to a meter and simply type in the code - your bike should unlock and you’re off!  Once you reach your destination Vélib' station, click the bike into an empty dock - the light should change from yellow to green, and that’s it.  Just in case the bike docks are full, you get a free 15-minute courtesy ride to the closest station.

Photo of a Velib Bike Station

Velib' Bike Station

There has been some talk about whether US Credit Cards will work without the “puce” (micro-chip,) but according to JC Decaux (the developer of Vélib') in a NY Times article, the system now accepts US American Express cards; other US cards, however, remain questionable.

Be aware that minors aged from 14 (minimum height: 1.50 m) may only use Vélib' with the authorization of their legal guardian.

Laying Groundwork for the Future

The city of Paris has over 371 km (230 miles) of cycling lanes and growing  – which definitely helps the cyclist get around.

The Vélib' system should have 20,600 bikes by the end of 2007, as well as a station every 900 feet for a total of 1,451.  This is a dense transportation network; by comparison, the metro has a total of 298 stations.

Happy cycling!

Updated Information by PatrickLondon (8/26/08)

As the pricing structure suggests, the system is explicitly designed to encourage people to use the bikes for short-ish hops, not to keep the bikes for long periods.

It's particularly useful to replace shorter metro trips that can involve complicated changes, and/or when you find yourself in the occasional "dead spot" where the metro is some distance away. But I have found, for example, that I can get from Hotel de Ville to the Bassin de la Villette within the "free" half-hour, which is quite a way. The Vélib' is also designed for people who know where they want to go and more or less how to get there (likewise, this tends to be appreciated, especially going round a major junction like République or Concorde: but, on the whole, drivers seemed pretty considerate).

Think of it as a self-powered taxi, though not one that can take luggage: the bikes are sturdy but basic (three speeds, brakes, adjustable seat post, permanent dynamo lights, a basket, a kickstand and that's about it).

Its downsides are:

  • The need to know where to find a station to drop the bike off: it's not ideal (though you see lots of people doing it) to be drifting round scanning the horizon for a station rather than concentrating on the road around you.
  • The one-way systems that can take you on a frustratingly roundabout route at times. The way around this is to get the pocket-size map and street directory, produced by L'Indispensable, that also shows you all the Vélib' stations and one-way systems - I got one for 6 euros.
  • Users also need to be aware that the computer network can be slow at times. I've seen people walk away when the ticket bearing the all-important reference number isn't printed within a reasonable time, only for it to appear once they've disappeared.
  • There seems to be odd disparities between the data entry screens on either side of the information posts: one side doesn't recognize your number, or that you've returned a bike, when the other side does.
  • Sometimes it seems reluctant to let go of a bike or to accept one when you return it (it seems to help if you make sure the front wheel is in exact alignment with the rest of the bike).
  • The clamp to hold the seat-post can be very stiff to open and close (or on one occasion, not firm enough).
  • Sometimes, I've found my hands stained either from the handgrip or from adjusting the seat-post, and only washing-up liquid or a good scrub could get it off.

A lot of effort must go into maintenance: several times I saw inspectors going round (on Vélib' bikes) with their clipboards, presumably noting any bikes that needed work (I was surprised at how few needed air in the tires - or are they solid?). I had a problem that made me return the bike on four occasions out of 46 (over two weeks). I think there's an etiquette whereby users drop the saddle as low as possible and turn it round if they think a bike needs attention. Some bikes you see with a tire partially taken off: my guess is that might be a sign from the checkers to the people who actually pick up the bikes and move them around.

All in all, though, it's brilliant - if you've got the right sort of credit card. My arithmetic is that my rides cost about a third or a quarter of the cost of the equivalent number of metro trips: and I know I've lost a bit of weight, too.

Resources

http://www.v1.paris.fr/EN/: Includes a 31 page press release from the city that includes everything you need to know.

You may call the Vélib' Call Centre regarding subscription questions and information:  01 30 79 79 30

http://www.velib.paris.fr/: The official website


Tracey has briefly lived and traveled in France. She enjoys writing and glad that this article has helped her brush up on her French!

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