Are you wondering whether you should try the Velib bike share system when you are in Paris? The short answer is: Yes, try it! We did and were blown away by Velib. This post is about how to use Velib bikes to make your vacation in Paris even better.
Update 2018: Please note that this post is based on our experiences in May 2017. Just about that time, the service was taken over by a new provider, Franco-Spanish start-up Smovengo. Smovengo promised to make things better, including replacing many bikes and bringing in many electric bikes. But there ambitious plans were wrecked by technical glitches and even worker strikes, with the result that user numbers began to drop considerably. Some users complained of feeling deliberately ripped off, when they could not find any bikes that worked. As of late 2018, the problems persist, with the result that many Velib bikes cannot be used. Hopefully, Paris will soon find a way to remedy the situation and get this wonderful service back on line again. Angry Parisian cyclists are urging her on, as they miss their Velib bikes. These bikes are well loved, and at one point one third of bikes on Parisian streets were Velib bikes. I truly hope that Paris will find a solution and get them operating smoothly again.
This video gives you an idea of what it is like to ride Velib bikes in Paris:
Vélib’ is a large-scale public bicycle sharing system in Paris, France. It was launched on 15 July 2007, so today it is 10 years old – Happy Birthday, Velib!
The system has about 14,500 bikes and 1,230 bicycle stations. The name Vélib’ comes from the French words vélo (bicycle) and liberté (“freedom”). It is an excellent way for tourists to get around Paris. And it is very extensively used by locals as well.
Booking Your Velib Pass Online
First, it is easiest to book your Velib pass online before you go to Paris. As a non-Parisian, your best option is the 7-day pass (just €8 at time of publishing this post). You will get an identification number and be asked to choose a 4-digit pin. Write those down somewhere handy. I put them on the Notes on my smart phone, which worked very well for us.
When you buy this 7-day pass, you have to specify the exact days on which you will use the bikes. I made the mistake of choosing the first day of our Velib pass as our first day in Paris. As it turned out, we were exhausted and jet-lagged when we got to Paris, having missed an entire night’s sleep. We arrived in the morning when it should have been our bedtime! So there was no way we were going cycling that day. However, by the next day we were ready to try the Velib bikes.
Cost of Renting a Velib Bike
As mentioned, a 7-day pass is great for tourists. You can also choose a 24-hour pass for €1.70, if you just want to try it for a day and see if it works for you. Your pass gets you unlimited journeys with the first 30 minutes free. If you go over 30 minutes, the extra costs are as follows:
- 1st additional half-hour: €1
- 2nd additional half-hour: €2
- Any more time, per half hour: €4.
We exceeded 30 minutes a few times, partly due to frequently getting lost. We discovered that Google Maps finds Paris very confusing. On one memorable evening, trying to use Google Maps to get back to our hotel on Velib bikes, we kept getting further and further from home. Maggie refused to give up, until we finally got tired of riding in giant circles, so we parked the bikes and took the Metro. Subsequently we discovered that there were six different Rue de Paris’s, and we think that Google Maps kept changing its mind about which one we wanted. Next time we are in Paris riding bikes, we plan to use Strava to plan and download routes – here is a post about how use Strava to create routes, and then follow them on your smart phone or Garmin Edge bike computer.
Despite being charged over-time on our Velib bikes, it was still a tiny expense. Both of our bikes for an entire week, plus over-time charges, still totaled less than one cab ride!
Tips for Using Velib
Finding a Velib Bike
First, do download the very useful Velib app from the app store. This will help you to locate and return Velib bikes, as long as you allow it to use your location. Let’s say you are strolling through Paris and you decide you want a Velib bike. Open up the app, and use it to search for the nearest available Velib bikes, using your location. At the bottom of the screen, you can toggle whether you want to see bikes available, or stands available (the latter if you are returning a bike). This is enormously useful. The screenshots below show the Velib app opening page on the left; the app displaying bikes available in the middle, and the app displaying stands available on the right.
For example, if you are running out of time on your Velib bike, you want to head for the nearest available station that actually has an empty parking spot – not a station that is full.
If you want to use a Velib bike, you don’t want to walk a couple of blocks to a Velib station, only to find that there are no bikes available there.
