What feels more Parisian than pedaling down a cobblestone street with a baguette in your basket? Well, thanks to Vélib’, the wildly popular bike borrowing service in Paris, you can live out those Parisian dreams. Better still, you can skip the crowded metro, get fresh air and exercise, and take in the sights on your way from the Left Bank to the Right, or the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre.
You can purchase a daily pass for just €1.70 (or US$1.90) or a weekly pass for €8 (US$8.93), and rides of less than half an hour are free; additional time is charged in half-hour increments starting at €1 (US $1.12). With 1,800 stations, it’s never more than a few minutes’ walk to find a bike. And intrepid (and fit!) bikers are rewarded with bonus time for returning bikes to stations high on hills.
The program is brilliant, really. But that’s not to say you won’t encounter some challenges. Not all the bikes are in perfect condition, the local drivers can be unnerving, and there’s the slim-but-possible chance of having a bike stolen. Here are a few things to know before hopping on your first bike.
Get a pass. It’s well worth buying your one- or seven-day pass online, or picking up a Navigo pass for the metro if you plan to use the subway, too. Otherwise you’ll squander far too much in-Paris time fiddling with the station’s payment system for daily tickets. (Note that no matter how you pay, a €150 (US$167.50) authorization will be held against your card that doesn’t drop for up to 15 days.)
Do as the locals do. Find a busy station and spend a few minutes observing. Parisians don’t just grab the first bike they see. They check the tires for inflation, wiggle the adjustable seat and make sure they can set it where they want it, spin the pedals to check that everything runs smoothly, and give the bike a good once-over. Also critical: even if you don’t plan to lock the bike up anywhere, verify that the key and lock work. You never know.
There’s safety in numbers. If you’re not used to cycling in a big city, it can be a bit harrowing to join the maelstrom of cars, Vespas, buses, and those wild-eyed taxi drivers on Paris streets, even when you’re in the dedicated bike lanes. If you’re apprehensive, we recommend starting on a Sunday morning, when traffic is light, and when you’re in busier parts of the city, find a flock of others on bikes and stick with them.
Stay off the sidewalks. If you’re not prepared to bike on the streets, best to stick with other means of transport. The look you’ll get from a Parisian grand-mère who catches you on a sidewalk will wither your soul. But it’s also dangerous; you can injure pedestrians, especially youngsters.
Don’t expect a grace period at stop lights. Tempted to coast through a light that just turned? Don’t even think about it. Drivers — especially those of taxis — have no mercy. It’s every man and woman for herself out there, and city drivers have no qualms about proceeding through the intersection whether you’re pedaling through it or not.
Take that bike back. With stations every 300 meters, there should never be any reason to lock your bike and leave it. Trust us — it’s worth the few extra minutes it might take you to return it to a station. You’ll save paying for the additional time and eliminate the risk of something happening to the bike — which could result in a €150 (US$167.50) fine. It’s possible you’ll find that the nearest station is full; keep riding. There will be another one not far. Otherwise, stick around until someone picks up a bike and opens a slot.
Hold on to your rental ticket. If you do have a problem, you’ll need to call the Allo Vélib’ phone number provided on the ticket you receive when you first rent a bike (English speakers are available). Be ready to give them the ticket number as well.
Wait for the beep. When you return the bike, make certain it registers. Wait for the light to turn green and two beeps to sound before strolling on to your next adventure.
Have fun! Don’t let all these cautions scare you away. One of the best ways to see Paris is by bike. You’ll cover more ground than you could on foot, take in more sights and glorious smells than you could in fast-moving cars or buses, have more freedom than taking the metro, and best of all, be able to imagine that this life on two wheels in Paris could be yours for longer than a weekend trip.