03 December 2009

Velib's striking success

I've just been in Paris for a couple of days. I'm very interested in visual art, and I certainly got the authentic French experience: standing outside art galleries which had been closed thanks to a public sector strike. Groups of young Parisians were standing around outside smoking and answering every question with a shrug. They were the pickets.

A very nice young lady from the Guardian interviewed me at the Louvre. I don't think she can have been in the job long, because she spelt my name correctly and got the quote right.

But at least I could shuttle between the inactive museums quickly and conveniently, thanks to the famous Paris bike-hire scheme, Velib'.

It really is a good system. Signing up for a day pass is quick and easy: you can do it online, or just at one of the terminals at every docking station (above right). You spend two minutes prodding the screen with a frown before you realise you should be pressing buttons on the numerical keypad below, but then all you need is a bank card and a few seconds.

A day-pass costs a token one euro (and you authorise a 150 euro deposit, but it's not taken from your account unless the bike is, say, stolen by a striking art gallery worker escaping the tourist mob). Then you can take a bike for free for up to half an hour, returning it to any of the very numerous docking stations across the centre.

The bikes (right) are chunky, solid, one-size-fits-all, with three hub gears. There are chain guards to protect those stylish Gallic trousers, and lights that stay on all the time, Volvo-like, some strobing nervously like a warning light. They're pretty front-heavy, especially if you plonk a daypack full of one-euro plonk in the front basket, but they run smoothly and are a pleasant ride.

Once you get the hang of it, like going on strike in the French public sector I imagine, you want to do it all the time. It's easy: you can take out and return a Velib' bike at the drop of a dog turd. (It's true what they say about French dog owners - a good reason not to cycle on the pavement. Or walk on one.)

To take one out, all you need is to key in your daypass subscriber number and a four-digit PIN of your choosing, and select your bike. To return it, you don't have to key in anything - you just slide your bike into a docking post where a bracket engages and a green light shows that it's safely docked. Yesterday I did seven journeys, all of them free.

The multilingual terminals at docking stations show locations of nearby stations, and show how many bikes and vacant posts are available (right).

This is valuable advance info: you can find some docking stations empty, with no bikes to be had (right), especially around popular start-points such as a rail terminus.

Even if there are bikes, you might find some are out of action through punctures (right) or other problems. Their posts show this with a red instead of green light, and the system knows they're en panne and won't let you take them out. Outside the Gare du Nord, one docking station had six bikes, five of which were unusable. There seems to be an additional informal system where duff bikes are left with their saddles the wrong way round as a kind of long-range-visible warning.

Conversely, some popular destination docking stations might be full of bikes (right) and have nowhere to dock your bike back into.

And, of course, the scheme's appetite for bikes - which get abused, trashed or stolen - is legendary. Each of the 21,000 bikes has been replaced already.

Navigating Paris's one-way system isn't always easy, and you often find your nice separated bike lanes suddenly throw you out onto a cobbled traffic bedlam. But it's great fun, a delightful way of getting from A to B to C-cedilla, a genuine must-do, and is popular with locals (right: she must be one). Every other cyclist you see is on a Velib' machine.

Just hope that, when you go, the public sector workers running Velib's electronic system aren't on strike instead. Otherwise you might have to spend all afternoon footslogging the Louvre's vast corridors. There's somewhere that could do with bikes to get around.


  1. Bewildered?

    I like the American woman who "had been looking forward to showing her 13-year-old daughter the wonders of French culture." Surely...

    The jokes just write themselves when it comes to French strikes.

  2. Also: interesting write-up of Rome's scheme. I don't think you covered it in your Bike hire cities series. Another holiday?


  3. I wouldn't have described myself as bewildered - more pissed off - but what did throw me a bit was the lack of alternative entertainment, seeing as beer in Parisian bars is six quid a 'pinte' (ie 50cl, which I suppose is about as close to a proper pint of 56.8cl as you get in most London pubs anyway). At the exchange rate of 1.6 euro to the pound, like what we used to have, everything was London prices. At the current rate of 1.1 to the pound, everything is Copenhagen prices. Aieee.

