18 August 2009

My Impressions of the Velibs in Paris

Aesthetics of Velib
Having seen the bike share programs through a cross section of France, I noticed upon returning to Paris that the Velibs are nicely suited to the city. The color is just the right tone to blend in, and when you see a person on a Velib you notice the person first, the bike second. The plastic covers hide the bike-like aspects, making it seem more like a people-mover than a bike. They are discreet.

bike share programs across France
That said, I love that each city personalizes the bikes for their own aesthetic. Can't you just see how Paris is different from Dijon is different from Lyon is different from Avignon in the photo above?

Mechanics of Velib
While we were surprised that they had not elected to provide a coaster brake, I was surprised and delighted to see my Schwalbe Marathon tires on every bike share bike in France. They also invested in the Shimano generator front hub that my husband got from Peter White for his randonneuring bike. Someone has done a lot of research into the parts that go into these bikes, keeping both the cost down but also considering the repair technician's time. I would think that a parts list could be informative for the rest of us, we can leverage all that research and save ourselves a lot of time in both shopping and repairs.

That said, in our unscientific sampling we never got a perfect Velib. The hub was wonky, the headset bad, the seatpost bolt slipping, etc. Always one issue per bike, never enough to return it and select another. I thought I had a perfect Velib but then we discovered that the attachment point was bent and we had trouble returning the bike. At one point the plastic housing on the handlebars fell off my husband's bike! However we never once had an issue with any aspect of the braking, and we never had a flat.

Experience of Velib
Oh, it was glorious! Rolling in Paris, the beautiful buildings and monuments all around. We had lunch under the Eiffel Tower, then rolled across the city in just a few minutes to have mint tea and pastries at the Mosquée de Paris.

One amusing aspect of riding a Velib is dealing with parking. We got to one part of the city and all the stations were full. We rolled around for while looking for an open space and I quickly lost patience. I realized that it's been years since I'd circled for parking!

Psychology of Velib
The most profound impact of the Velib program was how the psychology of it changed our perceptions of cycling in the city, and indeed changed our behavior cycling in the city.

In America, articles like this contribute to the collective feeling that a cyclist is transgressing by pedaling on the roadway. There is a distinct feeling of trespass, that bikes don't belong. As a result cyclists feel like "outlaws" and often take liberties; for their own safety and because they feel they're outlaws anyway. Drivers don't feel this way, to them it's perfectly natural to be in the road and they mostly buy in to the system.

By riding a Velib all that disconnect changed. All of a sudden we were part of the establishment, we belonged. We had state-granted rights that were almost inherent to "state-vehicle" we rode, and that state sanction traveled with us on the street for all to see.

rules for riding a Velib in ParisThere were also responsibilities as a Velib. In circumstances where we might have tried to jump a light (Idaho-style) as outlaws, on a Velib we calmly rode into the intersection and took our lane as we needed it, then gave it back when we didn't, content in the understanding that we were entitled to the space we needed to travel safely. I've ridden dedicated bike lanes before, it was a world-shifting experience to feel as entitled while on the city streets.

The final mind-shift of the Velib program is the way in which it changes the idea of who can ride a bicycle. In America it's predominately young folks. In France the bicycle-riding generation had moved to the countryside and was aging. One of our hosts told us riding a bike had started to be perceived as lame (ringard) among women my age. Velib has attracted both those populations and everyone else - we saw 8 year olds, 28 year olds, 48 year olds, and 80 year olds on bikes. And everyone else. Anyone can ride a Velib, and that changes the perception of cycling even among those who do not choose to participate.

When I grow up I want to be this lady. You can't see her face but she's at least as old as my mother:

elegant cyclist on a Velib

Bike Share and Boston

Oh, Boston, Boston, I have such high hopes for you and your bike share. Can you ever meet my high expectations? I worry that you'll do like Washington and get just a couple bikes and call it a bike share, or like Brussels and not put in enough stations. Velib works because the entire region is saturated, Paris apparently has one bike for every hundred citizens and Boston would need to take into account the student population. I fear you won't educate your drivers and that the Globe will publish more inflammatory nonsense. If Boston puts her mind to doing something well she has the brain-power and influence to do it as well as anyone, but do we have the will? I don't know.


