Amuse-Bouche: Le Vélib’ — trying out Paris’s bike rental system.

Taking the Vélib’ for a spin.

Grève générale des métros! It’s the biggest Paris transit strike in 10 years. Perfect time to try out the Vélib’. I’ve never used it before, so I’d better démarrer sur les chapeaux de roue (“take off on the hubcaps,” i.e., at full speed). I go down early.

7H02—There’s already a line. The (almost) free bike rental system inaugurated in major French cities in recent years is a victim of its own success. In the first 6 months after it opened in Paris in July, 2007, des Vélibiens (Vélibistes? Vélib’eurs?), rented bikes 6 million times and rode 7.5 million miles. Elegantly gris souris (mouse-gray), a Vélib’ (its name combining “vélo” [bike] and “liberté,” with an apostrophe replacing the last syllables) has a kickstand, headlight, basket and lock. Les bobos (bohémiens-bourgeois) are detaching from their cars, becoming “des drogués des déplacements doux” (addicted to soft—i.e., environmentally friendly—transportation). “Vous vélibez?” There’s a website vélibataire (Vélib’ + célibataire: single) for vélibats. Vélib’ for romance: It’s la vélorution! But a Vélib’ is not biplace (tandem), donc pas top pour la drague (not ideal for pickups).

7H15—Finally, I’m at the head of the line. One bike left! Should I buy a pass for a day or a week? With a one-day pass (€1), I can make as many 30-minute trips as I want within 24 hours. The first half-hour of every jaunt you take that day is free. If your trip lasts longer, costs spiral geometrically: €1 for minutes 31–60, €2 for another 30 minutes and €4 for each subsequent half-hour. Careful. Twenty hours costs €151. Not to mention the €150 credit card deposit against theft or loss. People without bank cards are out of luck.

7H20: So are les Amerloques! It won’t take my card. The man in line behind me asks “Your carte doesn’t have une puce?”Quoi? My card needs a flea? The puce, a computer chip embedded in European bank cards, triggers a release mechanism in the borne (kiosk). No puce, no Vélib’. Obviously le système has a few couacs (literally, “quacks,” i.e., glitches). Head back upstairs, come down with husband’s European credit card.

7H35: “My” bike is long gone, but luckily two more bikes have been turned in at the rack. I wait in line again, buy pass with French card, type in number of a Vélib’ s parking slot on keypad at the rack’s computer terminal. Ouh là là! (Uh-oh!) Typo! There isn’t any Vélib’ in that slot. Nonetheless, la location est prise en compte (the rental is recorded) and now I have to return a bike that I don’t have. I feel like a locdus (boob).

I decide to call la hotline on my portable (cell phone). After five tries, two unexplained hang-ups and 10 minutes of being on hold, I am told that 1) my borne doesn’t exist, and 2) my account can’t be traced because the server is down. Pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire compliqué? (Why make it easy when you can make it complicated?) After 20 minutes they unblock my account number.

8H20: One bike left. I have 60 seconds to push a button to free the bike. Before I can figure out how to get it out of the stand, my Vélib’ is bloqué. That means I can’t take out a bike again for five minutes. C’est lourd (frustrating). Wait. Try again. Merde!(mild obscenity). Flat tire.

8H32 The borne informs me there’s a station with bikes a 20-minute walk away. I race over.

8H52: Génial! (great). Two bikes are disponibles (available). I liberate the closest one…but it won’t move. Some person or persons unknown have chained it to be sure to have a Vélib’ when they want one. I consider rubbing my chewing gum into their lock’s keyhole.

9H01 Enfin! (At last!) On bike, struggling up hill. Vélib’ is solide: 22 kilos. But traffic in Paris actually seems less dense since the bikes are available. I wonder if it’s true. As I head downhill, I’m getting into this, the wind in my hair, skirt flapping.

9H25 Oups! Now I’m en retard (late). I grille un feu (“broil” [run] a red light). Getting caught would cost €200. Manage to park the bike in a borne and dash to my meeting. Ouf! (Whew!) They’re starting late because of the transit strike.

16H (4 pm.) Learn the strike’s been extended…indefinitely. Why didn’t I go for that one-week pass?