Paris has an impressive bike-hire system, and I was excited to experience it firsthand in October. I’d read about “Velib” bikes in travel guides and on TreeHugger, but opinions were mixed. Some people criticized how clunky and ugly the bikes are, and Paris has had problems with vandalism and theft. And yet, I saw them everywhere I looked. Mostly commuting Parisians, along with a few tourists, raced along the city streets, looking enviably elegant while pedaling.
My husband and I took our first Velib trip when we were in a hurry to get from the Eiffel Tower to Bercy. It would have been faster to jump on the Metro, but the evening was beautiful, we craved some exercise, and we were overly optimistic. We rode east along the left bank of the Seine, and it was idyllic until a few things happened. The traffic increased exponentially for rush hour; somehow we got funneled onto Blvd St-Germain, which was far too busy for a novice Velib rider like myself; and it got dark. There was a wide bike lane that cars respected, but we had to share it with city buses that came barreling toward us at frightening speeds. I’ve done a lot of biking in Toronto, but this was much more chaotic. When it got too dark, I felt relieved to hitch my bike to a Velib post and continue on a bus.
Our next ride was in the late morning, when it was crisp and sunny and there were fewer cars. This time it was a huge success. We rode through the beautiful, newly developed green spaces along the river. At intersections, we followed the special bikes-only traffic lights and stayed within the painted lines of our lane. There were plenty of other cyclists around, and almost all were riding Velib bikes, too.The bikes are heavy, especially with a backpack in the front carrier, but the seats are wide and soft. There are headlights and backlights that turn on automatically. My brakes were slow to kick in, but they did the job. I don’t know how often Velib repairs its bikes, but most seemed to be in good working order. It’s a wonderfully cheap system – free for the first half hour, and can continue to be free if you trade it for another bike and start a new half hour trial. A deposit of 150 Euro is required; my Parisian friend recommended keeping the receipt, since she was once wrongfully charged for the 150 Euro, but that didn’t happen to us. I’m impressed at how accessible Paris has made biking for visitors and residents alike. It’s a great way to see the city and to strike up conversations with people, who can always tell you where the nearest Velib station is.