Braving Paris—by Bicycle (Part I)

Ever since George Gershwin penned his rhapsody to Paris, An American in Paris, with its car horns and street chaos vividly set to music, we’ve believed that Paris would not be the place for a non-Parisian to drive, much less cycle. Fast forward to the 21st century with the environment and the economy spinning out of control, and cycling here looks much more attractive. Gone is the traffic chaos—wrong. It’s still there, perhaps more so, but now there are many more advantages to the drawbacks for experienced urban cyclists.

Cycling in Paris – Are You Ready?

If you find Vancouver cycling harrowing, this article is not for you. This article is for the intrepid cyclist who’d like to experience the City of Lights using the lightest for of transport—the bicycle. Here, I’ll describe how to use Velib’, the city-wide bicycle service that is easy to use (with a few tips I learned) and very, very cheap.

Velib’ introduced a municipal service a few years ago that has become popular with Parisians. You’ll see the distinctive solid-built cyclists used by everyone—business men, shoppers, students, lovers, and intrepid tourists like me.

Velib’s Usability Challenges

Setting up a pass at the Velib’ stop near my hotel turned out to be very difficult, and it wasn’t a language difficulty. After several attempts to understand its lexicon, I finally asked a very helpful Parisian who, not understanding it himself, called Velib’ headquarters and we finally got it working. There are several design flaws that make it hard to use. This is what I found:

  • Velib’ is designed for local users who buy year-long passes. One can buy a one-day or six-day pass, but it’s very difficult—even locals can’t figure it out.
  • The self-serve kiosk by the bikes has input on one side and a screen with directions on the other. This means you have to jump around to follow its logic.
  • The other language options don’t carry through, so even when I started in English, the machine seems to forget my language choice and part way through, revert to French. In the end, I gave up on English and used the French. At least it’s consistent.
  • The procedure times out too quickly. After keying my way through five screens, I’m presented with a policy screen to read (in French), which times out before I through it. I have to start again.
  • Occasionally, it just doesn’t work for any apparent reason. I learned a lot about patience with this machine.

Taking a Bicycle

My suggestion is that you buy your pass on their web site. It’s easy to use. You can buy a six-day or one-day pass and it provides you with the code you’ll need to sign out a bicycle. Armed with a code, the kiosk is very easy to use (really):

  1. Enter the code it provided.
  2. Enter the four-character passcode you set up on the web site.
  3. Accept responsibility for the bicycle. Press V which stands of valider, not voila! as I’d imagined.
  4. Enter the number of the bicycle you want (I always start by checking a bicycle’s tires and brakes and memorizing the number of the one I prefer. In Velib’ parlance, a broken bicycle is identified by turning the seat backwards).
  5. Press the button at the stand of the selected bicycle and pull it back—hard. Sometimes they’re sticky.
  6. Allez! Remember, your first half hour is free so off you go.

Getting around Paris

As I stated earlier, cycling in Paris is not for the faint of heart, but take heart, it is very doable. Here are some tips that I learned to stay safe.

  • The first time you take a bicycle, make navigation and cycling your first priority. Save sightseeing until you get more comfortable. For me, it took a couple of days.
  • Follow the rules of the road. Don’t run red lights and so forth. In Paris, you don’t know what direction traffic comes from (scooters out of alleyways, trucks parked on the bike path—it’s madness.
  • Some one-way streets (but not all) allow cyclist to cycle against the traffic (watch for sauf cyclists – except cyclists) on the one-way signs.
  • Parisians tend to follow the spirit of the law, rather than us who follow the letter of the law. This is why you’ll sometimes see motorcyclists on sidewalks and trucks parked on the cycle routes. Other than going a half block up a one-way street that doesn’t permit cyclists to do so, I was pretty strict with the laws.
  • Part of the chaos of Paris streets comes from motor cycles and scooters. They fly around you and force their way in at any opportunity. As a cyclist, you need to be almost as aggressive if you want to get anywhere. This doesn’t contradict my previous obey-all-laws commandment. Paris drivers are a lot more aggressive—it’s expected. If you’re too timid, you’ll be out of flow with the traffic and Paris traffic is all about flow—that’s what the spirit of the law is about.

The bells on the Velib’ bicycles are a joke—nobody could possibly hear you. Be prepared to call out in French. Here’s my cycling vocabulary:

  • Pardon – please make room for me or sorry for what I just did.
  • Attendez! – Wait! I’m coming through
  • Attention! – Watch out!
  • Merci – Thanks

Next post…Velib’ in Paris II