Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Velib' liberates Paris
It took me a while to be willing to try Velib', the new rent-a-bike program now available all over the streets of Paris. I loved the idea: anyone can pick up a bike at any metro station or anywhere else there is a "borne" or stand, of bikes, ride around for a half an hour, and then leave it at whatever Velib' stand they want. And that first half hour is free. Not only that, the bikes themselves are extremely cool, a sort of futuristic Uber Bike that makes you feel like there is nothing more high-tech and advanced than a bicycle. But for me there was a problem: traffic. I have nothing against Parisians in general, but once they get into a car, these otherwise reasonable people become a hoard of aggressive louts with little concern for the lives of their fellow man, woman, or child. Merely driving in this city sends me into a state of extreme anxiety, now you are expecting me to ride a bike?
The program went into effect while everyone was on summer vacation. Then, when we came back—quelle suprise. Everywhere hip urbanites were scrambling to mount the silvery Velib' saddle. Suddenly, bike riding, an activity once relegated to idealistic fools and old men in berets, was utterly cool. Men in business suits, women in stiletto boots, and teenagers in strategically weathered jeans were all proudly sailing through traffic, hair flowing in the wind. Because, of course, no one is wearing a helmet. That would mess one's hairdo. So to recap: now thousands of people are willingly taking their lives into their hands every day, riding through crazy traffic on bikes, helmet-less. And what's more, they look like they are having fun. So much fun, that I really, really wanted to try.
After giving myself a million reasons why it was better to walk from Gare du Austerlitz to Luxembourg (this is a walker's city! I'll be there in a matter of minutes!), I spied a stand on a quiet street filled with glistening bikes. My feet hurt. There was no one around. No one to breathe over my shoulder as I tried to figure out how to use the machine that unlocks your bike. I slipped in my credit card. I followed the instructions. The green light started blinking. It was too late to turn back. I detached the incredibly heavy two-wheeler from its post, and sallied forth. And low and behold, it was wonderful. At first I carefully stuck to the small streets, but after a few minutes I was charging along a bus lane on Blvd St-Michel. Maybe it's the weight of the bike, or the glamor of it all, or just the sheer joy of riding around the streets of Paris without being a slave to public transportation, but I forgot about my fear and before I knew it I was on the Ile de la Cité and figuring out where to have lunch in the Marais.
I know what you are saying. Ah ha! This is going to be useful. What a great way to get around Paris when you are a tourist. But alas, there is a problem. To use the system, you have to have a credit card with a chip in it. French cards have it, American cards usually don't. Now it seems to me that some American cards, debit cards, for example, have chips. But I don't know if they work. So if anyone out there finds out, feel free to let me know. Not that I'm trying to be helpful or anything...