In our week in Paris, we had one occasion when we battled to find any bikes to check out, and ended up walking about a mile before we could find two bikes – using the Velib app to direct us, of course. We also had one occasion when we battled to find anywhere to return the bikes. On that occasion, we discovered that if you just hang about at a station for a bit, someone will come and take out a bike. There appears to be massive usage by locals. In the standard Parisian way, people seem to hop on bikes as casually as they might hop on a bus. No one dresses up for cycling, and almost no one wears bike helmets. You can see that in the slideshow below:
Note that you may sometimes be at a station where the app and the checkout machine says there are only 2 bikes available, but your eyes tell you there are 5 bikes parked there. The reason, as a local explained to us, is that the other 3 bikes have been reported as requiring service.
The app has a menu on the top left with options for things such as phoning Velib customer service, buying tickets, etc.
How to Check out a Velib Bike
The first time we checked out a Velib bike, we found it pretty easy. You need to have your numbers ready, and follow instructions carefully. We were ready with our identification number and pin code on my cell phone.
It is helpful to first pick out a bike you want, and note its station number. You will often see locals doing a quick check of the bikes prior to checking one out. Are the tires hard, is the saddle more or less the right height? (Note that you can quickly adjust the saddle height with the quick-release lever.) If you see a bike that has the saddle turned backwards, it means that bike has a mechanical problem, so don’t choose that one.
Once you have done with the kiosk and released your bike, you have a short period of time to take the bike from the stand. A green light indicates that the bike is ready to be removed. It requires a bit of physical effort, and slightly lifting the front of the bike as you pull it back seems to help.
Once you have the Velib bike out, you can place it on its very sturdy stand if you like, while you adjust saddle height and put your belongings in the basket.
Once riding, note that each Velib bike comes with a built-in lock, so that you can lock it up while you grab a coffee and a croissant, or other necessary fuel for your ride!
How to Return a Velib Bike
When returning your Velib bike, line it up carefully and push it in very firmly. An orange, then green light, followed by two successive beeps, confirms that you have returned the bike correctly. If you want to take out the same bike immediately (that is, you were returning it only because you had reached your 30 minute limit), you have to wait two minutes before the system will allow you to take out the same bike again.
Tips for Riding Bikes in Paris
If you are from North America or the UK or Australia, you are in for quite a culture shock when you start cycling in Paris. The cycling culture is as different as the language. Almost no one wears helmets or specialized cycling clothes. I saw one high vis vest in the entire week (he’s in the video!). Cyclists merge apparently seamlessly with traffic and pedestrians, hopping on and off the sidewalks with impunity.
On our second day in Paris, we did a guided ebike tour – it was the best tour of the entire trip by far, so I highly recommend you take a moment right now to put it on your bucket list. Fabien, our tour guide, who rides bike in Paris every day, explained that in Paris, cyclists are regarded as pedestrians. That is, they always have the right of way over motorists, and are allowed on sidewalks.
We noticed absolutely zero hostility from drivers or pedestrians when we followed his advice and cycled accordingly. In our home city, cycling on the sidewalks is likely to earn you hostile rebukes from outraged pedestrians. I have to say, I hugely preferred the relaxed, laissez-faire attitude of the Parisians.
All that said, the roads are very confusing, as might be expected from a city that has evolved over more than two thousand years. And the street names are high up on the sides of building, and sometimes hard to see. So do be careful and very observant of your surroundings. I very nearly got run over more than once. But then, I do tend to be absent-minded.
On the plus side, almost every street has some kind of provision for bikes, whether a painted bike lane or (less commonly) a separate bike lane. Most often it is a lane that is designated for bikes and buses. Unfortunately, taxis also use these. However, the cab drivers and bus drivers are not aggressive to cyclists.
We did not feel afraid or intimidated at all while we were cycling in Paris. That said, it does require cycling skills, and I never saw any children cycling in downtown Paris. I did see children cycling in the suburbs, where there were frequently separate bike lanes.
Bottom Line on Using Velib Bikes in Paris
We found that renting Velib bikes in Paris was easy, fun, and super cheap. Probably the best deal in Paris. And the system is extremely efficient and well run. Plus, the bikes are super comfortable and easy to ride. I highly recommend that you rent a Velib bike next time you are in Paris!
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