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Today was my first ride on the Vélib’ since arriving in September! And what a great day to take it out for a spin. Though it was on the chilly side, a cold front is blowing through Paris, it was sunny and lovely, and I took a picture of this little truck servicing an empty Vélib’ station for the occasion.

I believe this is the little truck that picks up the bikes to be shuttled to and repaired on the floating bike repair barges on the Seine, but I’m not certain.

A few observations worth sharing:

Empty stations
When I set out for my ride I had to go to three Vélib’ stations before I found one with a free bike in good repair. Now I knew that empty bike stations could be a problem during commute times, however this being a Sunday, I figured I would have less competition. Not the case.

It seems that the northern residential neighborhoods in Paris — as well as the hills — draw considerably fewer returns: check out this real-time station map. Then on the other hand, the stations in the center if town fill up too fast.

Vélib’ took measures in the past two years to fix this imbalance. Trucks now collect bikes from the most popular return stations and drive the bikes up the hills in Montmartre and Ménilmontant to return them to empty stations. Moreover, Vélib’ introduced the incentive program V+ wherein a rider receives 15 minutes free if she returns it to one of the select stations that are on hills or always empty (see V+ on the station map) . I wonder how that’s working …

Heavy bikes
Those bikes are heavy! No joke. I didn’t notice it much when I was riding, but I took a turn up Avenue de Laumière which goes up at a slight incline to Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, at which point a parked bus promptly stopped me in my tracks. And I could not get the bike rolling up the hill. It was too heavy to get a good start.

When folks ask me about my project, inevitably the question of helmets comes up. The vast majority of Vélib’ riders do not wear helmets. In fact I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of cyclists in Europe do not wear helmets. And today, I did not wear a helmet on my petit Tour de Paris.

About this, I am very conflicted.

There’s compelling research that shows that helmet laws discourage bikesharing, and by my powers of extrapolation, bike riding. This is bad. There’s no question that bikes in general and bikesharing in particular are wonderful, low-cost solutions to the problems of traffic congestion, air pollution, and excessive carbon dioxide emissions. We, from the perspective of urban mobility nerds, want people to ride bikes a lot. But we want them to do it safely.

I don’t want to enter into a long exploration of the pros and cons of helmets, right now, but suffice it to say that helmets comprise of one way — albeit a very good way — of ensuring safety on a bicycle, but not the only way. I venture that a rider is almost always better off with a helmet, but it is not fundamental to creating a safe biking environment. More later.

The average Jean on a bike
Here’s maybe my favorite part about riding in Paris: lots of people ride bikes to get around. But for the most part, they aren’t hipsters on fixies, spandex-clad road warriors, or diehard commuters making a statement in orange vests. Of course I saw all of those folks on the road, but by and large I saw way more folks in jeans, scarves, and berets pedaling around the city. It seems to me that a lot of the cyclists in Paris are just riding because it’s a convenient way to get around, not because they want to make a statement.

Now, I am one of the diehards/spandex-wearers back home. Nevertheless I found it so refreshing to be surrounded by regular people riding bikes.

I didn’t take any pictures while riding around because every time I took one hand off the handlebars, my Velib would swerve wildly. Apparently I have some practice to do. But I did take a moment to curate this Flickr gallery of Vélib’ images in Paris that’s representative of what I saw on my ride. Amusez-vous!

Velib in ParisVelib ridersBike laneParis bike lanebike busthe bike lanes are wide in Paris

Mon Petit Tour de Paris, a gallery on Flickr.