This article is part of a two-post series on Vélib bike sharing and biking in France. This post in particular is specific to the Vélib bike sharing program in Paris. If you want to learn about biking in France, then check out the other post here.
Growing up in Canada, biking was a hobby. It was something you did with family on a sunny afternoon, or as a way to stay in shape and keep active. Biking was not seen as a true mode of transportation. Canada is quite big. We have cars for that sort of thing.
France on the other hand, is not so big. Paris in particular is actually quite space-efficient. Prices for a closet of an apartment are right up there with Manhattan or London. Big cars require big parking lots and big space is just not what Paris can offer. The alternative then (aside from taking the often dirty and smelly subway) is to bike.
Biking in Paris, like in other major European cities, is wildly popular. I didn’t want to spend my travelling stuck underground sitting beside people I’d rather not sit next too and looking out windows that had no views. Plus, in the winter, the subway stations become taken over by many citizens as a “homeless shelter” and a way to stay out of the cold. With this in mind, I decided to master the art of biking in the city of Paris.
Vélib is a bike share system found all over Paris. It’s a mash of the words vélo meaning “bike” and libre meaning “free”. Vélib has 20,000 bikes available 24/7 at over 1,800 stations located every 300 metres all over Paris. This makes Vélib the largest bike sharing program in the world. There are several similar programs in most major cities in France and the rest of Europe. Here are the websites for every other similar program I have found throughout France:
Amiens, Angers, Avignon, Beauvais, Belfort, Besançon, Bologne-sur-Mer, Bordeaux, Caen, Calais, Cergy-Pontoise, Clerment-Ferrand, Créteil, Dijon, Dunkerque, Grenoble, La Rochelle, Laval, Lille, Lorient, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Mulhouse, Nancy, Nantes, Nice, Obernai, Orléans, Pau, Perpignan, Rennes, Rouen, Saint-Étienne, Toulouse, Valence, Vannes, Villeurbanne
Although this post is specific to Paris’ Vélib program, all other bike share programs in France are extremely similar, including in cost and the process of using a bike.
Purchasing a membership
You can buy a yearly Vélib membership for 19.99€ for students, or slightly more for everyone else, available online on Vélib’s website. You will receive a confirmation email after the purchase is complete. Do not delete this email! You can then order your card online with your membership, or stop by any Mairie office and ask for one.
Activating your pass
Once you have both the physical card and a membership, you can activate your pass at one of the ATM-looking machines at any Vélib station. The machine is in several languages and the instructions are easy. You’ll need to provide the confirmation code from the email you received when you purchased your membership. You’ll also need to create a PIN for future use. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate the card. Once the process is completed, your card is ready to go!
Choosing a bike
At any Vélib station, select a bike. Be sure that the bike you choose is in good working order. I usually check that the tires are inflated and the wheels aren’t bent, then I lift the back wheel and give the pedals a spin to make sure the chain is working right. Also, adjust the seat before taking out the bike, as sometimes they get stuck in their position or the adjuster doesn’t grip to the seat shaft anymore, resulting in a permanently high or low ride. Once you are certain that you have a good bike, you can now take it out.
Taking out the bike
You will see that the front wheel of the bike is attached to a sort of stand along the right hand side. There will be a green light on top of the stand if the bike is available. If it is red, then the bike has been reported as broken, or the station is out of order. Tap your Vélib card on the green light and you should hear a beep. The light will now be orange. You have about 10 seconds to take the bike out of the stand before it locks itself again. To do so, grab the handlebars and give the bike a good firm yank backwards. This should free the bike from the stand. If you don’t get it on the first try and the light turns green again, just tap your pass again and give it another go. Sometimes the angle of the pavement is a little off, making it more difficult that usual to remove the bike. Once you’ve removed the bike, it is yours for free for the next 30-45 minutes (depending on your pass).
The other way of borrowing a bike
If you find you are still having issues with taking out a bike using the stands, try doing so using that big ATM-looking machine you used earlier. Place your card over the purple rectangle that looks exactly like the purple top of the bike stand. Take a look at the first photo and you will see it on the left hand side under the screen. The screen will ask for your PIN and then you can select a bike by following the on-screen instructions.
Need more time?
If you need the bike for more than the allotted 30-45 minutes, you can return it at any station and swap it out for a new one to reset the timer. You will have to wait about five minutes in between rentals.
Returning the bike
Once you are done your trip, you can return the bike at any station. Line up the bike with the bike stand and slide the bar on the bike into the slot of the stand. If the stand beeps and the light flashes orange, then you don’t have the bike in the stand all the way. Again, the angle of the pavement can make this difficult. Give the bike a good push to get it all the way into the stand, or just take the bike out and give it another attempt. Once the bike is in, wait for the green light and the “beep beep” sound. All done! Easy right?
What if I go over the time limit?
If you do go over the allotted time, there is a fee of 1€ per half hour until the bike is successfully returned (so do make sure you get that green light before you go!). You won’t be able to take out another bike until the fee is paid, but considering a standard metro ticket starts at 1.41€, Vélib is still a cheaper option most times. The fee is paid at the ATM-looking machines. If your Vélib bike is lost or stolen while in your possession, you are liable for the 150€ replacement fee.
Other tips for using Vélib
- If all the Vélibs at a station are gone, use the ATM-looking machine to find the next closest station. You can also use this feature to see how many bikes are available at that station.
- If all the stands at a station are full, also use the ATM-looking machine to find the nearest station with an available stand. You can also see how many stands are available at that station.
- If you see a bike with the seat turned backwards, this is the universal sign that the bike is no good. The reason might not be obvious (maybe the handlebar wobbles or the gears need oiling), but avoid all bikes with backwards seats.
- If a station is empty and it is right beside a metro station, consider waiting five or so minutes. These stations have many people coming and going and you will likely get a bike there shortly. The same applies for returning a bike at a full station near a metro station.
- Vélib bikes also have baskets and locks built into them. To use the lock, take the coiled strand out of its holder in the basket and wrap it around whatever you are locking the bike to. Then insert the end into the lock hole, which is located beside the bar that you use for returning the bike into its stand. You can see it in the photo above: the hole is located on the bronzy-coloured block ahead of the silver bar. When you insert the coil and hear a click, remove the little black key from just beside the lock hole, also on the same bronzy block. To unlock the bike, insert the key, turn it, and the coil should pop out from the hole again. If you can’t get the key to turn when you are unlocking the bike, try pushing the coil into the lock further and then turn the key. Sometimes the pull back from the coil onto the lock prevents you from unlocking the bike easily.
- If you are planning your route in advance, or for the first time, the Vélib website also has a complete list of all their bike stations, searchable on a map. They have an app available as well.