No street scene in Paris is complete without them now. The chunky brown bikes, shopping baskets on the front, are everywhere. It’s a reminder of the days when archetypal Frenchmen wore berets, carried strings of onions and rode bicycles.
We’d never worked out how to use them, but when we saw that everybody else was getting round on Velibs, we had to try them too. It was pas difficile, monsieur!
There are racks of Velib (‘velo liberte’) bikes at 300 metre intervals all over the central part of Paris. According to the website there are 20,000 Velibs and 1,800 bike stations.
If you have internet access in your pocket, the website will even tell you how many bikes are available at any given station at any given moment – the answer is always ‘beaucoup’.
By each rack is a ticket machine, with instructions in English as well as French.
You need a credit card to gain access.
The machine didn’t like my Visa card but cheerfully accepted my Aussie MasterCard/Maestro, taking a EUR150 deposit in case we liked our bikes enough to keep them. We were also charged EUR1.70 for a day’s use. A week’s use would have been EUR8 – excellent value in our opinion.
We entered the code on our tickets, and clicked out our bikes. They are very easy and comfortable to ride, even on the Parisian cobbles, with upright sitting position, step through frames and three gears. We never needed the lowest one. Much of Paris is flat.
Velib bikes are heavy, built for comfort not for speed, and not for carrying up and down stairs either.
The city is well served with cycle paths, often separated from cars, notably along the Seine, Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard Saint Germain. All the nice spots, in other words.
We set off. If we reached another bike station and clicked our bikes back in within a half hour, there would be no further charge. We could pause two minutes, re-enter our codes, then click the same bikes out again.
If we preferred not to do this (and it is a bit of a bore), we be charged EUR1 for the following half hour.
If you’re reading this, Velib organising people, an hour between click-ins would have given us tourists a little more freedom, since we were unfamiliar with the locations of the bike stations. There were always more bikes in any given rack than there were empty spaces, so overuse is not yet a problem. Anything to keep encouraging visitors to Velib would be a plus.
The riding was easy. There are enough cyclists in Paris now for motorists to know they have to look out for them. In the centre of town at least, traffic generally moved slowly.
Cyclists are also allowed to use most bus lanes, though we once found ourselves in a spot of bother, trapped in a bus lane with taxis whizzing past before we noticed the ‘no cycling’ sign.
This was a minor and short-lived difficulty. It was most encouraging to see the bikes being used by short distance commuters as well as by many tourists like us. At the end of the working day we watched a steady stream of them passing as Parisians headed for home or the train stations.
Bike helmets are not compulsory in France. Though some Velib riders were wearing them, most were not.
I’m sure there are sometimes accidents, and it’s quite likely that some cause serious head or facial injuries which a helmet may have helped prevent.
BUT…the lack of mandatory helmet laws encourages short term, low speed riding on these Velib bikes, and the benefits to public health, traffic congestion, air pollution and people having fun far outweigh the risks.