It’s time to count our Velib’ blessings. It’s been almost seven years since the mayor's office set up this low-cost rent-a-bike program, and today those funky looking bikes are part of the cityscape. Similar systems have been set up are in cities all around France.
For years, the futuristic city cycles were almost entirely out of reach of your average North American tourist, as they required a chip-enabled credit card, preferably of European origin. Now there are options: you can either buy your 1-day or 7-day subscription on line, or you can use a refillable cash card, like Travelex. You an also find out how it works on the extensive English-language page on the Velib’ website, and even call an English-speaking customer service person.
So let’s say you actually got yourself a bike and are ready to take off into traffic. Here are a few do’s and don’ts:
1) Check your bike before you check it out. Are the tires flat? Do the brakes work? Is a pedal missing? (I once tried to pedal away and to my surprise…)
2) Wear a helmet. If you don’t want to bring one, you get a casque (helmet) for 10€ at a Decathalon store . Once you take to the streets, you will understand why.
3) Get a map, preferably a handy-dandy “Paris par Arrondissement” that lists Velib’ stations, so you won’t go nuts trying to find one when you want to check in. For the smartphone inclined, there is also an app that you can download from thewebsite.
4) Take a deep breath. What you are about to do requires courage, patience and a certain amount of derring-do.
Actually, while the traffic looks crazy, it’s not as bad as it looks. As long as you pay attention, most drivers will pay attention to you. There are also an increasing number of dedicated bike lanes (though they often abandon you just when you were starting to relax). The bike lanes should be on those maps I mentioned, but don’t count on it. Look for the theoretically bike-friendly bus lanes (and then look out for buses and taxis). Watch out for motor scooters—whose drivers seem to have little regard for human life, including their own—and other cyclists, some of whom appear to be trying out for the Evil Knievel Award for Stupidest Death-Defying Risk.
Now that I’ve made you nervous, I’d like to point out that riding around on a Velib’ is a truly delightful way to see the city. As long as you stay off the big boulevards, you can glide around with relative ease, humming the theme to the movie “Amélie” as you take in Mansart-roofed vistas and quaint neighborhoods you never knew existed. You’ll cover plenty of territory in a short distance (this is a relatively small city, after all) and avoid plunging into the Métro on a nice sunny day. If it’s not a nice day, well that’s another matter. It’s up to you how much cold, rain and wind you can handle. And remember, while you are having fun on your bike, you’ll be working off all those pastries and croissants—and making room for more.