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Bicycling in Paris

A Moving Feast

People renting bikes at a Vélib' bicyle station in Paris.
One of over 1,400 Vélib' Métropole bicycle rental stations in Paris offering nearly 20,000 bikes, with 390,000 subscribers as of 2022.

On a visit to Paris, I had a chance to experience first-hand what has turned out to be more than just the latest fad in this fashion-conscious city. But this time, it is not haute couture — it's the city's recent genuine infatuation with bicycling. Watching the crowds of well-dressed cyclists pedaling up and down the streets, I thought that sporting chromed bicycle pedals were now almost as fashionable as wearing high heels. Unlike most fashions in Paris, it is an authentic and inexpensive way to navigate and see the city now here to stay for locals and tourists alike.

All this began in 2007 when the city of Paris started implementing an ambitious bicycle rental scheme with almost no cost to users, inspired by a similar program in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the bike rental program had been a big success for over a decade. Known as "Vélib," which is a contraction of vélo libre (free bicycle), this innovative transportation program has become so popular since its introduction in Paris that there are now self-service rental stations at almost every corner (officially every 300 meters). The city is dissected by over 260 miles of bike paths used by thousands of pedaling citizens daily. After rapidly gaining popularity, the Vélib program today has nearly 20,000 bicycles and over 1,400 stations all over Paris. The city plans to add 160 miles to the already exciting trail network, including bike trails along the famous Champs-Élysées, to make cycling even more attractive.

But the bike trail network is already quite impressive today. No matter where you want to go in Paris, you can rest assured that a bike path leads there. Some routes meander around congested areas and one-way streets. Regardless, most bike paths will take you to your destination in a reasonably direct way. The bicycle network in Paris includes east-west and north-south routes and routes that lead directly to other outlying districts without having to go through the city center first. This decentralized bike path system makes it fun, fast, and easy to get around. Eleven official bike trails connect the different parts of the city. They are numbered and color-coded on bicycle maps to facilitate orientation.

Even with the vast network of trails, bicyclists still have to contend with heavy vehicle traffic and congestion. Many courses run alongside the sidewalks or on paths separated from the car lanes by curbs. However, you still have to be prepared to face the somewhat overwhelming congestion of vehicles. On my first bike ride in Paris, I went from Montmartre Hill to the Louvre. By the time I got to the museum, I had to get off the bike to take pictures and catch my breath from the hair-raising experience of sharing the boulevard with six lanes of impatient drivers.

A man biking in Paris on the cobblestone square of Place de la Bastille.
Navigating huge squares such as Place de la Bastille can be a challenge at times on a bicycle, but as with driving in a city, you get used to it.

Vélib or Not Vélib?

Vélib rental stations are ubiquitous all over the city. Nevertheless, to be able to rent a bike, you need a bank card with a microchip. All European bank cards have this chip. After initial issues when the Vélib was introduced, most American credit cards work to rent a Vélib.

But with such an extensive network of bike paths and trails in the parks, it would be a shame not to enjoy riding a bike while in Paris. What are your options? Fortunately, the Vélib stations are not the only places in Paris where you can rent a bike. Sure, the convenience of dropping off a bike on one corner and renting another one a block down the street is unbeatable. If, for some reason, you do not have or wish to use your bank card to access the Vélib system, you can fall back on an old, tried and true alternative: bike rental shops. Of course, you have to drop the bike off where you pick it up, but that won't prevent you from spending an enjoyable day biking around Paris and exploring an area that would take you a week to see on foot and that you'd never see or experience if you traveled underground by metro.

How Does Vélib Work?

For those readers who are lucky to have access to a bank card, here is how it works:

To rent a Vélib, you must first purchase a subscription online, allowing you to take out a bike. Locals and visitors can buy a short-term subscription for 3 euros for 45 minutes, 5 euros for one day (24 hours), or 20 euros for 3 days, with various longer-term subscriptions for both standard and electronic bikes. See the Vélib website for all payment options, including an app for all logistics for docking your bike at the station. Another website provides a helpful resource explaining the Velib system and its costs. If you have a credit card, you can take out your short-term subscription at any Vélib rental station, or you can visit the new Vélib kiosk in front of City Hall (Hôtel de Ville). The booth is also an excellent place to find out which, if any, of your North American credit cards you can use to rent a bicycle.

Velib rental tickets on top of a paper map of Paris.
Vélib' Métropole rental tickets and map of Paris.

Practical Tips for Bicycling in Paris

Generally, riding your bicycle on the sidewalk or in the wrong way on one-way streets is not encouraged. In a congested city like Paris, your biggest enemy is the automobile. Make sure your signals are visible when making turns, and avoid riding too close to cars to avoid opening doors. Sometimes, it is better to cross a boulevard in a crosswalk than deal with four or six lanes of traffic, especially around large squares with circular traffic. All traffic in Paris yields the right-of-way to traffic from the right, which also applies to bicycles.

Vélib has two breaks, a bell, a basket, a lighting system powered by a dynamo in the front hub, and three gears. Before renting a bike, briefly inspect the bike for damage. To mark damaged bikes, Paris cyclists have devised a unique alert system: turn the seat sideways. This alerts other cyclists and makes it easy for the maintenance crews to haul away damaged bicycles. If a Vélib station is full when you are ready to return a bike, look at the map on the pay station to locate another nearby station.

A Few Suggested Biking Routes and Excursions:

1) The Canal St. Martin is one of the favorite relaxation spots for Parisians and also great for bicycling. Bike paths follow the canal along its entire length.

2)  Banks of the Seine: Cycling along the Seine from the Eiffel Tour to the Cathedral de Notre Dame is one of the highlights of bicycling in Paris. Bring baguette, cheese, and wine, and picnic along the Seine.

3)  Marais and Beaubourg: These old city districts just north of the Seine are a delight for cycling. A maze of narrow streets is lined with some of the oldest architecture in Paris. There is very little vehicle traffic because many pedestrian zones and the streets are so narrow.

4)  Luxembourg and Montparnasse: This district was once home to famous American expatriates and still maintains some of its yesteryear charm. Although dissected by large and busy boulevards, the area still has quiet streets that offer enjoyable bicycling, especially around the vast Luxembourg Gardens.

5)  Bois de Bologne and Bois de Vincennes: These two parks on the east and west perimeter of the city are the largest green spaces in Paris, with many miles of cycling trails undisturbed by vehicle traffic.

For More Information on Bicycling in Paris

Welcome to the City of Paris portal, which discusses how to rent a bike with the Vélib' Métropole program. A cell phone service also allows users to search for the nearest available Vélib bike by sending a text message.

Information about Bicycling and Bicycling routes in Paris:

Vélib' Métropole bicycle map. Maps are also available at each city district's city hall (mairie) (arrondissement).

Bike Tours in Paris:

Paris Bike Tour.

Fat Tire Bike Tours

Related Topics
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Living in France: Articles and Resources

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