Biking by Velo in Paris – August 2010

In May, I spent a week in California looking at some ideas for a potential business opportunity and was reintroduced to the idea of actually owning a bike.  As a kid, my friends and I biked all over town and spent our summer days biking on trails throughout Sanford and Springvale.  Then, I went to college and completely forgot about the joys of travelling by bike.

In San Francisco, I discovered that lots of people travel through the city by bicycle.  Their journeys are facilitated by a well-designed series of bike lanes and plentiful racks to lock up their rides.

When I got back to New York, I immediately purchased a bike and started riding everywhere.    I used the bike so much, that I didn’t even step foot in the subway for a few weeks.   My newfound excitement for urban cycling hinges on a simple reality:  riding a bike just makes life more fun. When I ride around my neighborhood, I feel like a kid again.  Of course, there are a lot more cars in New York than in Sanford (and the drivers are certainly more aggressive), but with proper precaution, biking is a great way to move around town.

Currently, I’m spending some time in Paris as part of my decision to live in Europe this summer.  I am taking a brief sabbatical from full-time work and my consulting job allows me to work from anywhere.  Thus, I decided to split the summer between Paris and Barcelona.  I lined up some friends with whom to swap apartments and – voilà – I have great places to live at no cost.

When I got to Paris, I was intrigued to see that the city has introduced a high-tech bike rental program  – called Vélib’ (www.velib.paris.fr) – that allows residents and visitors alike to rent bicycles on a short-term basis.  For a fee of just 5 Euros (around $6.50), and a credit card guarantee for any damage, I signed up for access.

Each morning, I walk outside of my apartment where there happens to be a bike rack. There is a web-enabled kiosk where I enter an 8-digit ID code and a PIN and then choose one the bikes or “vélos.”  On selecting a vélo, it is electronically unlocked and I’m on my way .  The bike is free for the first thirty minutes and then costs about 1 Euro for each additional thirty minutes.

With over 20,000 bikes and 1,5000 bike stations available, it seems like Vélib’ is everywhere.  I can take the 10-minute trip to the Louvre and then leave the bike at a nearby rack.  Once I want to move on, I find another free bike and move on to my next destination.  No need to worry about carrying a lock as the bikes are automatically locked when they are returned to their racks.   It all ends up being cheaper than taking the subway, and it is exhilarating to travel through Paris at street level.

Despite all these positive factors, however, travelling by vélo does have its risks.  While the city of Paris has excellent bike lanes and drivers are quite conscious of bikers, Paris also has hundreds of ancient narrow streets that require careful negotiation.

On my second day using Vélib’, I turned down a small street near the Seine and found myself approaching a trash truck head on.  Since the street was too narrow for me to drive past the truck, I moved over to the side of the street to allow the driver to pass me.   Although the French I learned in Mrs. Auger’s 8th grade French class has stuck with me quite well and I can actually get around in French pretty well, I don’t think we ever learned the phrase: “Move your bike or we are going to run it over!”  Apparently, that is what the trash collectors must have been yelling, because they proceeded to drive right into me and bend the petal on my bike.

My shock was quickly replaced with anger and I felt compelled to think of an appropriate response.  Drawing on my French-Canadian upbringing, I yelled the only thing that came to my mind: “Cochon!  Vous êts un cochon!”  The driver kind of laughed and then moved along while I was left to inspect the damage to my bike.   The petal was definitely bent, but otherwise it was in fine condition.   Not knowing what else to do, I returned my bike to the nearest rack and contemplated the charge that would surely show up on my credit card for any needed repairs.   Before anyone gets judgmental, my Parisian friends all assure me that I handled this like a true Parisian.

The Vélib’ program in Paris has truly revolutionized the city and has vastly improved quality of life.  People of every age use the vélos and it’s not uncommon to see an impossibly elegant French woman dressed to the nines and pedaling down the street.   The citizens of Paris have readily taken to the program because it is affordable, easy to use, and fun.

As for me, I dusted myself off, got another bike, and headed off to the Left Bank.   I also decided to be a bit more cautious on my bike going forward.  When I see a trash truck now, I pull off the road and respectfully wait for the truck to pass.  I have learned in life how to pick my battles, and French-Canadian insults are a poor weapon in a fight with an 8-ton truck.

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