This afternoon at a spiffy station just off rue de Rennes, two cheerful Velib staffers were on hand to explain the system to curious passersby. Curious is my middle name, so I stopped for a chat.
Velib, of course, is the much-touted new "free" bicycle rental program putting thousands of bikes on the streets of Paris.
Here is the scoop. Sit down, put up your feet.
First, the bicycles are sturdy and attractive; and while I wouldn't go so far as to call them beautiful, it is a case of function defining a pleasing form. Except for their weight, they seem to be eminently practical bikes. Baskets, lights, locks, the whole package.
In order to ride a Velib, you must be at least 14 years old. (No upper age limit. Whew!) Between 14 and 18 you must have parental (or equivalent) permission.
To sign up for the one-year subscription (29 euros), you have to fill in a form and have your Velib carte mailed to you. The form is available at http://www.velib.paris.fr/ and takes about 15 days.
If you already own a Navigo pass, you can have the 29 euros charged to that and can swipe it as you would you Velib carte, at the electronic docking stations.
In order to sign up for Velib for a one-week (5 euros) or one-day (1 euro) pass, you have to have a credit card. You get this pass at the "borne" -- a kind of tall freestanding ATM found at each station. I'm embarrassed to admit that I forgot to ask if foreign credit cards will work (the ones that are sans puce, without a little microchip). This could be critical.
Enrollment requires a deposit of 150 euros, none of which is removed from your account unless you fail to return your Velib at the appropriate time. The borne will issue you a magnetic Velib Ticket which you swipe at the Velib electronic post (point d'attache) in order to unlock your bike.
This gives you unlimited use of the Velib for precisely 30 minutes, at which time, in order not to be charged more, you must either
1) return it to any Velib station in the city,
2) swap it for another Velib at any station in the city,
3) return it to a Velib station for 2 minutes (connect it to its electronic stand) and then take it again, or
4) get charged for the additional minutes.
The additional minutes are the key part to this program.
First half hour over your free initial 30 minutes: 1 euro
Second half hour after that: 2 euros
Third half hour beyond that: 4 euros
Better get that bike back on time! The point of the program, they explained, is for Velib to be an alternative to public transportation or walking. It is not "un velo a balade" -- not for leisurely day-long bike rides. That helped calm my concern about all the wonderful bike rental shops and bike tours in Paris which already do such a great job.
The Velib has a small electronic dashboard which tells you the status of your available minutes. Kind of like being on the bicycle machine at the gym, but this time you're actually going somewhere.
Locks and Security
Since you won't be keeping your bike idle for very long, the lock system won't be that necessary. But it is practical. The temporary lock is permanently attached to the bike.
So if you, for example, are just stopping by the boulangerie for a baguette, you simply flip down the kickstand (kind of like a motorcycle kickstand) and attach the lock around the nearest pole. The lock key is released once the lock is well attached. Don't lose the key! And you'll hope that the boulanger is speedy, because the minutes are ticking away one your dashboard minuterie.
Next scenario. Your 30 minutes are up and you've duly arrived at the nearest Velib station to dock your bike. But wait -- the Velib station has no free space! What to do without getting nailed for the charge for the extra 1/2 hour? Aha! They have anticipated that. The all-knowing borne knows when its station is full, so you go up to it and in Oz-like fashion ask for mercy. It grants you a 15-minute reprieve and also tells you where the nearest empty Velib station is located.
Rules of the road
They didn't have any information in English, but siad there will be some on the website and perhaps at the big official launch on July 15.
Meanwhile, there will be Velib helpers every day (except July 14) at various stations around town to explain the rules and how Velib works.
Voila. Have I confused you enough?
P.S. I asked the young staffers if the sporty Velib-logo Tshirts they were wearing would be for sale anywhere. "Euh..non, " they said with a grin. "In fact, we have to return them at the end of the day."
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