Launched in 2007, Paris' city bike rental scheme, Velib' (translating roughly to "bike in freedom") now counts an immense fleet of over 20,000 bikes and 1,800 rental stations around the city. It's become an immensely popular way to get around Paris, both by locals and tourists, and has arguably turned the city into a much more bike-friendly place.
While Velib' does have its disadvantages (see my notes on safety in particular), it may be one of the easier ways to get around Paris by bike, if you'd prefer to forgo the traditional rental shop. Please do be aware, though, that no bike helmet rentals are available with Velib'-- I highly advise that you bring one in your suitcase if you're planning to give the scheme a whirl on your next trip.
All About the Budget-Friendly City Scheme
The Concept: Pay and Go
The concept behind Velib' is relatively simple: swipe your credit card at any station around the capital (you'll find one roughly every 300 meters/984 feet in any given neighborhood) to rent a bike for a day or a week. You will pay a small flat fee for as many trips as you want throughout the day or week. If you end up biking for less than 30 minutes on a given trip, you will not be charged above and beyond the flat "subscription" fee. You don't have to return the bike to the station where you rented it-- you're free to drop it off at any Velib' point. This is one definite boon to the system compared against rental shops. The self-service stations are open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, which is another advantage.
Your credit card will be charged a deposit (currently €150, but this may change at any time) to ensure that the bike is properly returned and left in good condition. Make sure not to leave it unattended, even with a lock: thieves have powerful tools these days that can slice through even tough locks. Read more about the procedure for renting, using and returning Velib' bikes on the next page.
But...Is it Safe?
I won't lie. Riding a bike in Paris can be stressful, and not ideal in terms of safety conditions. Traffic is often heavy, pedestrians don't always follow road crossing rules, and the city is full of one-way streets, roundabouts and busy intersections. I would advise only experienced urban cyclists to attempt to use the bike on busy roads, and only after consulting local traffic rules. For those of you unaccustomed to biking in traffic, you can still use Velib', but I'd strongly suggest that you head to park areas like the Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes and stay on cycle-only paths.
Read related feature: Staying Safe in Paris
The other issue, as already mentioned, is the difficulty you may face with finding a helmet when you use Velib'. Some claim there's no substantial evidence for helmets protecting against serious injury or fatal accidents, but many experts insist on their necessity to protect yourself from major harm on the road. Even if you stay on designated paths, you can still fall and injure your head.
Overall, Velib' can be a great way to get around the city for those who have some experience with urban biking. It's reasonably safe as long as you acquaint yourself with traffic rules, and don't assume that because you have the right of way, cars, pedestrians and other bikers will respect that. Ride defensively and alertly.
How to Use Velib' Machines: Subscribing, Paying and Returning Bikes
Using Velib' can seem a bit complicated at first, but once you've given it a try it should feel easier and easier.
How to Rent and Pay
If you're a short-term user, you can rent a Velib' bike for a day or a week. You will need a credit card to put down a deposit on the bike. You will pay a flat fee for a day or week (see current rates here), for as many trips as you'd like during the period. If you use the bike for less than 30 minutes on any of these trips, you will not be charged above and beyond the flat fee, but if you take the bike out for longer trips, you'll incur incremental extra fees. Your deposit will be re-credited automatically to your account.
Step-by-step instructions getting your bike:
- Find a Velib' station
- Follow the instructions on the self-service machine: select a bike and type in the bike number of your choice.
- Wait until you see a green light, then remove the bike.
- Note: You can now pay in advance online
If you want to buy a long-term subscription, see this page.
Returning the Bike
When you're done with the bike, return it to any Velib' station around the city. They're open 24 hours a day.
- Push the bike clip as far as you can into the bike post. If you've done this correctly, you'll see an orange light followed by a green light and two beeping sounds. This lets you know that you've successfully locked and returned the bike.
- Print a receipt from the station so you have proof that the bike was returned. Your deposit will be re-credited back to your credit card.
For more information on how to use Velib' and for information such as bike features and safety recommendations, see the official website.
Read related: Is Renting a Car in Paris a Good Idea?
Final Thoughts: Best Times for Using Velib'
One question you may have is timing: when are the most bikes likely to be available? During weekdays, you might want to avoid using Velib' during peak commuter hours in the morning and late afternoons (roughly 7-10 am and 5-7:30 pm), since most of the bikes are likely to be taken. On weekends, early mornings and later in the evening can be ideal for a ride. During peak daytime hours, it may be harder to find a bike.