FREEWHEELING PARIS No.2 – Vive le Velib!

Lycra is not required for cycling the Tour de Paris. Neither is a helmet!!!!

No street scene in Paris is complete without them now. The chunky brown bikes, shopping baskets on the front, are everywhere. It’s a reminder of the days when archetypal Frenchmen wore berets, carried strings of onions and rode bicycles.

We’d never worked out how to use them, but when we saw that everybody else was getting round on Velibs, we had to try them too. It was pas difficile, monsieur!

There are racks of Velib (‘velo  liberte’) bikes at 300 metre intervals all over the central part of Paris. According to the website there are 20,000 Velibs and 1,800 bike stations.

If you have internet access in your pocket, the website will even tell you how many bikes are available at any given station at any given moment – the answer is always ‘beaucoup’.

By each rack is a ticket machine, with instructions in English as well as French.

Pick your vehicle. My first choice of steed had a loose chain, but there were plenty of others.

You need a credit card to gain  access.

The machine didn’t like my Visa card but cheerfully accepted my Aussie MasterCard/Maestro, taking a EUR150 deposit in case we liked our bikes enough to keep them. We were also charged EUR1.70 for a day’s use. A week’s use would have been EUR8 – excellent value in our opinion.

If there’s not a separated cycle path there is often at least a cycle lane. Though note the Smart car double parked on this one. That’s not so smart. It could get scratched. Accidentally of course.

We entered the code on our tickets, and clicked out our bikes. They are very easy and comfortable to ride, even on the Parisian cobbles, with upright sitting position, step through frames and three gears. We never needed the lowest one. Much of Paris is flat.

Velib bikes are heavy, built for comfort not for speed, and not for carrying up and down stairs either.

The city is well served with cycle paths, often separated from cars, notably along the Seine, Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard Saint Germain. All the nice spots, in other words.

We set off. If we reached another bike station and clicked our bikes back in within a half hour, there would be no further charge. We could pause two minutes, re-enter our codes, then click the same bikes out again.

If we preferred not to do this (and it is a bit of a bore), we be charged EUR1 for the following half hour.

If you’re reading this, Velib organising people, an hour between click-ins would have given us tourists a little more freedom, since we were unfamiliar with the locations of the bike stations.  There were always more bikes in any given rack than there were empty spaces, so overuse is not yet a problem. Anything to keep encouraging visitors to Velib would be a plus. 

The riding was easy. There are enough cyclists in Paris now for motorists to know they have to look out for them. In the centre of town at least, traffic generally moved slowly.

Cyclists are also allowed to use most bus lanes, though we once found ourselves in a spot of bother, trapped in a bus lane with taxis whizzing past before we noticed the ‘no cycling’ sign.

This was a minor and short-lived difficulty. It was most encouraging to see the bikes being used by short distance commuters as well as by many tourists like us. At the end of the working day we watched a steady stream of them passing as Parisians headed for home or the train stations.

The Eiffel Tower, the Seine and the Velibs. How much more Parisian can you get?

Bike helmets are not compulsory in France. Though some Velib riders were wearing them, most were not.

I’m sure there are sometimes accidents, and it’s quite likely that some cause serious head or facial injuries which a helmet may have helped prevent.

BUT…the lack of mandatory helmet laws encourages short term, low speed riding on these Velib bikes, and the benefits to public health, traffic congestion, air pollution and people having fun far outweigh the risks.

The cycle path by the Seine. Something could go wrong, but it probably won’t.

Oops! An injured Velib by the Champs-Elysees. Not ours, fortunately, and just a flat tyre.

The Metro is cheap and efficient too, but the Velib is more fun.

Rolling down the Boulevard Saint Germain for free, laughing all the way to the Left Bank?


Filed under Cycling, France

14 responses to “FREEWHEELING PARIS No.2 – Vive le Velib!

