PARIS is a great city for walkers. For me, its tree-shaded avenues and elegant stone buildings always turn an afternoon promenade into a pleasant interlude, particularly when I stop often for a shot of expresso or a glass of Bordeaux.

But when walking just doesn’t cover enough ground and the bus covers too much, it’s time to turn to the bicycle — especially the Vélib, whose chain of almost 2,000 parking stations (and 20,000 bikes) makes it easy to use, especially when you can pick one up from one station and return it to another.

The streets of downtown Paris are full of Velibs. Tourists ride them for sightseeing, locals ride them to work. A fellow student in the excellent language school I’ve attended for the last five years, Lutèce-Langue, rides one to class every morning.

Velib Birthday Party Blowout

Paris likes nothing better than a big outdoor party, so the city set out to have one of the biggest last Sunday in honor of Velib’s eighth anniversary. It has something to crow about, having grown from 10,000 bicycles to more than 20,000 since its beginning.

1-IMG_3321-001Under a nearly cloudless sky on a perfect spring day, the city closed the Champs-Élysées between Place de la Concorde and the Petit Palais (map) and set up racetrack-like courses for anyone who wanted to pump a Vélib’ around it. Two circuits earned a one-euro contribution to a charity. (There was something for the small ones, too — a “P’tit Vélib'” (“Little Velib) course.) I saw at least 400 bicycles while I was there — Velib is super popular, and a good reason to rent your bike in Paris.

A food-truck plaza attracted the hungry, and the bikes attracted the adventurous in search of some quick exercise, as when they made the far turn (with Place de la Concord in the background) in this short video:

There was something for the children as well — their own course on the “Petits Velibs,” the miniature bikes made in four versions for the little ones. Note that Paris doesn’t require helmets for Velib renters — the city decided it would deter too many renters — but the small ones were outfitted with them:

Bikes Helping Improve the Environment

PARIS LOVES ITS BICYCLES. In fact, the new mayor has set her sights on a substantial increase in the number of trips Parisians take by bicycle – from 3% now to 15% by 2020. It’s all part of the city’s goal of reducing the amount of pollution in the air. It’s not yet New Delhi, but no one in Paris wants the air to get that bad.

Old diesel trucks, built more than 25 years ago, will be banned from central Paris during the day as of next month. The restrictions will get tighter as the years go by, next affecting vehicles built before 1997 and motorcycles built before 2000. From there more limits on polluting vehicles — mostly diesels — will be put in force. (The law won’t apply to new diesels, which have anti-pollution filters.)

But Velib is the most visible icon of the effort to reduce pollution and make the city more livable. The strange-looking name was cobbled together from the French for bicycle (velo) and self-service (libre). The Velib system itself is a highly automated tapestry of parking places where cyclists can pick up a bicycle and ride it for 30 minutes with no charge other than their low subscription fee, and similar stations where they can check in and leave the bike near their destination. (A subscription for an entire day costs about about the same as a single ticket on the métro — 1.70€ — but it’s good for multiple rides.)

For both Parisians and many tourists, it’s become an essential, inexpensive and quick way to get around. (Paris being Paris, the city is a web of bicycle paths, and bikes can use the bus lanes as well.)

At the end of 2013, Velib had almost 1,800 rental stations for the 20,000 bikes. They were used for 35 million trips (per the most recent information I have from the city).

Smartphone app

Velib also has a good smartphone app that will find either stations with bicycles available or stations with parking slots available to leave your bike. Here’s a screenshot of the iPhone version, showing stations with free bikes (with an availability count) near Montparnasse Cemetery:

iPhone 6 screen capture

iPhone 6 screen capture

More info at these sites:

How to do it. (from the city’s Velib blog)
Pricing for short-term subscriptions (scroll down the page)
More from the blog.
How to find a Velib site.
Wikipedia’s explanation.

More pictures from the Paris Velib party.

A toddler is fitted for her helmet

A toddler is fitted for her helmet

The Alto Café coffee truck - a truck built around an expresso machine

The Alto Café coffee truck – a truck built around an expresso machine

Anybody for ice cream? It was really good.

Anybody for ice cream? It was really good.

Photos and videos by John Pearce