Free Wheeling: Paris's New Bike System

One Parisian said of the Velibs:
One Parisian said of the Velibs: "We are no longer all alone in our cars." (By Peter Macdiarmid -- Getty Images)
By Alexandra Topping
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 23, 2007

Everyone knows that rules are made to be broken, the French better than most. Which explains why, two months after government-owned, almost-free communal bikes were introduced in Paris, the City of Light has been transformed into something akin to the Wild Wild West. Businessmen speed across traffic lanes, stately grande dames cycle the wrong way down one-way streets, and students weave in and out of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

Velibs -- the name combines "velo" (bicycle) and "liberte" (freedom) -- have transformed the way Parisians get around. With more than 2 million journeys made in the first 40 days of the program, the French have taken to their new mode of public transport like canards to water.

But does the system work as well for visitors? Parisian drivers are notorious for their, ahem, forthright manner, so it is little wonder that some tourists feel uneasy about cycling. "I'm looking at the drivers and I'm looking at the bikes and I'm thinking, 'Americans just won't do that,' " said Diane Hansen, 49, visiting from Seattle.

But Paris is surprisingly cycle-friendly, and bicycling is statistically the second-least-dangerous way to get around the city (after riding a bus). Most large roads have bike lanes, and since the introduction of the Velibs, many cyclists have noted that drivers have become more conscious of their presence.

Here's how it works: Velibs can be picked up and dropped off at any of a thousand stations around the capital, where users insert credit cards into a machine to sign up for a day (one euro, or about $1.40), a week (five euros) or a year (29 euros). A fee of $205 is taken from your account if the bike is not returned. Caveat: At this point, only smart-chip Visa cards and American Express cards are accepted (see "More Velib Tips" at right).

The system is designed to encourage short journeys: After paying your subscription fee and picking up a bike, the first half-hour is free. The second half-hour costs one euro, the third costs two euros and a fourth would cost an added four euros, to encourage people to stick to the half-hour system.

But you can take a bike out as many times as you like in a day -- and each time it's free for the first 30 minutes. "This is a utilitarian way of getting around," explained Velib project manager C¿line Lepault. "The Velibs are for everyone, but tourists should realize they are simply a way of getting from A to B. If they want to take a bike for the day, they should hire one" from a rental shop.

There are now 14,197 sleek gray bikes around town. They are elegant, sturdy machines made more for cruising than speed, with three gears, large padded seats and good hand brakes on the "sit-up" handlebars. By the end of the year, there are to be 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations -- or about one station every 900 feet.

The Velib system is complicated and possibly nerve-racking. So why bother? Quite simply, the Velib does exactly as its name promises. It gives you the liberty to discover Paris at your own pace, under your own steam. Most journeys take less than 30 minutes (it takes about 15 minutes to cycle from the Musee d'Orsay to the Eiffel Tower, for example), and instead of popping up at the sights like a touristy mole, you discover all the hidden attractions in between.

When asked what she would say to people reluctant to try the Velibs, Cathy Gills, 50, visiting Paris from Alberta, Canada, looked down at her elegant machine and smiled. "Have a sense of adventure," she said. "And think about how you are working off the baguettes and red wine."

Here's a primer on how to navigate the system.

1. Pick up a map. Start by visiting the tourist information bureau outside the Hotel de Ville in the center of town to pick up a free map of the city with all Velib stations marked.

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