  1. I think they’re fabulous, and am so glad you gave us a ‘how to’, Richard! Do you think it’s helped city congestion?

    • In Paris the choice is between Velib and Metro/bus, rather than between Velib and car, so probably it does little to ease congestion. But it’s far more fun, and more relaxing, than driving in Paris traffic.

      • It would have to be. I only drove once, in Paris, and swore I’d never do it again (though I did negotiate the Etoile, twice, just to prove to myself that the first time wasn’t a fluke – which experience gave me the confidence to tackle places like Istanbul, and here in Colombo, of course!). I love the idea of everyone being out on bikes again – especially the men in suits …

  2. Ooh, Istanbul and Colombo – very impressive! I think I’d rate navigating through Milano with an inadequate map as my most stressful driving experience. Could be an idea for a blog post – world’s worst traffic for tourists.

  3. With petrol prices soaring and parking places outside a shop much harder to find more and more cities have these bike hire schemes.

    Great article and well illustrated.

    • Thanks Michel. Many cities are introducing city bike share schemes, though it isn’t always easy to get people to use them. Those of us who say we like the idea should put our backsides where our mouths are!

  4. Michelle

    Great read, Richard – I look forward to trying out Velib when I’m next in Paris (they’ve sprung up since my previous visit).

    Although the Melbourne bikeshare scheme is not (yet) as ubiquitous or well-patronised, there’s a great free app (Spotcycle) which will tell you how many bikes and free racks there are at any given bike station, shows on a map how close your nearest one is or will give you a list of all the bike stations in alphabetical order if you prefer. This particular app also covers about half a dozen other cities with bike share (such as, from memory, Portland – you select which city you’re in at any given point).

    Given the size of the Parisian network it sounds as though the mapping would be considerably more complex, but something like this could be really useful!

    • Thanks for all this, Michelle. There probably is an app for the Paris Velibs, though there are so many bikes and bike stations that availability of bikes is not a problem.

      But anything which encourages their use is much (app)reciated!

  5. Graham Heath

    I’m 3 weeks into 12 of rehab with a broken leg due to these death traps. The bikes are poorly maintained and unstable. Beware the bus lanes they use raised cobbles which I clipped my front wheel on and consequently now have a broken Tibia.
    Whatever you do get decent travel insurance and take a helmet if you must ride them.

    • Ooh, very sorry to hear about that accident, Graham, and I’m not surprised that it turns you off the idea of riding in Paris, to put it mildly.

      But I have to say we didn’t find the Velibs poorly maintained. As bikes go they were solid and easy to ride, with thick enough tyres to deal with some roughness on the road surface. A quick check for faults before you click one out would be advisable, and if you’re not happy with your bike’s condition, swap it for a better one.

      And of course it’s wise to take great care when cycling on roads anywhere, particularly in an unfamiliar city with unknown traffic conditions. That’s not to suggest you were not being careful of course.

      Yes, definitely the travel insurance is an essential investment. We have annual insurance at reasonable cost. Fortunately we’ve seldom had to claim on it.

      Thanks for the warnings though, and I wish you a speedy recovery.

      • Graham Heath

        Thank you for your reply Richard and your best wishes. I do however feel inclined to disagree with you on a couple of points.
        My colleagues and I used the bikes every day to commute as we were working at the Roland Garros Stadium for the Tennis. Many of us are experienced cyclists, myself included, so we knew what to look for. Sadly you can’t check brakes, gears, lights, or bottom brackets when in it’s in a docking station.
        Seat posts are unreliable and badly worn too. The only thing you can check reliably is the tyres. They also have a poor centre of gravity.
        They are in principle a great idea just not great machines.
        I got off lightly with a broken leg,it could’ve been a lot worse

  6. Thanks Graham. I can only say ‘get well soon’, and hope you’re able to get back to Roland Garros next year – sounds like a job not to be missed.

  7. Pingback: How to be a sustainable tourist in Paris? – u2guide

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