The first-generation Vélib’ bike sharing system in Paris began operations on the afternoon of Sunday, July 15, 2007. Unfortunately I wasn’t in Paris on that day, so I can’t give a first-hand report, but from clicking on French media outlets I learned that the new bikes were used more than 50,000 times during the first 24 hours. There were no accidents during that time, despite the dire warnings of diehard motorists who predicted there would be wholesale accidents as a result of inexperienced cyclists being turned loose on the city streets.
The month before, I had spent several days in Paris (riding around on a rental bike from Roue Libre) and saw how the city was preparing for Vélib’ by giving detailed introductions at bicycle fairs (first photo) and on weekends and holidays. I learned that the plan was to provide 20,600 bicycles for spontaneous short-term rentals at some 1,400 rental stations all over the city, half of which would be operational right from the start. Other French cities had already been experimenting with bike sharing systems for two decades, and had found out that it made no sense to begin with just a few stations in in the city center. For the system to work, it had to have lots of bikes and stations throughout the city, so people could really use the bikes for their transportation needs.
At the introductions, the organizers explained that each rental station would have an electronic vending machine with instructions in several languages. You would select your language, insert your credit card or European bank card (most American cards didn’t work at the time because they didn’t have chips, only magnetic stripes) and decide if you wanted a one-day ticket for one Euro or a seven-day ticket for five Euros. Residents could also get a yearly ticket — but not from the machine — for 29 Euros. (Prices have gone up since then, but it’s still a tremendous bargain.) You also had to agree that they could deduct up to 150 Euros from your account if you damaged a bike or failed to return it.
With your ticket you could pick up a bike at any station, ride it to wherever you were going and leave it at any other station. The first half hour was “free”, meaning included in the price of the ticket, but after that you got charged extra: one more euro for the second half hour, two for the third and four for each half hour thereafter. If you wanted to avoid the extra costs you would have to change bikes every half hour — or just rent a bike from Roue Libre in the traditional way.
When I was in Paris in June 2007 they were busy building the first 700 rental stations all over the city. The one in my photo is on the Rue de Montreuil in the 11th arrondissement. This is a street which had not had much bicycle traffic up to then, but that later changed as all the rental bikes come into use.
A year later I looked up this particular station on the Vélib’ website, where it is possible to follow the comings and goings in (nearly) real time. When I checked, this station at 93 rue de Montreuil had two bikes available for rental, and 14 free places for people to return their bikes. Five minutes later only one bike was available, and there were 15 free docking places.
The word Vélib’ is a combination of the French words vélo (bicycle) and liberté. Other French cities have similar systems under slightly different names, such as Vélo’v in Lyon (incorporating the English word love), V’Lille in Lille, Vélopop’ in Avignon, VélÔToulouse in Toulouse and VéloCité in Besançon.
My photos in this post are from 2007. I revised the text in 2020.
Next: Vélib’ 2008.