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Paris Vélib’ Update: How’s the bike share program working out?

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A Vélib’ station in Paris, France
At a Vélib’ station in Paris. Photo by besopha.

(Updated June 2011 to reflect new Velib’ policies.)

We’ve been fans of Paris’ Vélib’ bike program since it debuted in July 2007. But how’s it faring three years later?

In many respects it’s been a big hit with both locals and tourists (at least those lucky enough to have the right type of credit card). Read on to get our Cheapo assessment of the city’s bike share program.

Getting a bike

Velib' station Paris

A Vélib' station. Photo: Tom Meyers

The Vélib’ system, which until 2011 required a credit card with a puce (a special microchip), was mostly unattainable to Americans since it launched in 2007.

However, that changed in spring 2011 when the program opened, at least online, to a wide-range of cards (including MasterCard, Visa and American Express). Tourists can now register for a one or seven-day subscription on their Web site with these credit or debit cards. You will then be given a code to tap into the kiosk at any of the city’s 1,200 Vélib’ bike stations.

Note that a €150 “hold” will be placed on your card when you subscribe. This will be in place until your subscription expires. Read more on the Vélib’ Web site.

After purchasing a daily or weekly pass (one-day subscription costs €1.70 and a seven-day subscription costs €8), riders take a bike from any stand and can ride for 30 minutes before parking at another station. Additional time is billable in half-hour increments.

Improvements to the Vélib’ program

Thanks to an initiative by the mayor’s office passed in June 2010, improvements in bicycle parking, traffic signals and paths are on their way. The biggest change, however, has been the legalization of bikes riding on a one-way street.

One-way streets that had permitted only one-way bike traffic are now also painted with bicycle paths going against automobile traffic, opening up the city’s meandering and confusing network of streets and alleys. According to Le Monde, about 90 percent of streets are now accessible in both directions for cyclists. (Granted, my heart flutters a bit when a truck comes barreling down what its driver feels is a one-way street. But at least the police won’t stop and fine me for breaking the law while riding my Vélib’.)

The downsides of using Vélib’

While the streets are opening up to bikers, the Vélib’ system still has its faults, starting with finding a bike. Popular stations often lack sufficient functional cycles.

A seat turned backwards is a sign from a friendly rider that a bike is faulty. Always check the tires, breaks, gears and handle bars before riding. In addition to being an inconvenience, a bike with wobbly handle bars and poor breaks is a hazard. Fortunately on the road, cars are surprisingly respectful of cyclists (even though Parisians are known for their erratic driving).

Finding a parking spot can also be difficult. All too often, major stations in popular neighborhoods are full, forcing riders to wait for a spot to open up. Fortunately, you can obtain a 15-minute extension from the terminal in order to find another station. The map on the terminal’s screen will locate the closest free spot.

The bottom line

For Parisians, having their own bike is preferable to relying on the Vélib’ system. After two years, fed up with daily Vélib’ hassles, I purchased a used bike. Still, I kept my subscription to the Vélib’ because many occasions call for a one-way bike ride. (For example, you get to a bar and then enjoy a few too many glasses of Bordeaux.)

With nearly 20,000 bikes and inspiring programs from London to Mexico City, Vélib’ remains the world’s most successful biking system. While not perfect, it still may be one of the most magical experiences available in Paris for just a few euros.

Bonus: This fun little video gives you a feel for the Vélib’ experience.

About the author

Bryan Pirolli

About the author: With his college diploma fresh off the press, Bryan Pirolli headed for Paris and four years later he’s still there. A journalist and a tour guide, his main M.O. is pursuing a doctorate degree in communications at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. Bryan regularly travels on a budget, experiencing the best of European culture while still trying to make rent.  So far, so good. You can follow his adventures on his blog: www.bryanpirolli.com.

Leave a comment

5 Responses to “Paris Vélib’ Update: How’s the bike share program working out?”

russ says:

I would definately use one of these if it came to the UK – although i could see them being more sucessful if you didn’t need a credit card to use them?

Are these only active in Paris? Don’t Amsterdam & Brussels have a similar system in their cities?

John says:

Many cities are introducing bike sharing programs. I have seen the Brussels, Villo!, Luxembourg’s Vel’oh and Amiens’ Velam. Wikipedia has a list of schemes but doesn’t include the one at Amiens, so there may be even more. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_sharing_system

Bryan Pirolli Bryan says:

Actually Russ they HAVE hit London (http://articles.cnn.com/2010-07-30/world/london.bike.share.launch_1_bikes-scheme-buses-and-black-taxis?_s=PM:WORLD) and there are even talks of a similar system hitting up New York soon (can you imagine???).

France has bike shares in many cities, but most of them are run by the same company JCDecaux. The bikes usually look similar but, as you correctly point out John, they have different names.

Hello all,
Hi Bryan

It is funny to see you’ve found my video and thought it was good enough to be featured in your article about Velib ;-)

I agree with you about the fact Velib is one of the most magical experiences available in Paris for just a few euros. Fortunately, I haven’t met that many hassles and I don’t have my own bike, as I prefer much more to rely on Velib, although some disadvantages.

Here is a tip for those who want to keep the experience as cheap as possible : renting is free (except subscription price) for the first 30 minutes. So if you plan to ride your bike for an hour, you’d better return it within 30 minutes, wait, and then take the same again.

William says:

The Velib system is quite literally being submerged under a tidal wave of repairs due to vandalism, coupled with heavy theft losses. JCDecanaux is repairing 1,500 bicycles per week, which amounts to 100% of the inventory every 2 weeks. In three years, 80% of all Velib bikes have been vandalised or stolen. How long the corporate sponsor is willing to keep up 11 repair centres and continually replace stolen bikes in exchange for billboard space is anyone’s guess, but once they decide to end the contract, these substantial costs will most likely be taken over by the French taxpayer (and become a matter of public record). Once we can all see the true costs of this venture, most practical people will conclude they’d be a lot better off with a $50 secondhand bike.

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