Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vélib, a trip report

A week or so ago I went to a two-day meeting in Paris. Things ended early on Friday and I found myself with most of an afternoon and evening free. What to do? During lunch I was given a suggestion to go see an exhibit at the Palais de Tokyo (Keith Haring retrospective; really amazing. I hope it travels, see it if you can.) It was a beautiful day but it seemed a bit too far to walk from where I was staying. I had been informed that it would be 30-60 mins but it was not what the map was telling me. But a short walk from the hotel would get me to a bike-share stand. The choice was obvious... 

[Corner of Rue Françoise Dolto and Rue Marie-Andrée Lagroua Weil-Halle on the Université Paris Diderot campus. All the street around here are named for individuals who contributed, one way or another to intellectual history. Dolto was a disciple of Lacan and did psycho-therapeutic work with infants and mothers (according to the Wikipedia). Weil-Halle was a gynecologist known for her contributions to family planning. The street sign have capsule descriptions of the people involved.. It's not Elm or Maple; kind of cool. When I got back here in the evening most of the bikes were gone; people biking home for the night...]
The Vélib system is easy to start using: scan in your credit card and get a 1-day ticket for 1,70 €. My Visa card didn't work (no microchip); fortunately the kiosk took my Amex card (which doesn't have a chip either, go figure). And that's it! The pricing is like for other such systems (free for the first 30 mins, then rapidly escalating). Getting the bike out of the rack is similarly straightforward. But now came the hard part, cruising the streets of Paris, or so I thought.

[This is a rather interesting interchange that weaves a fast road, a side road and bikes. I'm not sure that the photo really does it justice, but most of the bike action happens in the upper left where 4 streams of bike paths weave into something that's intended to make things work. I don't know; I was not there during bike rush hour (though there were several bikers in there when I was passing through). 
In preparation, when checking up on things on the interwebs I kept running across dire warnings about the impossible streets of Paris and its bloodthirsty drivers so I was a bit apprehensive. I was pleasantly surprised. Cars were very well behaved even when there's tons of them around. And I did venture out during rush hour. But the drivers are all quite observant and are aware that you're there. I never got buzzed, expect maybe by a couple of cabs. It's way better than in Pittsburgh. Motorbikes are a different story. I got buzzed really close a couple of times, enough to experience a sympathetic reaction (in the clinical sense). On reflection I think they were just doing what motorbikes normally do, without especially gunning for the cyclists. If you've driven in Paris or on its ring road you'll know what I mean: those guys are scary. Buses were generally good. 

A bus+bike lane. This one is special in that the lane is physically separate from the car lanes. More often it's the curb lane with bus and bike symbols. The cobble/brick streets are pretty reasonable; the bricks are quite smooth and easy to bike over. Also, I can't recall any significant potholes. I don't get it: Paris gets cold and they have snow but they don't have potholes. What are we doing wrong?  I'm not quite sure where this is (Bd Montparnasse? Port-Royal?), but anyway that's the Tour Montparnasse in the distance. 
One of the solution to the bike lane problem in Paris is to combine them with the bus lanes. This initially made me a bit nervous but the bus drivers were very polite and never tried to honk me off the road. On the other hand, some motor bikes seemed to think that they were bicycles, while some taxis thought that they were buses.  So you never quite knew what was happening. As well, on one boulevard that I traveled the bus lane somehow switched from curb-side to middle of the road, with no signage that was obvious enough for me to notice. Exciting. 

On the other hand, I did get comfortable cruising the roundabouts. They look daunting but I think you simply need to close your eyes (figuratively, of course) and pedal out into the traffic. The generally high level of driver awareness and the slower traffic speeds (compared to the US) makes it work.

Some observations on the Vélib system:

1. Most rack stands are pretty big and have many slots. It made me feel like it would be unlikely to end up someplace with no bikes or no slots.

2. The system includes "V+" racks, which, if you leave a bike at one gets you a credit. (It was something like 10 minutes extra ride time for free.) What a great idea for managing distribution! Although it didn't seem to be the case I could easily imagine some sort of dynamic version that allocated credits according to need. 

3. The bikes appear instrumented and maybe even do self-diagnosis of problems. "Good" bikes have a little green light that turns red when somethings gone wrong. (Or maybe something else is going on; didn't look into it.)

Some observations on biking on Paris:

1. Awsome. Do it. I did close to 20 miles and got to see much more of the city than I had ever done previously. The bike-share scheme removes a whole layer of complexity from getting around. Feel like going to that restaurant a couple of kms away? No problem, just hop on a bike. 

 2. Not a big deal: The only problem I noticed was that going down narrow side streets didn't work that well, as cars couldn't get around you. And side streets (at least the districts I rode in) are full-fledged streets. So I ended up mostly riding down the boulevards. Lots of room for everyone though maybe not as picturesque. 

Some observations about the other riders:

1. Lots of people out there, but they're not really bikers in our sense, they're just people who need to get from place to place. I think I saw only one bike-share person with a helmet  I found this distinctly pleasing (that is, biking is not a special thing; it's just what you do to get around). 

2. I also saw "real" bikers, who wore spandex and rode nicer bikes. All had helmets. Oddly many or maybe most of them were doing the Cat-6. Sigh.

3. Bikers are very relaxed about filtering, salmoning and so on. Drivers ignored it. Nobody seems to care. 

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