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Travel Hacks: Free Bikes in Paris

I just returned from Paris and the formidable Le Web ’08 conference that Loïc and Geraldine Le Meur hosted there, and really had a great time!  I will write more about the conference shortly.

Meantime, you may have heard that Paris has installed a network of bicycle stations throughout the city and that they are available for folks to use for their commutes, errands, and to generally replace cars and other forms of transport where possible.

What the press has not reported so well is that these bikes are FREE for trips under 30 minutes (with a very reasonable 1 € /24H subscription), and that it is EASY for tourists to use the bikes. Often, European ticketing machines require credit cards which utilize a smart-card chip, but Paris’ Velib’ bikes have no such requirement.

Here’s how it works:

  • Arrive at a bike station and select English as your desired language
  • Select “Short term subscription” and choose a 24-hour (1 €) subscription or 7 day subscription (5 €)
  • You will guarantee the bike with your credit card for up to 150 €, but you will only be charged if the bike is not returned
  • You’ll be given a ticket with a subscription number good for the duration of your subscription
  • Follow the directions for taking a bike, and grab one (warning, pick one with good tires and check the seat to be sure it stays up)
  • Take a bike
  • Return it within 30 minutes and your rental is free!
  • Enter your subscription number when you return the bike to confirm the return; the bikes have active electronics that detect the station, so this may not be strictly necessary, but it’s a good idea

Now, at first the requirement to return in 30 minutes may seem like a problem, but it’s not: there are stations every 300 m throughout all of Paris, and you will see these stations everywhere.  So, these bikes are great for touring! Bike for a bit, return the bike when you are near your destination or see something interesting, and then walk, train, or meander wherever you like.  You can pick up your next bike wherever it’s convenient, and you never have to worry about locking up your bike, leaving a rental bike in a sketchy neighborhood, or having to go back to where you parked your bike.  It’s by far the most carefree and fun travel bicycling experience I’ve ever had.

Occasionally, the station where you would like to return a bike is full. If this happens, you can enter your subscription number at the kiosk and it will give you a map of nearby stations (there should be 3-4, as they are placed every 300m). The system also issues you an extra 15 minutes of free time to get to the other station, though in practice 5 minutes is usually all that is required.

We literally did not think that we were going to use these bikes because so many of the articles we read said things like, “These bikes are not great for tourists because they require a European credit card and cost a lot of money if you keep them all day.”  And yes, if you keep the same bike all day, they charge something like 4 €/hour after 2 hours. However, the cure for this is simple: don’t keep the same bike all day.  Up to 2 hours the rate is something like 1 € per hour and not nearly as expensive as a traditional bike rental.  And who wants to bike for more than a half hour anyway? Paris is all about stopping, checking out unique neighborhoods, grabbing some cheese and wine, and exploring.  For this, Paris’ Velib’ (short for Velo Libre — free bikes) is perfect!

Other cities (and counties) should follow Paris’ lead on this.  It’s a great system, run by advertising giant JC Decaux in exchange for outdoor advertising rights in Paris.  No small trade, but the the benefit to the people of Paris (and to its visitors) of having a well run system for replacing cars is huge. If you have not been to Paris before, this should encourage you to go; if you visit often, please try the Velib’ bikes!

And yes, biking in Paris is somewhat entertaining.  While they don’t have as developed a system of bike lane markings as in, say, Berlin, it is functional and you quickly get a feel for where it’s a bad idea to be biking. Shooting across the Seine to the Rue de Rivoli at 9:30 at night proves to be a bit harrowing, but you have the right of way and people are genuinely interested in not killing you; it would be a bureaucratic nightmare for everyone involved.

So, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go to Paris, grab a bike, and have a great time!

  • Matt Sadler

    Hi Dave, love your blog – fascinating stuff! I’m just writing because I included pictures of Twittervision & Flickrvision in an essay I wrote for an advertising course and now the UK advertising trade body (IPA) would like to publish it in a UK advertising trade journal (Campaign). Can you ping me an e-mail to let me know if that’s okay with you, please? Sorry to ask through a comment, but I couldn’t find your e-mail addresss… :o)

    Thanks for your help. Hope the weather gets better soon!

  • wahn

    them bikes r ugly n da town

  • http://www.stay247.com/hotels/australia/gold-coast-hotels.html Gold Coast Hotels

    Bikes are carbon free. Maybe we should promote bikes to save mother earth. It's environment friendly.

  • http://www.stay247.com/hotels/australia/melbourne-hotels.html Melbourne Hotels

    Bikes are carbon free. Maybe we should promote bikes to save mother earth. It's environment friendly.

  • http://www.jrconsumer.com/ Travel Trailers

    this is a great idea but quite risky…

  • http://www.DooConsulting.net/ Peter Doo

    Just back from Paris. Wanted to enjoy the bikes but had to have a smart card. Besides, It rained much of the time. Still, I loved the system and was very frustrated that the weather and technology closed us out. It's a great system!

  • http://www.jrconsumer.com/ travel trailers

    While I enjoyed spending most of my traveling