Necessity is the mother of invention. Austerity is its co-parent. The dilemma: How does a budget traveller get from A to B in Paris? The Métro is the obvious solution and was my main mode of transport when I first visited the French capital in the 1990s. But as comprehensive and pocket-friendly the Paris Métro is, the journey from A to B in this world city is as much of a pleasure as reaching the destination. Paris is simply too picturesque to be spent underground and too large to walk around.
In 2007, the Mayor of Paris initiated Vélib’, a self-service public bicycle-sharing scheme. The name Vélib’ comes from the French words vélo (bicycle) and liberté (freedom), and the scheme is now the largest in the world outside of China.
The Vélib’ website states that there are over 23,600 bikes in the scheme with 1,800 bike stations located every 300 metres all over the city. I can certainly attest to the plentiful supply of stations with several conveniently located next to prime attractions such as the Louvre and the Notre Dame cathedral, to name but a few. A map of station locations is listed on the Vélib’ website, but trust me, you won’t ever be far from one.
All that’s needed for the scheme is a credit card, a sense of adventure and a sense of direction. For short-term travellers, one-day and seven-day tickets are available online or from the stations and, at the time of my visit, cost an astonishingly cheap €1.70 and €8.00 respectively. Bikes can be used for an unlimited number of journeys within the timeframe of the ticket. The first 30 minutes of each journey is free, and as long as you return the bike to a station within the 30 minutes all you could end up paying is €1.70 for 24 hours or €8.00 for seven days.
Despite instructions in five different languages, I found the initial ticket purchase the most challenging part of the process. In a nutshell, the station vending machine will issue a ticket upon acceptance of a credit card. Treat this ticket like gold. Input a PIN corresponding to that ticket and memorise the PIN for as long as the ticket is valid as both the ticket and PIN are needed to rent a bike. Learn from my mistake and check the bike prior to renting. To cycle down the multi-lane Avenue des Champs-Élysées is exhilarating. To abandon one’s journey because the chain has fallen off is utterly deflating. I’m determined to return and have my yellow jersey moment!
Vélib’s appeal spreads right across the community and has been embraced wholeheartedly by Parisians as well as tourists. Economically and environmentally, public bicycle-sharing schemes are a no-brainer and my experience of Vélib’ will prompt me to use other such schemes, regardless of my budget.
Safety-wise, the city has invested in bicycle lanes so cyclists are not competing with the continuous flow of vehicular traffic. Saying that, I get the impression Vélib’ has reduced the amount of cars and has led to a sense of calm I never experienced during my first visit.
Despite the Tour de France’s standing as the most famous cycle race in the world combined with my own love of cycling it would never have occurred to me to journey around Paris on two wheels. I’m just surprised how long it took me to figure out that pedalling along Paris’s world-famous boulevards and avenues with the wind blowing through my hair would be an experience as beautiful as the city itself.
For further essential travel information and tips for visiting France have a look at my Visiting France for the First Time post.