Velib. Even the name sounds so cool and so foreign. And this is a foreign concept for many of us to consider, a real efficient functioning public bike rental system, reasonably priced but complicated to understand.
I had been looking at them for years now and I have often wondered, are they suitable for visitors too? As an avid cyclist and lover of all things Paris, I was determined to learn how this system works, determination that I would need to actually use it and to try to explain this system to others.
Some history first. The city of Paris started the Velib program in 2007 and it has been growing since. There are now over 20,000 Velib bikes and 1800 stations located every 300 meters throughout the city although I find this hard to believe.
The Velib system is designed for short-term bicycle rentals. Included in your subscription is the first 1/2 hour of use. A subscription for 1 day is 1.70 and and 7 days are 8 euros. You can sign up for an annual subscription alternative at 29 euros. After that the next ½ hour is 1 euro, the second ½ hour 2 euros and the third 1/2 hour is 4 euros. The idea is to do short rides not to rent one for they day although even that amount is comparable than a traditional rental.
These bikes are serious cruisers. They are heavy. They have three speeds.
And there are font and rear brakes, a bell and a basket.
There is a lock but I never had the opportunity to use it.
Here is a key. Check your bike out before you take off. First, and this is important, if you see a seat that is turned around backwards the bike is broken. If turned around a 1/4 way it has a minor problem. Take your time, make sure the tires aren’t flat and that seat stays up (they are adjustable). These bikes take a beating and many are not in good shape.
Before getting further, some general thoughts about cycling in Paris to consider. Paris is a very crowded urban environment full of aggressive drivers of trucks, cars, taxis, busses, scooters etc. many of whom don’t care for these bikes. I don’t recommend riding in Paris to people that aren’t comfortable cycling in urban settings. I don’t recommend it during bad weather and I suggest strongly that you use the system on Sundays and to a lesser extent Saturdays when some roads are closed and traffic is lighter. If you are visit in August, then hey, bonanza! Use it during the week. If not, cycling in Paris is very challenging especially in the more crowded areas you are likely to visit like Concorde. Pay particular attention to intersections as many have multiple entry points from unexpected directions.
That being said the city has gone out its way to try to make it more cycling friendly. There are well-marked bike lanes.
But you share them with taxis and busses. Think about that before you relax.
There are lots of streets that are one way except for bicycles, so you bike facing traffic. Look for these signs:
But on to the story at hand. The time had come and I was ready to ride that Sunday morning. So I hit the web to get started. Renting the bike seemed ridiculously easy at first. A well designed multilingual website, http://en.velib.paris.fr/. A simple registration process. After registering it stated that I would received a prompt email with my subscription number. That is where the good vibes stopped.
No email came. but wait, there was customer service number, and an english option. So I called. I was first in line great. So I waited. First in line right? After 10 minutes of jarring jazz/funk, a friendly woman came on the line. She said it sometimes takes up to 10 minutes to the email and to check my spam filter. The email never came. Checked the spam and bulk mail filers. So I learned lesson number 1. Do not bother with their website if possible, go right to the closest Velib station armed with your credit card and a lot of patience.
A note here. There are varying opinions on whether you can use a US credit card without a chip. I used one that had one (available through Chase). I looked on the Velib site, they say Visa accepted. Any direct experiences out there with a US credit card without a chip? Please comment and I will update the blog. There is also a smart phone option, but we did not try it.
The first attempt to rent a Velib bike is a challenge. Nothing in the process that you can’t overcome, but based on my experience, allow yourself a good 10 minutes to work through the complex screen that will confront and often confuse you even in English. But once you do, you will find yourself free to enjoy the city in a way you never have before.
When you arrive at the station go to the large post with the a screen.
Before going any further acquaint yourself with two other panels that will be important to this process. The keyboard:
And finally, a small read out where you get credit card approval located just above the keyboard.
The screen is hard to read in bright sun. Tap number 3 (remember on the key board not the screen this is not an Ipad). There will be an option for the English language option and several others or stay in French like we did.
I wish I could report that what happens next is easy and logical. It isn’t.
The opening screen allows for two options:
Use option 1 after you are registered. Number 2 is for getting started. Push number 2 on the keypad to begin the registration process. The process is straightforward to an extent. You use a credit card, my American Visa did work and you create a pin. You will be charged a deposit.
This is also important. Each and every time you take a step in this system you have to push the V to validate or valider or C to correct. This is a pain but you cant’ get around it.
Eventually you reach a screen of terms and conditions. You have to accept them to by pushing the 5 on the keyboard and you guessed it, then hit the V.
If you have done this ride the machine will issue you a paper card with a code. This code and your pin will allow you access bikes. You do so by returning to the same screen. You push 1 (and V, just assume that ). Then enter your code. A message will come up showing you which bikes are at the station by number. The numbers are on each post.
The lesson here is to choose your bike before you start the process. After you choose the bike there will be a beeping sound. Do not forget to push down the large silver button at the bottom of the post. It releases the bike. Now pull it out. You are done!
Ride around and be careful. Soon you look like a local. Sort of.
Eventually your time runs out. Maybe you let another 1/2 hour go by, but this is starting to get expensive. What to do? One of my major criticisms of the system is that there are no maps of the stations, at least none that I could find. If you do find a station and it is full you can enter your id and pin and the system will give you 15 minutes more free time. It does not tell you where the next station is.
If you have a data plan use their app: http://itunes.apple.com/fr/app/velib/id373342683?mt=8
It works well, telling you where the nearest station is and how many bikes are there.
If not look for stations near major sites, they are usually close but not at all of the tourist attractions.
Returning your bike. So you have found an empty post at a station like this one:
The post will be lit red as you make your return. Don’t leave the bike until the light turns green again. If it doesn’t pull the bike out and try again. The angle is often tricky. Once the light turns green you can go.
Getting a bike again. This time you tap 1. Enter your card number and pin. You then see a screen to get a bike and the process begins again. If something isn’t working it is likely you forget to tap V.
So how was it? Our ride that day was great. We toured the left bank basically following Blvd Ste Germaine, crossing over at Pont Sully to Bastille and then via Rue St Antoine to Rue De Rivoli. We returned to the left bank by crossing over through the Isle St Louis bypassing all of the crowds at Notre Dame. We used the Quai D’Orsay for the majority of the ride back enjoying the broad easy thoroughfare. That evening after dinner, we returned and took a slow ride around the quieter parts of the 15th. Cycling through those empty street we saw Paris with new eyes and new freedom. All this for 1 euro 70 (we timed our rides well). That comes to about $2.10. I can’t imagine any other way to have so much fun for that price. We sure did although I can’t recommend taking a call on your cell like our friend Paule did.
Up next? Maybe the new pubic electric automobile rental system, autolib.
Velib Stations close to the Yellow Flat:
Dupleix. 1 block away. On exiting the flat turn right and take your next right. You can’t miss them, just on your right.
Champ De Mars. 2 blocks away. Walk down La Motte Piquet, located just past Blvd. Suffren on your left.
Suffren. Reaching Suffren and La Motte Piquet, turn right on Suffren. 1 1/2 blocks away.
There is also a station next to the metro stop at La Motte Piquet Grenelle. 4 options less than 5 minutes away.
You can learn more about Velib at their blog: http://blog.velib.paris.fr/en/