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1. Vélib station 11014 at Place de la Nation
Favorite thing: When I returned to Paris in February 2011 I was pleased to find that the Vélib' bicycle transit system was in very good shape and still going strong after three and a half years of operation. I bought a weekly ticket and traveled around Paris exclusively by Vélib'. Didn't use the Métro once the whole time.
Like most Vélib' users I am in the habit of taking six or seven seconds to check the tires, chain, brakes and sometimes lights before I borrow one of the bikes. In 2008 I often had to reject a bike and try another, but in 2011 they were nearly all in good repair.
Back in 2008 there was a serious problem of vandalism on the Vélib' bikes, but in 2011 I saw hardly any evidence of vandalism. Occasionally there was a bike with a flat tire at one of the stations, but no bikes were smashed up, no chains ripped out, nothing.
Of course I don't know if vandalism is really on the decline or if the JCDecaux company has just gotten better at whisking damaged bikes out of sight before anyone notices. (Are there any statistics on this?)
Favorite thing: The city of Paris has officially announced its ambition to become a world-class bicycle metropolis like Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but it still has a long way to go.
One indication of this is that Paris has installed an automatic bicycle counter on Rue de Rivoli. One day they proudly announced that they had counted 1616 cyclists going by on a single day.
This is a large number considering that ten years ago hardly anyone cycled on that street, but it's nothing compared to Copenhagen, where the automatic bicycle counters routinely register such numbers by noon or so. On a rainy day in Copenhagen in 2009 I was the 1400th cyclist to pass one of these counters, and it was only eleven o'clock in the morning.
In June 2010 the Council of Paris voted unanimously to adopt the mayor's "Bicycle plan 2010-2014", which provides for more bicycle tracks, more bicycle parking (including guarded parking), two-way bicycle traffic on streets that are one-way for cars (a recent change in the French national traffic code makes this possible), right turns allowed on red at some crossings, more and more spaces for bicycles to wait in front of cars at traffic lights.
At the insistence of the Green party, the plan was amended to provide for the establishment of bicycle lanes in both directions on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées by 2014. Officials claim that these new bicycle lanes will be on the street, not on the sidewalks; the space for them will be taken from cars, not pedestrians.
1. Vélib' station 10001 at Place Johann Strauss
Favorite thing: In the summer of 2008 I took out a seven-day subscription (for a mere five Euros) to the fantastic Vélib' system of short-term spontaneous bicycle rentals and spent the week touring Paris on these sturdy and nearly-free machines.
I didn't keep track of exactly how often I checked out a bike, but looking back I would estimate that I took seven to twelve separate rides per day. Since the first half hour of each ride is free, i.e. included in the subscription price, I usually returned my bike to one of the 1,450 Vélib' stations before the half hour was up, and then immediately took another one (or the same one again) if I wanted to go further. Please have a look at my tip How Vélib' works for more details on the pricing system.
Update: When my credit card statement arrived the following month, it turned out that Vélib' had billed me for all of seven Euros, from which I conclude that only two of my many cycling trips lasted longer than half an hour. (A seven-day subscription costs five Euros, and if a trip lasts more than 30 minutes then one additional Euro is charged for the second half hour.) Only seven Euros for a week of cycling! That has to be one of the world's greatest bargains.
Update: As of 2013, a one-day Vélib' ticket costs 1.70 Euros (same as for one ride on the bus, tram or Métro), a seven-day Vélib’ ticket costs 8.00 Euros and a one-year subscription (= Vélib' Classic Card) costs 29.00 Euros. All of these include unlimited rides of up to thirty minutes each.
There is also such a thing as a “Vélib' Passion Card” for 39.00 Euros. This is a one-year subscription which includes unlimited rides of up to forty-five minutes each, intended primarily for people who live at the edges of Paris or in the suburbs.
My first photo shows Vélib' station 10001 aka 10-01 (first station in the tenth district or arrondissement) at Place Johann Strauss, a block from my hotel, where I often started out in the morning.
Additional photos: Here are just a few of the many thousands of Vélib' riders on the streets of Paris. According to city officials there are 120,000 trips on an average day, which works out to about 27.5 million trips during the first year of operation.
