Paris by bike

One nice thing about academic life is that you get to go on sabbatical from time to time. The trick is to play your cards right and make sure you have collaborators in nice places when the time comes.  I managed to do this pretty well, which is why I’m spending almost three months in Paris.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been getting around the city mostly by bike.  Paris has a clever bike-rental system called Vélib.  You pay a small fee (5 euros for a week or 30 euros for a year) that gives you access to the bikes in the system.  There are an incredibly large number pickup and dropoff sites: in most of the city, you’re never more than a couple of blocks from one. You can take out a bike from any of the sites and drop it off at any of the others.  If you have it out for less than half an hour (which gets you pretty far), there’s no additional charge beyond your subscription fee.

There are Vélib stations right outside my apartment and my office:

Velib outside my apartment


It’s a great idea.  I hope more cities adopt things like this.  It’s way more fun than getting around on the Metro (and I say this as someone who kind of likes riding on the Metro).

Americans I’ve told about this ask me whether I’m scared of biking in the Paris traffic.  The answer is a definite no.  I haven’t done much urban biking since the mid-90’s, but I used to do it a lot then, when I was a grad student in Berkeley.  I don’t find biking in Paris to be significantly more dangerous or stressful than biking in Berkeley was.  Sure, you’ve got to pay attention, but in a lot of ways it’s a very bike-friendly city:

  1. There are lots of bike lanes.
  2. At least for the routes I’ve been traveling, I can arrange things so that, most of the time, I’m not biking past parallel-parked cars.  That’s really important: I think that car doors opening suddenly in front of you has got to be the biggest hazard of urban biking.  Most of the bike accidents I knew of when I lived in Berkeley were in this category.
  3. There are tons of other cyclists, which means that drivers are more aware of the existence of bikes than in US cities.  A colleague of mine says that this is largely due to the Vélib program: when it first started, drivers weren’t as used to bikers as they are now.

So if you’re spending time in Paris, don’t be scared — try it out!  (Litigiousness paranoia disclaimer: You ride at your own risk.  If you take my advice and get into an accident, it’s not my fault — don’t sue me!)

There are certainly a few problems with the Vélib system:

  1. It’s actually not easy to do it as an American.  To subscribe to the system, you either have to have a French bank account or a European-style credit card with a chip in it.  Rumor has it that American Express cards work, but I can’t confirm this.  I eventually had to get a colleague who lives here to launder the transaction.
  2. The pickup and dropoff spots are all automated, of course.  They have a fixed number of spots, and if one is full, you can’t drop off your bike there.  (And of course, if it’s empty, you can’t pick up a bike there.)  But the kiosk at the station will show you a map of nearby stations that do have space / bikes.  You usually don’t have to go far. And if you’re getting near the end of your half-hour, and you come to a station that’s full, it’ll give you free extra time to get to another station.
  3. As you can imagine, maintenance of the bikes is tricky.  Sometimes, you’ll get one out that has a problem (you can see a clear example in the top picture above). Savvy riders check out the bikes before taking one out, but you can always miss something.  For instance, the one I took to work this morning won’t stay in third gear unless you hang onto the gearshift — I couldn’t have found that out before selecting it.  If there is a problem, you can just check it back in and get another.  One thing the system seems to be missing: as far as I can tell, there’s no way for the user to flag a bike as having some sort of maintenance problem.  I’d think they’d want to implement that.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

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