Velib’–Paris by bicycle

July 1, 2010 at 3:22 PM | Posted in Paris 2010 | 2 Comments

I finally landed the correct combination of European credit card and courage that were necessary to join Velib’, Paris’ revolutionary bike-sharing system. Velib started shortly before I arrived my first summer, and it has intrigued me ever since. Basically, the way it works is that there are big banks of bikes set up all over the city–apparently at least every 300 meters. You need a special credit card that has a computer chip in it, and at one of the kiosks you either buy a 1 euro day pass, a 5 euro week pass, or a 30 euro year pass (I did a week pass) that gets loaded onto your Metro tap-card. That gives you access to unlimited bike riding for the week. The first half-hour of every ride is free, and after that it’s 1 euro for the first extra half-hour, 2 euros for the second half-hour, etc.  You find an available bike, tap your metro card on the little box that locks it to the stand, and then it releases out of its dock. And you can drop off and pick up a bike at a different spot, so as long as there’s an empty “parking spot” at a kiosk, you can drop off your bike.

In many ways, Paris is set up for biking–there are wide bike lanes on most streets, and drivers are very aware of bikers (because there are so many of them). But some of the streets are small and curving, many of them are one way going in the wrong direction, and it’s very easy to get distracted by something beautiful or interesting and sort of forget where you’re going. And it’s also easy to get turned around and end up going in the completely wrong direction. And the drivers, while aware, are not exactly known for being courteous. So I was kind of scared to Velib’. I believed in the system, but wasn’t sure that I would like the reality as much as I liked the idea. Also I was terrified of being flattened by a car. Also I was afraid I would get lost. Or that I wouldn’t be able to find a bike bay and would be riding around for hours, the euros adding up exponentially.

There were a lot of excuses for why I didn’t want to do it. But for some reason, it felt really important to me to face my fear and get on the damn bike.

So on Tuesday, an hour and a half before my first French class on the opposite side of Paris, I stuck my bag in the basket on the front of a bike at a dock near my house, checked to make sure that the tires were inflated and the chain was attached and the seat would tighten and the lights were working (it’s estimated that if crews didn’t ride around and repair the bikes, the entire fleet would be un-rideable in a week’s time). All was fine. So I took a deep breath, tapped my metro card, took the bike out of the dock, and set off.

I turned down every wrong street imaginable. I chickened out and walked my bike through a few insane intersections and traffic circles. I stopped a few times to check my map book and found that i was riding in the exact wrong direction.  But I made it to my French class in one piece. And, more importantly, I had a total blast. I rode home that night. And have ridden four or five times since. I’m totally hooked. It’s amazing how fast you can move and how well you learn the ways that the streets connect. And today, riding home, with a baguette in the basket on the front of the bike, I felt like “une vrai parisienne.”



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  1. I wish we had a picture of your riding around with your baguette. A few questions: Do all the bikes adjust to different heights? Did you have a problem as a shorty? Do they come with helmets?

  2. Well, luckily the shortest setting is just about right for me (you can move the seat up and down, but the handlebars are upright like a beach cruiser). And although some cyclists in Paris do wear helmets, it is an unwritten rule that Velib’ users do not. This was one of my major initial reservations about velib’ing.

    Last night I rode home from a party at 2am with a new friend who is my neighbor. The streets are very different late at night–riding home was incredibly peaceful. It was so much better than the infamous Paris night-bus!

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