    Anyway, ta for the Rome link. Will investigate.

  4. Given the bikes I saw in Paris - but didn't try, as we were both staying and working in the same arrondissement - in October were quite heavy and slow, how far can 30 minutes of free ride get you? The Boulevard Peripherique is maybe five miles across: that can't be less than half an hour on one of those things. You didn't get stung, but would a less experienced cyclist, do you think?

  5. @jps... Mmm. In half an hour, 'not far', basically. Especially if you're not really sure where you're going. It took me 23 minutes, I see from my account details, to make it from the strike-hit Pompidou Centre to the strike-hit Louvre, which is only about a mile. I'd walked it the other way earlier in about the same time.

    You're certainly right that progress is slow and that, especially as a tourist, you probably won't get very far in half an hour. I think the main thing that slows you though is unfamiliarity, rather than the 1960s Ford Zodiac-like handling of the Velib bikes.

    If I had a similar bike in London, I'd be quite confident of zipping three or four miles in half an hour, from (say) Speaker's Corner to (say) the Eye.

  6. I expressed surprise before at the use of exposed chains on these public bike schemes. The chain won't last, and will have to be replaced. However, given the rate of turnover, I guess that few ever make it as far as needing their chains replaced.

    Claims of the effectiveness of these schemes at increasing cycling are massively over-stated. I worked out the numbers before as showing that putting 20000 shared bikes in Paris is enough to account for just 0.8% of the total journeys in the city. This was based on unrealistic claims from the promotors that the bikes would each be used 10 times a day. Recent feedback from Montreal shows that their shared bikes are actually used less than a fifth so often as that, and I would expect that the Paris bikes don't manage to be used an average of ten times daily each either.

    And how about OV-Fiets ? It's probably the biggest scheme in the world, as it's national here in the Netherlands and at 200 railway stations and many other sites across the country. It'd also give you an excuse to come and visit the world's top cycling country. See cycling on a scale that you simply won't see elsewhere.

  7. Indeed, @David, I've enjoyed many cycling trips to de Nederlandsh, and it's probably about time I enjoyed another.

    How can you dislike a country whose coastal cycle route goes through villages called Slag and Monster? Whose language is throat-launched artillery? Whose inhabitants built the largest objects ever made by man but haven't got round to making off-the-peg curtains? A country that gave us Bosch, Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gogh, Mondrian and Escher, as well as Mata Hari, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Miep Gies? Where everyone including the queen cycles?

    Yup, I'm on that next ferry from Harwich. Oh, damn - they can't guarantee my bike on the train after I change at Manningtree.

  8. David,

    From what I remembered the Paris scheme is quite sucessfull in the way the system is used by in average 130 000 to 190 000 people a day(2008 numbers). So with 20 000 bikes in the scheme, each bike is used in average 6.5 to 9.5 times per day which is the highest figure ever achieved for this type of scheme. In Lyon the number is only about 4 times per bike.
    The other main thing is that it created a kind of shock in Parisians' minds and convinced large number of then that cycling inn a city is possible and that cycling is not only a sport you watch on TV during summer.

    I think the main critism we can give is that it has created modal shift from public transport to cycling rather than directly from car. The parians drivers are still driving. Though one good thing is that when the 1,450 stations were created, on-street parking space was removed (big stations can take up to 4-5 parking spaces). However it made only a small difference as the capacity of underground car parks in Paris is massive (though rental prices of these parking space are expensive, but Parisians who own a car are rich).

    Also we could say that Paris spent quite some money in cycle infratsructure and tried to provide some segregated path. Many one-way street have also been converted to two way for cyclists. Though there is still loads to do to create continuity of path, make Parisian understand what paths are (prevent pedestrian using then, prevent motorcyclists using them, prevent cars/delivery vehicles parking in them) but Paris is really strating from scratch (since about 10 years ago) and I believe is improving slowly towards something better thanks to its mayor and the influence of the green party at the Paris City Council.
    The main problem in the Paris Region remains in the outskirts where most mayors (who have the highways under their control) do not believe that cycling is a viable alternative mode of transport.