TRAVEL with pat and lew

* Velib … not designed for tourists

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 29, 2009

We have described Paris’ Velib before – a magnificent concept poorly implemented. But, we thought optimistically, we solved it last year, we can do it again. No problem. Wrong!

Velib is a system of bike rentals, with stations all over Paris. You rent the bike, take it wherever you want, leave it at another station. The system is designed for repeat use by Paris residents, who purchase an annual membership and for whom, we suspect, the procedure is quite efficient.

Not so for the occasional user.

There are 17 steps in the process of renting a bike. Make a mistake in any of them and you immediately return to GO. You can almost hear the French bureaucrat chortling in the background.

There are 3 distinct phases, with many sub-steps in each.

First you must register; the cost is 1 euro; it must be paid with a card with a chip (we use our French bank card, our credit cards will not work). When you register, you agree to a 150 euro hold against your bank account in case you don’t return your bike. The bikes are worth more than 150 euros, but be assured the French legal process will find you if they need to.

Step 2 is to obtain a ticket for this particular bike rental. This involves creating a personal 4 digit code which is stored in the system. The ticket comes with its own 7 digit code. All entries must be made on a keypad located below the screen, not on the screen itself; this is not immediately apparent. After each entry, you must enter ‘V’ for validate, although this instruction, if given at all, is less than prominent on the screen. Any mistakes are punished immediately; return to GO.

Imagine doing this with a long and growing line of people behind you. Fortunately the French are patient, and someone will probably help you.

After you get the ticket, the screen says take your bike. This is a trick. If you go to the rack of bikes, choose one, and push the button to release the bike from its lock, nothing happens. Shake the bike, kick it, nothing happens. French people laugh. Take more than a few seconds, and you are blown off the system. Return to GO.

What you should have done is press ‘1’ which is the number next to the words ‘take your bike.’ There is no instruction, however, to push anything. When you finally figure it out, or more likely someone else shows you, if you push ‘1’ the screen will chug along for awhile and then display a list of the available bikes, by the number in the rack. You now enter your chosen number, followed by your personal code (did you forget? return to GO!), after which the chosen bike may be removed from the rack. But not easily. It still takes some yanking and pulling and shoving.

When Pat finally mounts her bike, she is sent on her way by a crescendo of clapping from the outdoor café across the street. My enthusiasm for bike riding having waned, I join the clappers for a cup of coffee.

NOTE: there’s a postscript. When I check our bank account some days later, I learn we have been charged 23 euros. I call and am told the bike was not properly returned 15 minutes after renting it, and was not checked in until after 1:00 pm. This is an outrage.  … Several calls, forms and frustration later, I was told that we had not properly engaged the bike to the rack  when it was returned. Apparently, a small light changes from red to green when the bike is properly engaged, and if it doesn’t, you’re supposed to call the Velib people immediately. We were told that we were charged from 9;15 am when we picked up the bike until 1:30 pm. What happened at 1:30 pm? Did someone then attach our bike? No one knows.

Returning to Partis in August, we told our tale of woe at dinner, and gained no sympathy from anyone.


However, while we were eating, Evan suddenly jumped up and ran outside. He came back to excitedly tell us that the Velib man was outside, servicing a line of bikes on the street adjacent to the restaurant. I went outside, and Rawy followed.

With Rawy translating, we tried to learn what had happened; we got the same story: you didn’t properly attach the bike. But it was locked in the rack. No matter, did the light turn green? Now, since we arrived on Saturday, Pat and I had been inspecting lines of bikes. At every Velib station, there were several, sometimes many, bikes which seemed to be attached but for which the light was still red. Were all these people being charged?

You’re supposed to notice and to call immediately, the Velib man said. How can you call if you don’t have a cell phone with you? There’s a phone built into the rental machine. And he showed us. But what if you can’t tell red from green, Iasked, since I’m color blind. The Velib man had every answer. Without hesitation, he said, “Then you better hold onto madame.”


4 Responses to “* Velib … not designed for tourists”

  1. anderson said

    I went back to the post and tried to fix the red light at my bike. After shaking it for 30 seconds, the green light and the double beep of salvation lit and seemingly my balance returned to 1 euro as I checked later 🙂

  2. anderson said

    I am having the same problem right now, my bike is in the post with a red light on it for 6 hours. I just don’t know what to do, I hate velib.

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