There really are some bicycle lanes in Marseille — but not nearly enough and not where people need them. My lead photo is from the Marseille district of Joliette, near the new urban development project Euroméditerranée. I actually rode on this particular bike lane, which was fine except that it ended after a block or two.
There are no bicycle lanes in the city center and none between the center and the Saint Charles railway station. The streets tend to be narrow and filled with speeding cars, so most people end up riding their bikes on the sidewalk. This is slow and inconvenient for cyclists and is a major annoyance for pedestrians, who after all have a right to walk safely and comfortably.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the French Federation of Bicycle Users gives two awards each year to cities or regions in France. These are the Golden Handlebars (Le Guidon d’Or) for the best local bicycle policies and the Rusty Nail (Le Clou Rouillé) for the worst. After several attempts to cycle in Marseille, I was not at all surprised to learn that Marseille was chosen for the Rusty Nail award in 2013.
Marseille has a bike sharing system called “le vélo” (not a very catchy name) that is similar to Vélib’ in Paris and Vélo’v in Lyon. In both Paris and Lyon you constantly see people riding around on the Vélib’ or Vélo’v bikes. And at the bike stations there is a lot of coming and going, as people check out bikes or bring them back. In Marseille you occasionally see someone riding one of the blue bikes, but not often. Usually the bikes just sit in the stations, unused.
I had a weekly ticket for le vélo and used it a few times, but it was really hard to get where I wanted to go by bicycle (even though I am an experienced urban cyclist, as you may have noticed).
The system has been operational in Marseille since October 2007. After the resounding success of the systems in Lyon (since May 2005) and Paris (since July 2007), the city of Marseille was hoping to have fifty thousand annual subscribers to le vélo. In reality, the number of subscribers peaked at 8,825 in the year 2008, and then went into a four-year decline.
It is not hard to understand why le vélo has been such a flop in Marseille. The main reason is that Marseille does not have anything resembling an adequate cycling infrastructure. Paris and Lyon (and many other French cities) have been rapidly installing new bicycle lanes and parking facilities; Marseille has hardly any.
Another reason is that for several years, the bike-sharing system in Marseille used to shut down at night. You could return a bike at any time, but you couldn’t check one out between midnight and 6 a.m. This was allegedly the result of lobbying by the taxi companies.
After five or six years, the city of Marseille finally gave in and made the system fully operational 24/7, as in other French cities, so people can use the bikes at night after the Métro, buses and trams have stopped running. After that, the number of users finally started rising, and by 2017 they had reached 15,000 yearly subscribers — a large increase but still a far cry from the 50,000 they had hoped for.
For comparison: in 2017 the Vélo’v system in Lyon had 68,500 subscribers. Paris in the meantime had over 300,000 annual subscribers to its Vélib’ system.
The bike sharing system in Marseille is not expensive, by the way. An annual subscription costs all of five Euros (in Lyon 25 Euros), and a weekly ticket in Marseille is only one Euro (in Lyon 5 Euros) — prices as of 2018. (Paris has instituted a new pricing system as of 2018, making comparisons difficult.)
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Cycling in and around Toulon, France.