In the summer of 2008 I took out a seven-day subscription (for a mere five Euros at the time) to the Vélib’ system of short-term spontaneous bicycle rentals and spent the week touring Paris on these sturdy and nearly-free machines. The Vélib’ station at Place Johann Strauss (first photo) was where I often started out in the mornings, as it was only a block from my hotel.
I didn’t keep track of exactly how often I checked out a bike, but looking back I would estimate that I took seven to twelve separate rides per day. Since the first half hour of each ride is free, i.e. included in the subscription price, I usually returned my bike to one of the 1,450 Vélib’ stations before the half hour was up, and then took another one (or the same one again) if I wanted to go further.
When my credit card statement arrived the following month, it turned out that Vélib’ had billed me for all of seven Euros, from which I conclude that only two of my many cycling trips lasted longer than half an hour. (Prices have gone up considerably since then, but Vélib’ is still one of the world’s greatest bargains, especially if you use it a lot, as I do.)
Vélib’ at that time was just over a year old, having begun in the summer of 2007. According to city officials there were about 27.5 million trips during the first year of operation, which works out to 120,000 trips on an average day.
According to the official statistics there were 277,193 seven-day subscribers and 3,683,714 one-day subscribers during the first year of Vélib’ operation, from July 2007 to July 2008.
The young Portuguese ladies in this photo are taking out one-day subscriptions at Vélib’ station 10011 (or 10-11, the eleventh station in the tenth arrondissement) on rue du Château d’Eau near Place de la République. I was happy to show them how to find the English-language menus and to answer the one question they had about the procedure. When it asked for a secret four-digit PIN number, they didn’t realize that they were supposed to choose this number themselves, any four digits that they could easily remember.
In this photo the young couple on the right has arrived at station 5009 (the ninth station in the 5th arrondissement) on rue du Fouarre, behind the church St. Julien-le-Pauvre, hoping to return their bikes there.
No docking stands are free (I have just taken the last one, actually), but the other couple on the left has just started entering their numbers to borrow two bikes, so two docking stands will be free in just a minute. (This often happens at busy stations with lots of coming and going.)
The Vélib’ bikes are available 24 hours a day, around the clock, and they all have front and rear lights that go on automatically, day or night, when you start to ride.
Thanks to Vélib’ lots of people have discovered how exhilarating it is to ride around Paris at night. Public transport schedules get thinned out in the late evening anyway, so by taking a bike you can avoid having long waits for the next train or bus to come. Reportedly about 25 % of all Vélib’ rides are taken between 8pm and 3am.
Most of Paris is reasonably flat, but there are some hilly places, particularly in the north (Montmartre) and northeast (Buttes Chaumont, Belleville) parts of the city.
This has proved to be something of a problem for Vélib’, since more people ride downhill than up, so the stations at higher altitudes quickly lose all their bikes and don’t get as many back.
One thing they do about this is to have electric trucks circulating to redistribute the bikes, but another thing is that all stations at an altitude of 60 meters or higher have been declared “Vélib’ Plus” stations, and the software has been amended to award an extra free fifteen minutes (“indivisible”) to anyone to returns a bike to one of these stations.
One day in 2008 I earned an extra fifteen minutes simply by riding up to the top of this hill in Belleville (not a very challenging hill, frankly) and docking it here at station 20113 on Rue Piat at the top end of Belleville Park.
Those extra fifteen minutes came in handy the next day when I went to Passy, where I had never been before, so I had to keep stopping to look at the map.
Here at Vélib’ station 7025 on Avenue Octave Creard, just behind the Eiffel Tower, an employee of the JCDecaux company is checking the bikes and noting down which ones need repairs. Small repairs are often made on the spot, but for larger problems the bikes are taken on electric trucks to a floating repair shop which cruises the Seine River collecting bikes from various districts of the city.
JCDecaux is a big outdoor advertising company which ran the Vélib’ program for its first ten-and-a-half years, in return for city advertising space. They also run similar programs in cities like Lyon (very successfully) and Brussels (not so successfully, at least not when I was there).
Overall, Vélib’ in 2008 was a big success, but it did have two serious problems. The first was vandalism. I saw numerous bikes that had been smashed or had their chains ripped out or their tires slashed. The second — even worse — problem was that in its first year of operation, five Vélib’ riders had been killed on the streets of Paris. In all five cases the situation was the same. The cyclist tried to pass a truck or bus on the right, got into that vehicle’s blind spot and was crushed to death when the truck or bus made a right turn. Wearing a helmet would not have prevented any of these deaths. But all the Vélib’ bikes were quickly equipped with conspicuous warnings about the danger of passing large vehicles on the right.
These five Vélib’ deaths were front-page news in the Paris papers, unlike the traffic deaths of pedestrians, motorists, motorcyclists or non-Vélib’ cyclists, which were barely mentioned.
Despite these five dreadful fatalities, bicycle safety has actually improved overall since the beginning of Vélib’, simply because there is safety in numbers. The more cyclists there are on the streets, the safer we are. I noticed this particularly one day in 2008 at the tricky intersection by the Hotel de Ville where Rue de Rivoli, Rue du Renard and Rue de la Coutellerie all come together. I used to get off and walk this one, but now I was in a group of about a dozen cyclists all going the same direction, so it was no problem to ride through the intersection together.
My photos in this post are from 2008. I revised the text in 2020.
I didn’t even go to Paris in 2009 or 2010, so the next post is Vélib’ 2011.