Favorite thing: OK, whether it's really a revolution remains to be seen, but it's an ambitious and very promising idea. The plan is to provide 20,600 bicycles for spontaneous short-term rentals at some 1,400 rental stations all over the city -- one every 300 meters or so. (300 meters is the standard distance between tram or bus stops, so that distance has been adopted for bicycles as well.)
When I was in Paris in June 2007 they were busy building the first 700 rental stations all over the city. The one in the first photo is on the Rue de Montreuil in the 11th arrondissement. This is a street which has not had much bicycle traffic up to now, but that will hopefully change as all these rental bikes come into use.
Update: As of 15:23 (that's 3:23 pm to you) on the afternoon of August 4, 2007, this station at 93 rue de Montreuil had two bikes available for rental, and 14 free places for people to return their bikes. You can check this in (nearly) real time on their website or on your cell phone if you have a fancy one that supports this sort of thing. -- -- Whoops, five minutes later only one bike is available, and 15 free docking places. So people really are using them.
The Velib' system went into effect on the afternoon of Sunday, July 15, 2007. Unfortunately I wasn't in Paris on that day, so I can't give a first-hand account (or even second-hand, since my son wasn't there either), but judging from reports in the French media they seem to have gotten off to a very good start.
The new bikes were used more than 50,000 times during the first 24 hours of operation (349,000 during the first week), and there were no accidents during that time, despite the dire warnings of diehard motorists who predicted there would be wholesale accidents as a result of inexperience cyclists being turned loose on the city streets.
Additional photos: Vélib' riders in September 2011.
1. Explaining how Vélib works
Favorite thing: Here at the annual bicycle fair at the beginning of June 2007 a Vélib' organizer is explaining how the system works.
Each rental station has an electronic vending machine with instructions in eight languages: French, English, Spanish, German, Italian, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese.*
Select your language, insert your credit card or European bank card (your card won't work if it doesn't have a chip, by the way, so that eliminates some American cards**) and decide if you want a one-day ticket for one Euro or a seven-day ticket for five Euros. You also agree that they can deduct up to 150 Euros from your account if you damage a bike or fail to return it.
If you live or work in Paris you can also get a yearly ticket, but not from the machine, for 29 Euros, which thousands of Parisians have already done.
Update: As of 2013, a one-day Vélib’ ticket costs 1.70 Euros (same as for one ride on the bus, tram or Métro), a seven-day Vélib’ ticket costs 8.00 Euros and a one-year subscription (= Vélib’ Classic Card) costs 29.00 Euros. All of these include unlimited rides of up to thirty minutes each.
There is also such a thing as a “Vélib’ Passion Card” for 39.00 Euros. This is a one-year subscription which includes unlimited rides of up to forty-five minutes each, intended primarily for people who live at the edges of Paris or in the suburbs.
With your ticket you can pick up a bike at any station, ride it to wherever you're going and leave it at any other station. The first half hour is "free", meaning included in the price of the ticket, but after that you get charged extra: one more euro for the second half hour, two for the third and four for each half hour thereafter. So if you want to ride around all day like I do you would have to change bikes every half hour -- or just rent a bike from Roue Libre in the traditional way.
Before using a Vélib' bicycle, please be sure you understand the pricing system. For a half-hour ride it's a great bargain, but if you were to get a one-day ticket and keep the same bike for six hours, it would cost you 40 Euros, which is more than it would cost to rent a bike for an entire week from Roue Libre.
Second photo: Vélib' sign at the bicycle fair.
*Update August 2008: So far only three of these languages have been implemented, as far as I can see, namely French, English and Spanish.
**There have been problems with chipless American cards, but I have just downloaded the General Terms and Conditions from the Velib' website, and it says in Article 5.2 (3) that they accept AMEX and JCB cards.
Update 2011: It is now possible to sign up online at http://www.velib.paris.fr/ for long- and short-term Vélib' subscriptions. This seems to have solved the credit card problem.
On her Barcelona page, VT member karenincalifornia has posted a tip on a similar system for spontaneous short-term bicycle rentals called Bicing (yes, that's how they spell it in Catalan), along with a link to Barcelona's Bicing website.
