Saturday, October 11, 2008
Velib—One Year Later
It’s been about a year now since I took my first spin on a Velib bike (see Velib Liberates Paris, and Velib–the Sequel), and during that time, the groovy rent-a-bike program has become an integral part of the Parisian landscape. According to the official Velib website, usage goes up as high as 100,000 rentals per day, and in the month of September, total rentals reached somewhere around 2,830,000. There are close to 1,000 stands sprinkled throughout the city, and the site of someone cruising down a major boulevard on a futuristic bike that looks like it escaped from the film Metropolis, is simply no big deal anymore. It is still a great way to get around the city, provided you maneuver well through Parisian traffic and have learned how to avoid those major boulevards (not enough of which have bus or bike lanes).
There are now two types of people in Paris: those who are willing to risk life and limb to whizz around the city on two wheels, and those who think that those in the first category need to have their heads examined. The former, many of whom would never have dreamed of biking through the capital before those wacky-looking Velibs showed up, have thrown themselves into the thick of urban traffic with reckless abandon, or at least what feels like reckless abandon, because after all, simply surviving rush hour gives you a rush. It may be foolhardy, but it feels like freedom. And as some people have pointed out to me, it’s actually safer to be on a bike in Paris than in a lot of other large cities, like say, New York. There are more and more bike lanes, occasional equipped with cement dividers that keep motor traffic out, and there are many bus lanes where you only have to contend with buses, taxis, and drivers on the verge of a nervous breakdown who simply can’t resist the temptation to fly down the relatively uncluttered bus lanes.
Being a parent, and feeling a moral responsibility to return home alive, I have taken to doing something that makes me look like a total nerd, and thus something that hardly any real Parisians ever do: I wear a helmet. I bring it in my backpack just in case I get the urge to Velib. I’m not sure how high this actually raises my safety quotient, but it does make me feel a lot better.
There are things you gotta know to Velib effectively. Among other things:
• always take a map of the city showing where the stands are. Spontaneity is all very well and good, but without a map you risk much cursing and frothing of the mouth when you can’t find a stand to park your bike.
•plan ahead. Look at said map (which hopefully has one-way streets indicated) and figure out the best way to get from point A to B before you get on the bike.
•look at the bike before you hop on and realize the chain is dragging on the ground and the front tire is flat.
And now we get to the $64,000-dollar question: can tourists use the damn thing? While in theory, any credit card with a chip in it will work, in practice people have written to me that they have trouble getting Visas and MasterCards to work, with chip or not. But several bike fans have reported that for some mysterious reason, American Express does work, especially American Express Blue. I’ve even been told that chip-less American Express cards work, though I can’t imagine how. So don’t leave home with out it.
If like me, you’ve never managed to get an American Express card and you don’t have another card that works, don’t despair. Though it’s not as groovy, and you don’t get to use the high-tech stands, there are several places in Paris where you can rent bikes by the hour, 1/2 day or whole day. Try Roue Libre, Paris à Vélo C'est Sympa, or French Connection Bike Tours. The last two also offer nice bike tours.