Thom said...

Great article, Charlotte. Good to hear about personal experience with arguably the world's most famous bike-share. It's interesting to note that the bikes still performed their function as people movers despite little foibles. I wonder if the "high-performance" mindset among many riders (and the broader cultural assumption even among non-riders) that every bike must be at peak efficiency all the time will prove to be an obstacle to the success of bike-share in the US? I can see people saying "oh, I can't ride this, it's broken" if the reflector falls off, you know?

Dottie said...

What an interesting post! This is the first time I've heard that Velibs have Schwalbe tires - I'm very impressed because I use only Schwalbes and have never had a flat with them. It's great to know that the existence of Velib legitimizes cycling. I'd hoped it was so, but was not sure how it all played out. Do you know whether the city has created additional infrastructure now that there are more cyclists on the road? Hopefully I'll be able to visit Paris sometime next year.

Cosmo said...

I really like your analysis. I understand that the velibs are by the same group that owns Batavus and Koga Miyata. http://bespoke.onthefourth.com/?p=555

So it makes sense that they are beautiful and super practical.

Charlotte said...

Thom, I have noticed men in particular have been poo-poo'ing my friend's Raleigh 3 speed. Her boyfriend has a high performance road bike, to him that's the only kind of bike. I don't know if a bike share would change his mind, and I don't know how comfortable Americans will be with imperfect bikes. That said, I doubt most cyclists would have noticed the hub and headset issues that we noticed, when I ride my dad's bike I always have to fix something that he hasn't noticed yet.

Dottie, there is definitely more infrastructure since we moved away (2006) but I don't know how much of that is new since Velib (2007). I have to imagine it's the impetus. Let me know if you'll be there August of next year, it would be fun to do a cycle chic rendezvous!

Cosmo, that's a great article you linked. I agree with the analysis there, I do find the Parisian traffic chaotic and strangely safe, before and now. It's a different rhythm than Boston with different space parameters, but once re-familiarized I felt safer in Paris than Boston. I like the language metaphor in your link, to me it was a dance metaphor but ultimately it's the same thing - communication. We'll get there, someday.

Carice said...

A very thoughtful post, especially the on psychology of riding. When I was in Barcelona this summer I was really sad that I couldn't try the Bicing bikes (you have to be a permanent resident). We rented dutch bikes though and did a lot of biking in the city center. One thing that really surprised me was how on the incredibly narrow streets, drivers neither tried to pass, nor tried to inch up behind me to pressure me to go faster, as happens to me on a weekly basis on side streets in Cambridge. It felt like drivers just accepted that bikes had the right to be there, and that on narrow streets nobody was going to get anywhere terribly fast.

I'm really really hopeful about the bike share too, but I'm also somewhat fatalistic. It seems like on one hand there are proponents like Nichole Freedman and to some extent, the mayor, but they are being undermined by all the good ol'boy traffic engineers who are only interested in throughput and VMT and car centric design. I just don't get the feeling that there's integrated transportation management thinking about bikes and parking and infrastructure. I hope it will work, but I'm also worried that it's before it's time, and that it will be an embarrassing failure. I wish that they were starting it in Cambridge, where they have more integrated transportation planning and a larger core constituency. I think it would have a better chance of succeeding and growing that way.
I hope to be proven wrong.

Cris C. said...