Unlike Paris, Barcelona does not offer a one-day or five-day ticket, just a one-year ticket for 24 Euros. This is because the Barcelona system is explicitly intended only for residents, and not for tourists. That's why the Bicing website is only in two languages: Catalan and Spanish.
Barcelona inaugurated the Bicing system on March 22, 2007 -- not quite four months before Velib' began operating in Paris. But the Paris system is on much larger scale. Whereas Barcelona is quite rightfully proud to have 100 rental stations in operation, Paris already has 750 stations and plans to have 1,451 running by the end of 2007.
Barcelona has 1,500 bikes available; Paris already has over ten thousand on the streets, and they plan to have 20,600 bicycles by the end of 2007.
Both Paris and Barcelona have already chalked up over a million bike rentals each -- but in Barcelona this took over four months, and in Paris it took just two and a half weeks.
Taking out a one-day subscription
Favorite thing: People who use the Velib' bikes more than five weeks a year are better off getting a yearly subscription for 29 Euros, which 198,913 people have done in the first year of operation. These are mostly people who live in Paris or the nearby suburbs, and they have the option of adding the Velib' function to their Navigo cards, so they can use the same card for renting bikes that they use for riding trains, buses or trams.
The rest of us can take out one- or seven-day subscriptions at the computer terminal which is found at most Velib' stations. You need a bank card or a credit card for this, preferably a European card with a chip in it. There have been problems with chipless American cards, but I have just downloaded the General Terms and Conditions from the Velib' website, and it says in Article 5.2 (3) that they accept AMEX and JCB cards.
It takes a few minutes to go through the procedure in which you agree, among other things, that they can take up to 150 Euros from your account if you fail to return a bike.
The young Portuguese ladies in this photo are taking out one-day subscriptions at Velib' station 10011 (or 10-11, the eleventh station in the tenth arrondissement) on rue du Château d'eau near Place de la République. I was happy to show them how to find the English-language menus and to answer the one question they had about the procedure. When it asked for a secret four-digit PIN number, they didn't realize that they were supposed to choose this number themselves, any four digits that they could easily remember.
According to the official statistics there were 277,193 seven-day subscribers and 3,683,714 one-day subscribers during the first year of Velib' operation, from July 2007 to July 2008.
Second photo: There are two sides to each computer terminal, and to subscribe to need to use this side that has a slit for your credit card and another slit where your Velib' ticket comes out when you have successfully completed the subscription procedure. Caution: it spits out your ticket very vigorously, so hold your hand by the slit to catch it, or look for your ticket on the ground nearby.
Third, fourth and fifth photos: People riding Vélib' bikes near Les Invalides.
Update 2012: It is now possible to sign up online at http://en.velib.paris.fr/ for long- and short-term Vélib' subscriptions. I have done this several times (for seven-day subscriptions) and it worked fine. Online registration is quick and easy, and it doesn't matter if your credit card has a chip or not.
Card reader on the docking stand
Favorite thing: For those fortunate people who live in Paris and have annual Vélib' subscriptions, checking out a bike is quick and easy. They don't even have to use the computer terminal, they just find a bike they want, swipe their card briefly on the card reader (where it says Posez votre carte d'abonné sur le lecteur), push the button and off they go.
For the rest of us, with one- or seven-day subscriptions, it's a bit more complicated (but still easier than the German Call-a-Bike system, for example).
When we have found a bike we want, we have to go to the computer terminal, press 1 to confirm that we have a short-term subscription, press 1 again to confirm that we want to borrow a bike, enter our seven-digit subscriber number and press V to validate, enter our secret four-digit PIN number that we have defined ourselves and again press V to validate, again press V to confirm that we are responsible for the bike we will be using, then enter the two-digit number of the bike we want and again press V to confirm. The computer checks to see that that bike really is available and then tells us to go get it.
I know that sounds complicated, but after you've done it a few times it goes really fast, so please don't be intimidated, okay?
Before taking a bike, always check first that the tires are pumped up, the chain is in place and the handbrakes work. Experienced Vélib' users often pick up the bike by the back of the seat and give the back wheel a spin to make sure it isn't bent out of shape. Again, this all goes very quickly after you've done it a few times.
