"Vélibs" and “Boris Bikes”: using community cycles to get around Paris and London

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While traveling through Europe this August, I took a different approach to getting around than I have in the past. Usually I buy some sort of multi-day public transit pass that allows me extensive use of a city’s public transit system. Paris and London in particular have superb bus and subway train systems (the “Metro” and “Underground” or “Tube” respectively). But since my last visits, both cities have introduced a new way for its citizens and visitors to get around: community bicycles.

Paris did it first. Their “vélib” system is remarkable in its scope: with 20,000 cycles for use throughout the city, you are never further than 300m from a vélib station. While the system was initially designed for Parisians, it has been tweaked to also make short-term cycle hire easy for visitors too. How does it work? Like this:

• Bicycle docking stations are scattered throughout the city, usually with room for about 20 cycles. The cycles are simple city bikes with 3 speeds, a basket and a handbrake.

• To purchase access to the bicycles for 1 day, the cost is 1 euro 70 centimes (approximately $2). (Locals can purchase yearly passes). If you’ll be there for a week, there is also a 7-day pass option. You simply use a credit card to purchase your day pass (it must have a “chip” and PIN number associated with it to work in the machine) and you’re given a personal access code.

• Once you have bought your access pass, you can use the bikes as often as you like in a 24 hour period. They are designed for short distances: use the bike for 30 minutes or less and it’s free. There is a 1 euro charge to use it for an additional 30 minutes. If 30 minutes is not enough time to get you where you want to go, simply return the bike to any docking station (remember you’re always close to one, no matter where you are in Paris!) then check it out again after a 5-minute waiting period.

London’s Boris Bikes (officially “Barclays Cycle Hire”) work nearly identically and the cost is 1 pound (about $1.55) a day. The beauty in this system is you can start and end your journey wherever you want, as many times as you want, and never need to worry about having a bike to look after all day, returning it to a rental shop, or bringing it back to a hotel. It’s absolutely the perfect way to explore a city like Paris.

A typical morning with the vélib: leave my rental apartment and grab a bike from the station just around the corner from Avenue de la République in the 11th arrondissement. Cycle about 15 minutes down Boulevard Richard Lenoir (with its lovely cycle lanes) to Bastille. Turn right and park my bike at the convenient vélib station near Place des Vosges, leaving me free to walk around one of Paris’ most beautiful squares in search of a café for breakfast. Satiated with a café crème and pain au chocolat, I pick up another bike from the next vélib station I see, then go for a quick ride to Rue Montorgueil, a pedestrian street I’d wanted to see in the second arrondissement. No cars allowed on the road, but bikes are fine. I zip back down to the Seine and cross over to the Latin Quarter in the 5th, where I park the bike again and stroll through its medieval streets, wandering towards the shops in Saint Germain des Près. I have a picnic planned at the Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower, so once I’m done window shopping, I find another bike and cycle alongside the river until the Eiffel Tower looms large in front of me. I spot a docking station near the market street Rue Cler and drop off the bike to go in search of picnic fixings at the local boulangerie.

I’ll admit that at first I was a bit nervous about riding with the car traffic in Paris. You certainly want to be cautious, and keep your wits about you, as you would when riding a bike in any unfamiliar place. But I found that drivers respected cyclists, and that the city’s wide streets and designated cycle lanes made for a very pleasant cycling experience. If you’re not with a guide, keep a good map handy! You’ll still get a bit lost at times, but luckily Paris is one of the most rewarding cities in the world to get lost in.

London presents a bit more of a challenge to the urban cyclist. It’s a bigger city, a more congested city, and you have to get used to riding a bike with the double decker bus traffic on the other (left) side of the road. But even if you don’t feel comfortable riding around Oxford Circus on a bike, you can still use the Barclay’s Cycles for leisurely rides around the perimeters of the city’s famous parks; cyclists abound in Hyde Park, Saint James Park and Kensington Gardens.

We have many guides who would love to incorporate bikes into their city tours of London and Paris. So far, they find that most tourists are nervous about this option, preferring to stick with walking and public transit. I recommend giving it a shot! You’ll have your own guide there to walk you through using the bike system and talk to you about the rules of the road. After a few hours touring around by bike and on foot with your private guide, your enjoyment and confidence will probably be so high you’ll want to use the cycles on your own the next day.
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