Hi Charlotte -- a month or so ago, I went up to Montreal with my girlfriend and a couple of other friends and we wound up using their Bixi bike shares. Actually, a friend and I relied on Bixis, which I believe is what Boston is getting ... while the girl brought her trusty hybrid up and rode along with us. Our experience was slightly similar, though rather different. For one, we don't do the transgressive red light running behavior that you and your devil-may-care husband engage in, so we didn't make as much of a head shift in how we behave while on the bike. We did notice that there was a much lower frequency of red light runners in Montreal than in Boston, but that's an anecdotal observations, and I think the behavior existed before the Bixi.

We never had problems finding parking per se, but we did have some problems actually finding a bike in some places. They were so heavily used that if you saw an available bike at a rack a block away, you ought to run there and get it, lest someone else swoop it out from you.

As far as parking went, however, we could always find a rack, even if it was a block or two from our destination. Since the girl brought her own bike, she could usually park closer, but had to find an available post and mess with her cable and/or U-lock. I think we ran about even about who got to the door of whatever destination we were aiming for.

The Bixis were outfitted similarly to the Velibs (though they are blockier and the front basket isn't quite as pretty) but they do have the generator hub with LED front and twin rear. Didn't catch the maker of the tires, but they were super wide and cushy. Otherwise, accessories were commuter-standard: bell, kickstand, adjustable seat. We didn't have any build problems with our bikes, but we did hear that there were issues with broken dock units and difficulties with checking bike back in to the dock properly. We were actually wrestling with a dock at one point and an off-duty Bixi employee came up to us and apologized, saying that they were working on an upgraded, more robust design for deployment in Montreal in the fall.

I agree with your comparison to DC and highlight the importance of going big early. I think Montreal generally avoided that, but their Bixi deployment only covers the south and west of the island, so it basically meant that the primary users of the system were tourists and folks living in the city centre, but not the bordering communities. I think the analog would be to have Boston's system only cover Downtown, the Back Bay, South End, Kenmore and Cambridge, but not extend to, say, Brookline, Allston/Brighton or Somerville.

Velouria said...

Your description was interesting to read. The last time I was in Paris was last July, but this was before my cycling obsession and I did not take advantage of Velib. I do remember that people of all ages rode them, and that they seemed as natural on the streets as scooters.

The CityBike programme in Vienna fails in this respect, and I never feel comfortable using it when I am there. The problems seem to be the exact opposite of Velib: The Viennese bikes are well-maintained and everything usually works. But the stations are limited to central areas of the city, and the bikes come with enormous adverts in garish colour schemes, so they definitely do not "blend in".

Hopefully, the programme they plan to launch in Boston will be effective and useful.

Thom said...

Another question occurs to me, perhaps related to my first comment about bikes with minor maintenance issues. Was there any sort of waiver or notice when agreeing to take a Velib that you are about to engage in an activity that may result in injury and Velib and the city are not responsible, etc.? And what if there is a catastrophic failure of the bike, like a broken crank, axle, seatpost, etc.? Was there any indication, from a user's perspective, who would be responsible if a Velib failed or contributed to an injury and/or accident?

Charlotte said...

Thom, There might very well have been. I was so eager to get my paws on that Velib that I blithely agreed to everything - they may have asked for my firstborn, I don't know.

I just heard from my husband, the day of Velib cost us $2.92 each. Not bad!

My colleague's son is in Paris right now, turns out we're lucky we brought our American Express because, in a rare reversal, they don't take American Visa or Mastercard. Poor guy is renting bikes from the Marie (which is a better deal if you want to go on a long ride, in 2006 it was 5 Euro/day).

antbikemike said...

Very interesting post and glad to see so many comments. I am not sure if I am in favor of bike share programs...however I would definitely rent one if I were traveling and needed a bike ;) I would be more in favor of that city/state money spent on good, safe bicycle parking and seperated bike paths and lanes. Or maybe a bike buying plan for citizens of that area...bike purchace funding for residents that meet some criteria. Like live and work within 5 miles or city limits, no car owner ship. I just think owning the bikes will last longer and that rented bikes will be abused and fail. I guess at this point I would be happy with anything [including a city bike share program] any bike forward thinking is good for all.

