Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Paris Bicycle Transport System

 I first read about the Velib bike transport system on the New York Times website. Since we were there this past weekend on vacation anyway, we decided to try it out.
Paris Bicycle Rental System

The system is stream-lined for Paris residents and not visitors, so the visitor experience is quite cumbersome. Whereas a Paris resident would just get a membership card and swipe the card to check out a bike, the visitor has to buy a pass. 1 day passes are 1 Euro, and 7 day passes are 5 Euro. Since we used walking and the metro exclusively our first day, we bought the 1 day pass. And yes, you have to sign up for each of you. The big downer for most American tourists is that you pretty much need a European credit card to register for the system.

On to the process: you first buy a day pass (it's good for a complete 24 hours, so it makes sense to wait until you really need them). You sign up by going through both the touch screen and the key pad systems, choosing a 1 day pass, and keying in your PIN (yes, chip and pin systems are prevalent throughout Europe). You then select a 4-digit pin so even if you lose your ticket someone else can't just check out a bike in your name. You're then given a ticket --- you must keep this ticket or you won't be able to use it. I've seen at least one case where there was a ticket in the machine slot, because some hapless tourist signed up for it and left his ticket in frustration because he couldn't figure out the system.

Then you go to the other side of the vending machine and use the LCD menu there to pick a bike. But first, pick out a bike and note the post position. This is important because with the cheapness of the rentals, the bikes get abused and aren't all in the same condition. So check the tires for air, test the cranks to make sure they'll rotate, and check to make sure the bike has a chain and the brakes work. Then select "Other Language" on the menu, "Day Pass", key in your ticket number and pin, select your bike, and off you go!

When we were first in Paris, we looked around for a map of where all the bike racks and stations were. This turned out to be superfluous. Anywhere a tourist is likely to want to be, there's a rack. There was one across the street from our hotel, another one 2 blocks away, and 2 entire racks 4 blocks away. Anywhere we wanted to eat or visit, there was a rack on the way there, or right around the corner from there. Since the bike rentals are free for 30 minutes, you really have an incentive to pick up the bike at the last minute, ride it to your destination, check it in, and then check it out again when you need it. This keeps the bikes circulating, and the automated check in and check out system is a pleasure to use, if a little cumbersome for those of us with day passes.

The bike themselves are surprisingly nice riding machines, rather than the clunker bikes that I see on Google campus, for instance. That's because there's actually a 150 Euro penalty for stealing the bike (or for having your bike stolen), so there's an incentive to actually get decent bikes. The bikes are all 3 speed, hub-geared bikes with baskets and generator head and tail lights. In a city as well lit as Paris, that's all you need. Nobody seems to wear helmets in Paris, and I'll confess than neither did I. Paris is really flat, so 3 gears are all you really need, and I could crank as fast as I want on them. The bikes are heavy, tires and all, but it's all you would need for urban transportation and utility cycling.

There are bugs in the system --- for instance, at some bike stations even though there are bikes parked, the system doesn't acknowledge them and let you check them out. Some stations seem perpetually short of bikes. We did see a few trucks driving around with racks of those bikes, and those trucks presumably try to resupply bikes stations that have shortages, but they're obviously inadequate. A small number of bikes do have defects (missing basket, missing chain, flat tire, and lights that have been wrecked are the ones I saw), but by and large I could always find a working bike when I needed one. I would very much love to see this system adopted in American cities or Silicon Valley.

In any case, this is the cheapest way to travel in Paris (the metro system is perpetually overly warm, and costs 1.1 Euro per trip), so if you're in Paris and have a European credit card (or can arrange for a pre-paid card), please try it!
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