Bike + Freedom in Paris

Velib bikes with a view

If you’re in Paris—and this past week I was—you can hardly walk three blocks in any direction without wandering past a Velib station: velo + liberte = “bike freedom.” There are 1,800 stations, placed approximately every 300 meters in the city. Each consists of electronically locked bikes (all identical) and what looks like an automated parking machine. With a membership (for a year, €30) or short term subscription (available for 1 or 7 days), you can unlock a bike in any location and return it to any other.

Since I’m, you know, semi-Dutch now, I thought it would be wrong of me not to try this. With my 24-hour pass (€1,70! the same cost as one ride on the Metro), I could use as many bikes as I wanted, wherever I wanted. The only catch is that the first 30 minutes of each ride are “free” (included)— after you go over 30 minutes, you begin to accrue small charges until you return that specific bike. If you return that bike and check out another, the cycle starts over—so it’s not too hard to ride completely on that €1,70 initial fee.

I picked up my first ride on the street where I had rented a flat, way up in the 19th arrondissement near Parc de la Villette. The bikes are all the same size, but the seats are adjustable (more on that later). They have three gears and handbrakes—two immediate differences from my Dutch bicycle. I like pedal brakes, and I don’t understand gears. If you have a long-term pass, you can just swipe and go; with my short-term pass I had to key in a code at the machine every time.

I took a quick spin on the sidewalk on my new bike and my first thought was that it felt way, way different from my own bike. If you were watching me at this point, you would think: That woman has never ridden a bike in her life. I was swerving and stopped to rebalance my purse in the handy basket, and then I just got on the road. There was a dedicated bike lane (separated by a curb, even) and I had the first few steps of my directions committed to memory: Take Avenue Jaures until Jaures Metro. Then turn left and get on the right side of the canal. I was cruising along, but my bike felt weird. I felt like I was spinning and spinning fast and effortlessly and getting nowhere. People kept passing me and I felt stupid. I tried every gear, no change. In fact, the problem began to worsen: soon I was pedaling with no noticeable result. This worried me, but I assumed it was my fault somehow.

As I considered this, I crossed an intersection and the bike lane vanished. I could not figure out where to go, and all sorts of motor vehicles were whizzing by me. I pulled over to look around, and another biker passed me—so I followed her. And I learned that the bike lane, in some places, merges with the bus lane. Sure enough, there was the little green bike man, with the bus logo. You have got to be kidding me, I thought. The bus lane? Then I remembered the stereotypes about Parisian drivers and thought that maybe the bus lane was safer. I tried to keep pace with the other biker to do whatever she did, but my pedaling handicap prevented this. So I followed a bus, and eventually a bike-only lane appeared again.

I'm following that guy. And we're in the bus lane.

There were two places I used my Nerves of Steel: No sudden movements on the bike. No looking around too much. Just hug the curb and keep plugging along. The bus lane was one of those places, and the other was near Notre Dame— no dedicated bike lane and traffic was insane. A couple American tourists pointed to me… “Oh, those French women!”… Right.

Along the Quai de Valmy I passed another Velib station and decided to swap my bike, just to see if the pedaling problem really was my fault. I checked one bike in, and another bike out. (Also dodging the 30 minute mark.) Lo and behold, the second bike responded to my pedaling. Feeling relieved, I carried on until I got to Place Republique. From here on, I had to get off the bike and look at my map a lot. My scribbled directions weren’t cutting it, traffic was busier, and there were pedestrians everywhere. I knew I had to get onto the island with Notre Dame, and then cross off it on the other side. Around this time, my seat started wiggling. Loose seat, I thought. Awkward, but whatever.

And then while I was riding in traffic, the seat suddenly plummeted down to its lowest height. In addition to feeling like I had dodged death, I now looked ridiculous, because I was sitting so low my knees were coming up to my face every time I pedaled. I pulled over and tried to move the seat back up, but it was stuck. I gave up and rode onward. From this point onward I was a little wary of the condition of the bikes. I used 4 total in my 24 hours, and three seemed to be in need of maintenance. (The 4th was great, though!)

An hour after I checked out my first bike, I turned onto Boulevard Saint Germaine and saw a Velib station. Equal parts proud and relieved, I checked that sucker back in. According to Google maps, this route was about 7.5 km, and I could have “walked” it in an hour and a half. And I don’t care. Because after I checked my bike back in, I felt like this.

I rode the Metro home that night, but I was determined to take at least one more ride the following morning. (To get my €1,70’s worth, of course.) I pedaled a short distance within the 19th arrondissement to la Boulangerie Veronique Mauclerc—recommended by my host and so, so tasty; the little cakes were art—and then part of the way back from a cafe later on. If my familiarity with the city grew stronger (so there was less of the bike three blocks/ consult map/ bike three blocks/ consult map), and if I became more skilled at sizing up a bike before I unlocked it, this would be an extremely affordable and fun way to get around Paris.

Ease of access for a tourist: incredibly simple. You can sign up online, in English (or Spanish or French), with a credit card, no need to print anything if you’re not hooked up to a printer. Just write down the ID number they give you (and remember your pin). There are good instructions on the website; the only thing I would clarify is that when you go to the machine, that ID number is what it wants first (to me it wasn’t clear that that was what it was asking for).

Know your comfort zone. Even though Delft and den Haag are not Paris, I am relatively comfortable riding alongside cars, buses, and trucks. I remember my first couple weeks in Delft, though, when any time a van passed me I would shoot over onto the sidewalk. Downtown Paris is probably not the place to try urban biking for the first time, but if you start small—a shorter journey, on smaller streets, with a few spins around a park first if you don’t bicycle often—you might find this fun. Remember, you’re renting just a bike—no helmet, no reflective gear, etc.

The website also promises (in a prominent way) customer service in English. My experience was that this was not the case. I had a question while writing this post and called the number and could not get help in English. I gave up and hung up after a few minutes on hold, because the call was costing me international rates.

Does your city have a bike-share program? What’s it like?

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5 Comments

Filed under European Travel

5 responses to “Bike + Freedom in Paris

  1. Nancy and Dan O'Neil

    We enjoyed your “biking in Paris” article immensely. Your personal challenge brought its safety concerns, warmth and humor in a most enjoyable manner. Thank you for sharing your experience. (While we were in Montreal, Quebec last summer, we noticed they had a similar rental bike system). Thank you for sharing the adventure with us. It made us feel like we were right there with you.

  2. Judith Genaway

    What an experience….and you’ll know Paris better because you
    biked it!

  3. Jo Ann

    Wow! You are Superman, or whatever they call the Man of Steel in France. The only thing that might get me on a bike in Paris: if the bike automatically whisked me away to the boulangerie. Otherwise, I think I’d stick to riding out in the countryside, where there are no bus lanes…or buses.

  4. angela

    Hey Meghan! Boston has a bike-share program now!!!! 🙂 http://www.thehubway.com/ It’s great!!!

    • unquiettime

      I just saw some pictures of this– it looks great! I was always intimidated to bike on the road with Boston drivers, but maybe over time I would have become more comfortable.

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