Sean said...

Thanks for writing such a detailed posting, Charlotte. I was especially interested to hear about the "aesthetics of Velib."

A while back, I viewed a PBS program on Velib. It was part of a larger series called "E Squared."

During the program, Velib organizers discussed their challenge in creating a bike and program that riders would like. It was a tough job. Most Parisians associated the bicycle with post-WWII poverty. It was unfashionable and something their grandparents had to use to get around. They needed to build something that was not only functional and durable, but had that Apple computer "want factor" that would draw users to something unfamiliar.

It looks like they succeeded and I'm happy for them.

By the way, those interested can watch the program at http://www.e2-series.com. The site is all in flash so, unfortunately, there is no direct link for the program. But a few clicks and you're there. "Paris: Velo Liberte" is the program title. It's well done and Brad Pitt is the narrator.

Trisha said...

When I was last in Paris in 2007 the Velib system didn't seem as supported as it sounds like it is now -- a lot of the bikes were broken (we're talking wheels missing) and not all of the stations would accept people who hadn't used the system before, so I was frustrated in my attempt to use it. (I wasn't a regular cyclist then so perhaps I was too easily frustrated!) I think at that point demand exceeded supply, so that's why the only bikes left at the stations were broken. Anyway, it's good to hear it's working so well and so easy for tourists! I can't wait to try it out on my next trip. Thanks so much for the details and photos. Like you I feel that bike-sharing programs are a great way of making people realize that bikes ARE an official form of transportation.

Velouria said...

Thinking about this some more and reading Chris C.'s comment about broken docks, I am wondering how Boston will deal with the issue of vandalism and theft when employing the bike share program. There are relatively few areas in the city where I feel that I can safely leave a bike without finding a part of it removed upon my return.

Cris C. said...

hi Filigree,

just in response to your concerns ... I should probably preface my remarks by knocking on some wood first. however, for the last three years, I have ridden my custom ANT Club Racer as my day-in, day-out city bike around Boston and I've never had a problem with vandalism. I've left it locked up outside the Middle East and Paradise for rock concerts, chained it up outside movie theatres and locked it up all over town while attending parties and events hosted by friends and I've always come back to it intact. I have had bikes and parts stolen in the past, so I'm not being naive about things, but in general, I believe that the threat of thievery and vandalism is a bit overblown. Thieves go for easy prey. If your bike isn't easy to steal or vandalize, they'll go elsewhere.

Yes, I am aware of the Feb. stories about Velib theft problems in Paris. And I don't deny that there are going to be some thefts and shenanigans. Tragedy of the Commons and all. However, one of the advantages of not being a 'first mover' and instead being a 'fast follower' is learning from problems as the early adopters encounter them.

My understanding is that the Bixis come equipped with a GPS transmitter that allows operators to track units and control theft. The bikes themselves generally seem to be designed to protect them from ordinary vandalism. There's a pretty decent article in the New York Times that describes how the Bixis incorporate a lot of design elements that were based on lessons learned from the initial Velib implementation.

I think, in general, the defense against theft and vandalism comes down to the security of the check-in/check-out program. If you tie every Bixi check-out to a person's credit card, then it becomes easy to enforce accountability.

I think the bigger challenge to overcome with implementing a bike share in Boston is the perceived safety of cycling in the city. Every city that I've seen that has successfully implemented a bike share program has accompanied it with a very aggressive, concurrent bike lane infrastructure program. If there isn't a percetibly safe and easy way for a person to go from, say, the river to the Aquarium to Fenway Park and back again, then I fear that adoption will be limited.

A different person named Charlotte said...

So, American credit cards without the chips work for the Velib? I've heard different accounts. Please confirm.

Charlotte said...

I speak from first-hand experience that a US-based American Express card worked with no trouble at all. Twice even! Once for me and once for my husband.

I have heard that US-based Mastercards and Visas do not work, but I did not try.

Hope that helps,