Second photo: Here's a nice Vélib' user at station 16023 aka 16-23 (twenty-third station in the 16th arrondissement) at 1 rue de Passy, trying to locate her seven-digit subscriber number so she can type it into the computer terminal.
Third photo: To check out a bike you have to use this side of the terminal, the side with a map of the immediate vicinity. This map shows the location of other nearby Vélib' stations, so if no bikes are available here you will know where else you can try. The computer terminal can also tell you how many bikes are available at which other stations, which works fine as long as you remember to enter the station number in its four- or five-digit form without the hyphen, e.g. 16023 rather than 16-23 as it says on the terminal.
Fourth photo: Riding a Vélib’ bike near Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.
1. Getting & returning bikes
Favorite thing: To return your bike you first have to find a Vélib' station with a free docking stand that has a green light on it.
In this photo the young couple on the right has arrived at station 5009 (the ninth station in the 5th arrondissement) on rue du Fouarre, behind the church St. Julien-le-Pauvre, hoping to return their bikes there.
No docking stands are free (I have just taken the last one, actually), but the other couple on the left has just started entering their numbers to borrow two bikes, so two docking stands will be free in just a minute. (This often happens at busy stations with lots of coming and going.)
On the right side of the bike there is a metal tongue which you slide -- or ram! -- into the slit on the docking stand. If you've made contact the light will turn yellow, then green and there will be two beeps to confirm that your bike has been returned. But if you fail to get the tongue all the way in the light will blink yellow and there will be lots of rapid beeps as a warning, so you have to try again, using brute force if necessary.
If by any chance the light should turn red (which happened to me once), then the return of your bike has not been registered. In this case you MUST ring the Vélib' people and tell them what happened, otherwise your account will be blocked and you might even be charged for the missing bike. You can make voice contact through the built-in phone in the computer terminal (using the i for information function on the front side of the terminal), which in my experience works perfectly well unless you are at a busy intersection with very loud traffic noise, or you can phone them at 01 30 79 79 30.
Second photo: These ladies have just returned their bikes with no difficulties to Vélib' station 12010 on Avenue Daumesnil in the 12th arrondissement. (I took one of their bikes a minute later.)
If all the docking stands are full, type in your number at the terminal and choose the option "Return a bike". The terminal will show you where the nearest stations are and how many docking stands are currently available at each, and it will give you an extra fifteen minutes to get there. (I've done this several times and it worked fine.)
Vélib' Plus station 20113 in Belleville
Favorite thing: Most of Paris is reasonably flat, but there are some hilly places in the north (Montmartre) and northeast (Buttes Chaumont, Belleville) parts of the city.
This has proved to be something of a problem for Vélib', since more people ride downhill than up, so the stations at higher altitudes quickly lose all their bikes and don't get as many back.
One thing they do about this is to have electric trucks circulating to redistribute the bikes, but another thing is that all stations at an altitude of 60 meters or higher have been declared "Vélib' Plus" stations, and the software has been amended to award an extra free fifteen minutes ("indivisible") to anyone to returns a bike to one of these stations.
So I seem to have earned an extra fifteen minutes simply by riding up to the top of this hill in Belleville (not a very challenging hill, frankly) and docking it here at station 20113 on Rue Piat at the top end of Belleville Park.
Those extra fifteen minutes came in handy the next day when I went to Passy, where I had never been before so I had to keep stopping to look at the map.
Second photo: You can tell which stations are "Vélib' Plus" because they have a special logo with a white plus sign in a red circle, at the top of the computer terminal.
Third photo: Here's the same terminal from the other side, also with the "Plus" logo.
1. Riding her own bike on Rue Réamur
Favorite thing: At first the owners of bicycle shops were opposed to Velib' because they thought it would cut into their business, but now the opposite seems to be happening.
Velib' has made cycling such a chic and fashionable thing to do in Paris that more people are also buying bikes of their own, or getting their old ones repaired.
According to the website BIKE Europe the strongest growth segment in French bicycle sales in 2007 was city bikes with an increase of 39%, which they say was "maybe influenced by the huge popularity of the rental systems like Velib in Paris."
Second photo: Riding her own bike on Boulevard du Palais.
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