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It’s been over a year since this Cheapo has been in Paris, and since I arrived on Thursday with my fellow Cheapo (and wife), Meredith, I’ve been surprised by two very noticeable changes: 1. Smokeless cafes and restaurants 2. Nifty bike rentals appearing on many, many street corners.
I’ll save commentary about smokeless cafes for a later post. Coming from a relatively recently smoke-free New York City, it’s more or less a similar effect, although seeing the bustling cafes of Saint-Germain des Pres without piles of Gauloises Blondes stacked on tables seems a little, well, weird. That said, customers are allowed – perhaps even encouraged – to smoke at outdoor tables, so maybe the change isn’t really that big of a deal.
As for Paris’ “Velib” bike rental program, though, there is no question it’s a city-wide success. Initially I thought the program would be more of a tourist draw and envisioned mobs of backpackers with Let’s Go guides doing wheelies down the Champs-Elysees, but such is not the case (especially because the bikes weigh about 50 pounds, making wheelies quite a feat to perform.) We’ve seen Parisians riding solo, groups of teenagers, businessmen heading to work, packs of friends coasting at low speeds, as well as many out of towners enjoying a ride. The late night post-bar bike scene has been particularly entertaining to observe, although I think some thought should be given to providing discounted helmets as well.
The Velib program is financed by the French advertising company JC Decaux and is managed by little ATM-ish kiosks next to each bike rental station, where passes can be purchased for a day, a week, a month or a year. Bikes can be found in clusters of 20 – 40 on many corners across Paris – they’re everywhere, especially in central Paris. The bikes are locked to a small pedastal that unlocks once a customer swipes a bike card and off they go! Bikes can be returned to the same rental stations or any of the others throughout the city, and the first 30 minutes are free.
As for the bikes themselves, they look like a Parisian version of Pee-Wee Herman’s bike: gray, somewhat bulky, super fat “I could ride over a thousand nails and not care” tires, basket and a little bell. In other words: perfect.
Now if only they could make a tandem rental with a luggage trolley to get us to the airport tomorrow morning….