Bikes and sharing. Two things I love, and two things that could be perfect together, especially in summertime Paris.
Are you a Vélib-er? Go ahead, drink the Vélib Kool-Aid. Gulp, gulp! Vélib, Paris’s public bike sharing program, for both residents and tourists, would have you believe a few things. With a striped shirt and baguette in tow, I will bike on Velib all around Paris for a mere 1€70. With hundreds of Vélib stations every 300m, I’ll be able to bike anywhere for free, so long as I hop from one station to the next, within the first 30-minutes. I’ll pedal past the Louvre and along the Seine on my Vélib, with unicorns and rainbows and puppies… Right?
Uhm, not exactly.
I’ll say this: I’m no expert, but that this bike sharing program exists for residents and visitors, and that it works as well as it does, I think it’s amazing. But here’s a few things that you should know that will make your Vélib trip closer to unicorns and rainbows.
1. Not all bikes are cared for equally. These are public bikes, remember. They are serviced – I’ve seen the Vélib truck once picking up jalopies in need of TLC – but the bikes are subject to the elements and to their at-times rough riders. So before you take out a Vélib bike, each and every time check the bike thoroughly:
- Does the chain work? Pedal backwards.
- Do the hand brakes work? While pedaling backwards, lift up the rear wheel and press the hand brake. Now do it again and press the other hand brake.
- Can the seat be adjusted to my height? Open the lever under the saddle then push or fidget the seat to the height of the top of your hip, and lock the seat back into place with the lever. The seat should not move when you lock the lever.
- Are the tires well inflated? Squeeze ‘em!
- At night, do the front and rear lights work?
If you take out a Vélib bike and notice that one of these things isn’t operational, check it back in immediately and find one that works. It’s just not worth it to ride around on a faulty, unsafe bike in Paris traffic or to waste your time trying fixing a bike. Check your ego at customs, pal – unless you are a bona fide bike mechanic, of course. Take it from a lady who tried to put the chain back on her bike on Rue de Rivoli. I really tried to do my biking friends and at my fave bike cafe in Chicago proud. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Getting bike grease all over my paws in front of Gucci isn’t a good look.
When you find yourself in the saddle of a fully functioning bike, hold on to that one! How?
- Check into a Vélib station every 30 minutes, wait a few minutes, then check the same bike back out again and go on about your journey.
- Check into a Vélib station and put your bike as far as possible from the computer terminal (see picture below). Count on people’s laziness – they’ll take the bikes closest to the computer. Remember the stand number (on top of the locking device) and hope that same bike is there when you return.
- Vélib bike sharing station screen – yes, you can use it in French, English or Spanish!
You say you want to keep the same bike all day long without checking it back in? You can do this, but you’ll have to pay extra for it.
The pricing structure discourages visitors from taking one bike all day long. After the free 30 minutes ends, the first 30 minutes following costs 1€, the second 30 minutes costs 2€, and every 30 minutes after that costs 4€. For example, if you want to take out the bike for 4 hours straight (without checking it back in), it’ll cost you 23€ plus the cost of the pass. And, if you take the bike out longer than 24 hours without checking it in to a Vélib station, they’ll consider the bike stolen-slash-yours-now and take the 150 euro deposit on your credit card.
Also, Vélib bikes do not come with sturdy locks. They have thin rubber wire locks that riders can thread through the front wheel, around a bike stand and into a built-in locking device that will release its key once secured.
Before fellow Tweeple @slasherfun pointed out to me that the bikes DO INCLUDE BIKES, I noticed the cord, but thought it was much too thin to be a proper bike lock, actually. I still think the cord is rather thin to deter thieves. @slasherfun says the cord locks can be difficult to use and it is easier to lock the bike up by checking the bikes in to the stations. Thanks again, @slasherfun for the correction and insight! So unless you brought your own bike lock or have an extra 150€ you can throw away, keeping one Vélib bike and not checking it back in to a station doesn’t make sense. If you’d rather keep one bike all day, look into traditional bike rental services.
The Vélib bikes don’t come with helmets, either. *Raises eyebrow*
2. You can’t get lost for hours at a time, aimlessly wandering from one arrondisement to the next, making lovely discoveries along the way if you have to check the bike in every 30 minutes. I don’t like having to be on anything resembling a schedule while I’m traveling, with exceptions for friends, airplanes, museums and experimental theatre. But I like a good deal, and I don’t want to pay any more than I have to. Instead of wandering the streets by bike for hours at a time, every 25 minutes or so, Vélib renters – budget travelers like me – have to think about where to dock their bike next. And this is not always as easy as 300m away because…
3: Depending on the time of day and the arrondisement, you can’t always easily find a station with empty slots to check your Vélib bike back in. There’s no room for you at this inn, Mary and Joseph. Try biking 300m in another direction. If it’s nearing the dinner or happy hours, allow a little more time to find an empty slot at the Vélib station. The stations can be full of bikes. In a nicer or more touristy part of town, like say, the Luxembourg Gardens in August, you might be surrounded by other tourists, who, like well-heeled coyotes circling a fresh carcass on a barren stretch of interstate, pounced on my open Vélib spot to check in their own bike after I’d left. In the research for this article I did AFTER I’D LEFT PARIS, buried in its blog, I read that if you arrive at a completely full station on your Vélib, you can get an extra 15 minutes to lock up your bike and find nearby stations with empty slots (video in French). This same video from the Mairie of Paris, the Paris city government, shows how visitors can find a bike, which can be helpful if you’re staying in a working-classier neighborhood, since you’ll likely compete for bikes during the morning rush against its residents.
And since we’re on the subject of stations, 4: Not all Vélib stops are made equal. Have you been to the Vélib stop outside the Barbès Rochechouart Metro stop? It’s under the tracks, so the bikes – from saddle to handlebars – were filthy with pigeon droppings. Don’t go there on a Saturday afternoon in high tourist season (June-August). I was looking to escape the obscenely huge crowds at Sacre Coeur one Saturday, and and the weather was far too nice to take the Metro. I guess, everyone else had the same thought and took most of the bikes. And the few bikes that were there that were pigeon-poo-free, there were shifty looking dudes leaning on them. With the weather so nice, my Chicago nature said tell those guys to scram, but I thought better of it instead and took the Metro.