When guest blogger Risa Chubinsky visited Paris this spring, she wanted to feel like a local — just like she did when she studied there for her junior year abroad. So, she decided to rent a bike to cruise around the city like the Parisians do. Here, she describes her experience with the Velib bike system.
One of the first things I did when I arrived in Paris in the middle of a March warm spell was to buy a ticket for the Velib, the hugely successful public bike program that debuted in July 2007. While the idea of riding a bike in my native New York City conjures up images of emergency rooms, I reasoned that Paris in the springtime is too beautiful to be trapped inside the Metro — as pretty and efficient as the metro may be. I kept seeing everyone from chic women in heels to haggard businessmen whizzing by me on the gray Velib bikes. I decided that if they could do it, I could too.
So I went up to one of the ubiquitous self-service Velib rental stations and bought a “Courte Duree” ticket, which meant that for €5 I now had unlimited access to the system for seven full days. (Other options include a one-day pass for €1 and a one-year subscription for €29.) Once you actually take the bike, the first 30 minutes are free. The second half-hour costs €1, the 3rd half-hour costs €3 and subsequent half-hours cost €4.
Getting used to Paris roads on wheels was liberating and frightening, thrilling and enervating. On main roads, bikers are sheltered from the general traffic by a cement divider, which provides a separate safe lane. Parisian cab drivers only pick up passengers at designated cabstands so there is no need to worry about a taxi cutting you off to pick up a fare. Bikers are expected to follow the same laws as automobiles — stopping at lights, going the right way down one way streets — and pedestrians and other drivers are careful to give cyclists a clear path and plenty of roadway.
For my first ride, my friend Lana and I biked up the Boulevard Saint Michel and were treated to a splendid view of Paris at twilight. We crossed onto the Ile de la Cite and saw Notre Dame to our direct right and the illuminated tops of the Louvre in the distance on our left. Paris is known for being extremely walkable, but riding in the wind with the wheels gently bouncing on cobblestone makes the city that much more mesmerizing.
Everything was going wonderfully until we got lost. As we picked our way through the one-way streets, we overshot our destination and tried to loop back, which convoluted our path even more. By then, we had been on the bikes for more than 30 minutes, which meant that we would incur an additional, if minimal, €1charge.
The late charges might be worth it if you decide to make a day out of getting lost in Paris on a bike, a fantastic and cheap way to explore the city. But sometimes, these charges accrue unintentionally. Much like parking lots or city streets, Velib stations are often full during peak hours. You can't return the bike until you find a station with an empty slot. It feels like Velib stations are on every corner — until you want to return your bike. Then, with the figurative meter running, the situation can become quite frustrating as you search for a station with an opening. My friend Lana once had to return a bike so far away from her intended destination (home) that she ended up having to take the metro to get back there. So much for convenience!
Another issue that you have to be aware of when biking in Paris is that streets often start out as two-way roads and then morph into one-way streets. This happened to me on Bvd. Hausmann, which my map said was two-way in its entirety. Yet 10 minutes into my ride, I wound up in the center lane of a traffic etoile (thanks to a service truck that had parked in the bike lane for a cigarette, typical French) only to find that the street had turned into a one-way in the opposite direction of where I was heading. Suddenly, my peaceful ride turned harrowing as I weaved my way through the speeding cars over to the curb to figure out my path.
Despite its drawbacks, I was sad when my Velib subscription expired. I was grateful that Paris makes it so easy for a non-resident to experience the city like a locals, and I can’t wait to hop on a Velib bike the next time I can track down cheap Paris flights.
For more of Risa's writing, check out her new blog, StrollerKill (as in Baby Stroller + Foot = Strollerkill).