Contes des Sharrows: A Guest Post From Marc in Paris

Aside from being DC's 37th most popular bike commute blogger, I'm also something of a global media mogul. This affords me the opportunity to collect reports from abroad for your reading pleasure. FOTB (acronym for friend of the blog, not the Persian slang word for "woodpecker") Marc happens to be currently residing in Paris, France, European Union, Earth and was kind enough to write this excellent post on that city's cycle hire scheme and other aspects of its "bike culture." I offer him many "mercis" in return and wish a safe return from the land of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. 

First off, I'll give a little context to this post...I'm in Paris currently for my job and needed a distraction.  This isn't my first long stay here before for work, so I've spent plenty of time seeing the sights, and this time I decided I'd try to document and explore Paris' bike share system, Velib, and the city's bike infrastructure, and see how it compares to DC.  Many thanks to TFTS for helping me share my experiences and I hope this doesn't end up being TL:DR...

In many ways, DC and Paris are similar, just on different scales...wide boulevards with streets radiating from large traffic circles.  Paris proper, however, fits about almost four times as many people into an area about two thirds the size of DC, so it is seriously dense.  Like DC, Paris also is fairly car-dependent, unlike say Amsterdam or Copenhagen, so it's not some cycling paradise.  Still, the cycling infrastructure is far superior to DC's the drivers are much more tolerant to used to sharing the road,  so there's a much greater sense of security on the streets.  Paris also has squeezed sharrows, bike lanes, and cycletracks into just about every nook and cranny available, so it's rare that you end up having to ride in the actual street.

Sidewalk, cycletrack, sidewalk, bus lane, traffic lane...and yet traffic isn't ground to a halt

Cycletracks often get preference over pedestrian space

Cycletrack meets sharrows

Contra-flow bus/bike line

Okay, so now on to Velib, Paris' bikeshare system.  Velib started in 2007 and has something like 20,000 bikes and over 1200 stations.  It is massive.  Even the smallest Velib stations are larger than many CaBi stations.  From my observations, the system gets plenty of use, too, even during one of Europe's coldest winters.  The system operates similarly to CaBi.  Choose a day, week, or yearly membership and you can check out a bike for up to 30 mins for free.  Daily memberships are 1.70 euros (about $2.25) and an annual membership is 29 euros (about $38).  There's also an option for a 39 euro annual membership, which gets you 45 minutes of riding time instead of 30...kind of a cool option.  Originally, I planned to use Velib to commute, but my hotel is so close to my office it just doesn't make sense, so I've just been using the system for recreational riding.

Although I hear the kiosks only take the chipped euro-style credit cards, you can easily buy a subscription online and use it immediately.  I have a yearly CaBi membership, so I haven't spent much time using the kiosks, but I did have to use it once and I found it very clunky.  The Velib kiosks are extremely easy to use, with large, clear LCD screens and multiple language options.  If you have an annual subscription, you can get an Smarttrip-like card that you can use directly at the spot where the bike is locked into the station.  The bikes have a flange-type thingy on the side instead of the stem-mounted lock on CaBi.

[Ed. note: Marc isn't actually trapped in the machine. It's just an optical illusion. I hope]

You have to press the silver button to release the bike
The bikes themselves are similar to CaBis...three speeds grip shifts, with integrated hubs, chainguards, etc.  I have to say that I enjoy the baskets on the Velibs much better, as they seem more functional than whatever those things are on CaBis.  However, the bikes themselves do not seem as sturdy as CaBis and they don't seem to get as much maintenance.  This could simply could be due to the age of the bikes.  Another thing is that there doesn't seem to be a way to identify broken bikes, other than turning the seat around, which is what Parisans typically due.  There may be a maintenance feature on the kiosk though, but I didn't look.  Velibs also come with integrated locks, and it didn't take long to figure out why...

Why would anyone lock up a bikeshare bike?

Oh I see....
Like CaBi, Velib is difficult to use without a smartphone.  I have an unlocked phone, so I got a prepaid SIM and it works like a charm.  Once I checked out my bike and figured out where I was going, I was on my way.  It was only then that an overwhelming sense of giddiness swept over me.  Although Paris is a beautiful city, the major sites are somewhat spread out and to see them all you have to either walk a lot, or use the Metro.  I certainly am not opposed to using the Metro and have used it extensively, but in a city like Paris, wouldn't you rather be above ground, taking in all the sights and sounds?  So biking in Paris is, in a word, awesome.  It's so quick and so easy, I can't imagine trying to get around town any other way.  Between biking and some walking, I covered 14 miles in just a few hours.  Can you imagine walking that far?

Place de la Bastille...on to...

...Notre Dame...

...to the Eiffel Tower.  All in about an hour.
So Velib is awesome and Paris is a great place to ride a bike.  Well, there are some drawbacks that weren't immediately apparent.  I noted earlier that Parisians are much more accustomed to interacting with bikes.  But that doesn't stop them from being jerks...

Ironically, this jackass parked in the bus/bike lane and ran into the bike shop

The curb separation for the cycletrack didn't stop this delivery truck
And Velib isn't perfect either.  Although there supposedly are people out balancing stations, I can't say I ever saw a van or truck moving bikes around.  For a system this dense, I was amazed by how imbalanced it gets.

A very common sight on weekdays

And either the Velib app sucks, or the system has some software issues that keep the app from getting updated information.  This happens on CaBi sometimes, when station updates don't get pushed immediately, but with Velib, it's out of control and happened to me 4 stations in a row...

Sweet! 19 bikes available...

So that sums up my thoughts on cycling/bike sharing in Paris.  But in case you're interested, here are some additional nuggets.

Bike shops in Paris are awesome.  One, Merci, is a bookstore/coffeeshop/furniture store/perfumery/puzzle store/art exhibit.  If you find yourself in Paris, you really should drop in.

I also stopped at another, smaller shop just up the road:

Had to buy something French, so I picked up this sweet wool jersey

Taking the lane on the Champs Elysees
Sunday is an ideal day to ride...no traffic anywhere.
Paris is relatively flat, but there are some climbs, like up to Montmartre

It's cold out!
Autolib, Paris' electric carshare system


  1. How fantastic! Loved reading how the Parisians bike.
    For the record, the phrase surrender monkeys will never get old.

  2. Great post! That was a special treat. Thank you.

  3. Wow! This is so awesome--thank you! I took a bicycle tour of Paris a couple of years ago and was kind of terrified by Parisian drivers. Good for you for taking it all head-on!

  4. All and all, makes we want to visit Paris. Merci.

  5. Very cool post. Thanks!

  6. That was awesome. Great comparisons to DC, great insight, great photos, Marc. Also, Sharrows editor, loved how "cheese-eating" was at its most pejorative in that sentence. Beautiful.

  7. That's no optical illusion...the French government mistook me for General Zod and held me in that glass prison until they could confirm my identity. Calling the gendarmes "surrender monkeys" didn't really help.