I remember when Vélib was born in Paris… just over four years ago. At the time, I had recently bought a used bike, because I loved the idea of getting around town above ground and on my own time. As convenient as it is, the metro can get depressing. The view is that of long drawn faces and billboards on the platforms. On the contrary, riding a bike means seeing Paris during the commute!
So I was happy about my used bike, but it was rather inconvenient to lug it up 5 flights of stairs and store it on the balcony of the little studio in Belleville that I occupied. If I had left it on the street it would have been freed from its bonds sooner or later and would have been taken off my hands.
And that was around the time Vélib was launched. But I felt that it wasn’t for me. It seemed like something that the youth from the chic-er neighborhoods were taking advantage of, and the prices seemed a little high, even if the first half an hour was free. I snubbed Vélib for months. I told all my friends that I was refusing to join the Vélib craze.
But one day, curiosity got the best of me. I went to a Vélib station near my home, and got myself a day pass, except when I tried to get a bike something was wrong. The system wouldn’t let me. So I walked to the next nearest station and tried to take a bike. Same error. Figures. I immediately felt smug about being right in thinking this bike system was not as great as it was all cracked up to be. Pshaw! I was just fine with my used bike (which I had incidentally left locked up at work because I just didn’t feel like dragging it up those five flights of stairs that evening.) Well, back to the Vélib issue, I called the customer service number that was posted on the machine in front of me, and was surprised to have a human being answer the phone! I explained my problem and the person on the other end of the line pleasantly asked for my pass number. I read it off the receipt card that the machine had spit out at me, waited for the agent on the phone to finished tapping on her computer keyboard, and then she said, “ok, you should be able to get a bike now in about five minutes” i nearly fell off the sidewalk. That was painless and simple. I employed those five minutes walking back towards the Vélib station near my home, chose a bike with inflated tires and a working gear chain, typed my code in the machine, chose the bike number, pushed the button on the bike’s stand to unlock it, and voilà!
I had not gone five minutes on the bike before realizing why they call it Vélib (“vé” for vélo – or bike- and “lib” for liberté – or freedom-). It was freedom being on that thing! I didn’t have to worry about chaining it up with two different chains, nor did I have to haul that thing up 5 flights of stairs! And I realized that a half an hour was plenty of time to get halfway across Paris (really it’s not that big).
It was love at first ride. I have been with Vélib ever since. And my place of work has moved since then, but I bet that old used bike is still locked up over there because I never used it again.
Vélib has grown since then into a well run service, but it still keeps its personal touch even though their equipment has become more advanced. In the beginning the part-time workers would ride around on Vélib bikes with a heavy backpack of tools weighing down the front basket. Now, they have all sorts of vehicles to drive around town. Like this giant bus, that is a mobile bike repair station!
Now you can also sign up for a Vélib account online. If this service gets any more convenient I’m going to start expecting a coffee machine at the bike station!