Exploring Paris by bicycle: the Vélib

The Vélib system provides an English-language website with lots of useful information. There is also an app for Android and Iphone users.

Short-term users are best off buying buy a one-day or seven-day ticket worth 1.70€ and 8€ respectively (long-term users get a swipe card, for a subscription fee of 29€). All users pay a returnable deposit of 150€ to guarantee against theft or damage: bikes must be returned within 24 hours.

How to take a bike

The system is astonishingly easy to use, once you get used to it. It works with an eight-digit code, which you are given, and a four-digit PIN, which you choose.

Go to the nearest bike collection point (in the Rue de Tocqueville, turn right towards Villiers and take the right fork, avoiding Rue de Lévis) and locate the meter. Use the numbered keypad to select the desired options on the meter — the screen is not a touchscreen.

Follow the instructions on the screen and select or validate as requested. You will need to allow for a deposit of 150€ to be available against the failure to return your bike within 24 hours. Pay for you day ticket by credit card and you will be given a ticket with the eight-digit code. This will work in conjunction with the PIN which you have selected.

Use these to choose your bike by its stall number: when you type the number on the screen, the stall will unlock and you can go and remove the bike. Ideally you will have identified a decent-looking specimen beforehand. The ticket is valid exactly 24 hours (unless you took the seven-day option) and can be used at any time within that period to take one bike at a time.

For short breaks in cycling, you can lock the bike with its inbuilt lock which releases a key, which you take with you. For breaks longer than half an hour, you are recommended for safety reasons to return the bike to the nearest collection point. Just take out another one when you're ready to continue your journey.

The bicycles are sturdy and possess three gears and a basket at the front (but no back carrier). The saddle is easily adjustable and well suited to the smaller frame of Parisians — an advantage over the Dutch hire bikes which are designed for tall people! The brakes are less reactive than normal and may take getting used to. If for any reason the bike you have selected is not suitable, simply return it and use your ticket and PIN to take another one.

Vélib provide an app for Android or Apple smartphones. You can use this to buy your day or week ticket, and then you are given the eight-digit code on the screen. The app will tell you where the nearest collection point is and how many bicycles, and how many free spaces, each one has. The internet is essential for this, via either wifi or mobile data.

If you have finished for the day, and there is still time left on your ticket, do not be tempted to give it to a stranger or let them use your PIN: their failure to return the bike within 24h will result in 150€ being charged to you, not them. Similarly, losing the ticket is annoying (you have to buy a new one) but not catastrophic as long as no one knows your PIN.

Cycling in Paris

Paris has really woken to the pleasures of cycling, not surprisingly perhaps for the capital of the country famous for its Tour de France. The French, who are known for their cut-throat driving on motorways, are susprisingly tolerant of cycling groups especially if they include children.

Don't rely on this of course: keep your wits about you and make use of the extensive network of cycle lanes denoted by a bike graphic. In the main boulevards bicycles are asked to use the bus lanes, and in some places bikes are directed onto designated areas of the pavement. Smaller roads have no cycling provision but traffic there is slower. It helps to be an experienced urban cyclist.

It's worth knowing that on Sundays and bank holidays, and every day in high summer, the road bordering the Seine on its north side (rive droite) and a shorter stretch of its south side (rive gauche) is closed to motorised traffic. Instead it is filled with joggers, walkers, roller skaters and cyclists. The rather long access tunnel is worth using to reach the north side, to avoid carrying bikes down the stairs at other access points. And then it's a lovely traffic-free cycle along the Seine with its romantic bridges and islands.

If you are reasonably fit and accustomed to cycling in city traffic, and as long as the weather is kind, I cannot recommend highly enough the Vélib as a means to visit Paris.

Last updated: December 2015