I was up in Paris for a few days last week to sort out some tax affairs with the United States IRS. I'd not been in Paris for four years but had been an assiduous cycle commuter in the city. My daily run was from the Latin Quarter out to Puteaux and la Defense, about 12km. Okay I sometimes did it on roller blades. I was therefore interested to test out the new Vélib' system.
Now citywide free service bike hire is not a new idea. Lyon in France has had a Vélib' system for at least a couple of years. But Paris' ineffectual mayor Bertrand Delanoë likes nothing better than jumping on a bandwagon that will get him a bit of media limelight. You may think I'm being harsh but I had to suffer under the first Delanoë term when Paris' cycle paths degraded under a sea of litter and illegally parked cars.
Vélibs can be hired around the city at 250 bike parks. I took my first bike from la Madeleine outside the Decathlon store and road over to Cherche Midi via the Concorde square and assembly national. You need to be subscribed in the system with a credit card, you can register from a day to a year. A day's registration costs 1 euro but there is a 150 euro deposit if your bike gets stolen.
After registering you get issued with a card with your subscriber number and are given a separate four digit PIN code which you will need to remember. Don't write it on the card because if this gets nicked someone can steal a bike and you will pay for it. Enter the subscriber number and PIN into the meter having first selected the bike number you want to rent. Bikes with red lights cannot be rented, I think they must be awaiting service or something. You can then press a button on the locking post to release the bike. The bikes are generally road worthy but the three speed gears may not work 100% properly, seat post height will need to be adjusted and bells all seem to be Fubar'd. On one bike the seat post quick release was broken so I suggest a visual check of the bike you want to rent. You can always change it at no cost.
The bikes ride well but are very heavy. Around 18kg. I guess this is a compromise as they have to be durable. There has been a problem with people renting them at high parts of Paris - like Montmartyr - then riding them down hill so that all the bikes end up around the Seine. A fleet of lorries cruises around the city moving bikes around the various parks. In my experience you can normally find a spot at your destination to park a bike, otherwise you will need to check out the next park shown on the meter.
Here is the great thing. If you ride for less than 30 minutes, for example Madeleine to Cherche Midi is 12 minutes. Cherche Midi to la Bastille 15 minutes etc. You will not pay another penny. Paris is small and if you avoid the uphill parts like going to the 16th district or Montmartyr, reasonably flat so you can easily get around without paying a penny provided you always return the bike directly to a park. Once the bike is locked you can go to the meter and print out a receipt. It seems to automagically recognize that the bike has been returned.
Parisian friends were raving about the system saying how it had caused a “sea change” in the mentality of Parisians and that Delanoë should be canonized. Well these guys didn't cycle before so have no real terms of reference and I think this is a bit overblown for the moment. However the system was in widespread use but motor vehicles still outnumber bikes at least 20:1 and no quarter is given. I had a couple of close shaves and the Vélib' can't easily sprint out of danger. I wondered what effect Velib had had on existing bike usage. If anything this seems to have gone up, the Velibs giving Parisians a taste for cycling.
The system is run by private firm JC Decaux so one would hope that the bikes and parks will be well maintained. The financing of the scheme is a bit grey - a recent Capital programme on M6 covered the smoked filled rooms where the deals were done. JC Decaux is one of the young Turks of French state capitalism. After the first year the firm revealed that there had been 27.5 million trips with 200,000 annual subscribers and 4 million occasional users. The system is being rolled out into the suburbs.