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UPDATE: This helpful blogpost came out just one day after my Musée d’Orsay episode. At least Vélib’ is aware that not every user knows about the best practice of the system!)

Ten days ago I had worked up such a fury.

Oh, I really had, and last night on my way to my friend’s dinner party, I was so moved again by the same Vélib’-parking rage to add bits to bytes and rail against the obvious, inconvenient weaknesses of the Parisian bikesharing system.

Then I looked at velib.paris.fr. (Le sigh.)

Off we go!

Off we go!

Let me back up a moment. The genesis of my parking-anger stemmed from my attempted trip to the Musée d’Orsay on Thursday, Nov. 22. Ian, my charming boyfriend, and I decided that better then going to my afternoon seminar (thank you Fulbright!), we would go to the Musée d’Orsay. And I suggested that instead of going out of our way to take the Métro, figuring out the right bus, or walking 25 minutes, that we should take Vélib’. Great! Another data point for me, and moreover from my apartment, the Musée d’Orsay is a quick 12-minute ride along the Seine, which fit into our somewhat busy schedule of cooking and eating Thanksgiving dinner. Ian grabbed his beret, I my scarf, and off we pedaled to the museum just to find that the Vélib’ station there was out of service.

Harrumph. This is the second time I’ve been burned by this phenomenon. One can approach a perfectly orderly looking station trying to return or take out a bike only to find all the lights red. This can be a minor inconvenience — like the time I just decided to take the Métro instead of finding the nearest Vélib’ station — or a major problem when one has one or two bikes out and no clue where to find the next station.

(This is where my smartphone could theoretically have come in very handy, but it’s not in operation right now. In fact none of my three smartphones receive or make calls but that’s another 1@*&#! rant for another time. Thanks France.)

Now, I’m kicking myself for not checking the Vélib’ availability map before setting off on this quick ride, but I’m not yet at the point of despair. I figure if we just ride 4-6 blocks in any direction that we will find another station. But no. No! Not so simple. Stations can often be within spitting distance of one another, but apparently not in this part of the 7th arrondissement. So round and round the museum we go. We are the cycling equivalent of delusional cars hunting for street parking in Manhattan — there are simply no stations in this neighborhood, and when we finally start to backtrack toward the 6th arrondissement, we find one, two, then three completely full Vélib’ stations. At this point, we’ve been on the bikes longer than the free first 30 minutes. We’re both aware that the Euros are starting to add up, and Ian thoughtfully suggests that if a rider comes up to a full station he really should be able to tag the kiosk to get an extra 15 minutes, so as not to penalized by the weaknesses of the redistribution system. I agree, muttering to myself about exactly what drives users away from Vélib’.

No joke, we returned 4€ lighter and 1 hour 5 minutes later to the station from which we started to park the bikes.

That was my trip to the Musée d’Orsay. I hear the exhibits are pretty neat.

Then last night, believing that I had learned my lesson to check the station availability and proximity before leaving the house, I set off toward my friend’s place only to find that the website was not au courant! While the status bubble of my chosen Vélib’ station had indicated that it had 5 free spots, in fact it was completely full. And while this time, I had made a mental note of approximately where the next closest station was, I did not make a mental map of the circuitous one-way streets one needed to take to get there. I found myself again circling the neighborhood, hunting for Vélib’ parking, thinking what these stations need are some great big neighborhood maps that direct you where to park or maybe I just needed a great big lock. Or my own darn bike.

As an admitted Vélib’ booster, I was left frazzled by these seeming inadequacies of the system. I decided to write a helpful email to customer support. But before clicking send, I thought maybe I should see if there were neighborhood maps on the kiosks themselves. And — oh how red are my cheeks! — there were:


Doh! There are even helpful little icons that show you where the other nearby stations are and how far away they are.

Moreover, while perusing the Vélib’ FAQ today, I find this:

Que faire lorsque la station est saturée ?

Identifiez-vous avec votre numéro de ticket de courte durée ou votre carte d’abonnementpuis suivez les instructions à l’écran pour bénéficier de 15 min de crédit supplémentaire.Vous pourrez ainsi vous rendre à une station voisine ayant des places disponibles pour restituer votre vélo.

Which essentially means:

What do you do when your station is full?

Wave your pass or enter your short-term ticket number at the kiosk and follow the instructions to gain 15 extra minutes on your reservation. Then go to a neighboring station to return your bike.

And in an effort to circulate this gem more widely, the Vélib’ & Moi blog posted a story about what to do when a station is full on Nov. 23 (!).

Ian does have good ideas. I’m glad Vélib’ recognizes that too.

Double Homer Simpson! I felt so dumb, and so not justifiably angry. This was a major case of user error enabled by the fact that I have my Vélib’ membership on my pass Navigo which means I never have to approach the kiosk to take out a bike. I just wave it on the sensor next to the bike’s docking station. Vélib’ could have 20€ notes sticking out of the kiosks most days, and I probably wouldn’t know the difference:

Photo courtesy of anna via Flickr.

Photo courtesy of anna via Flickr.

This does beg the question, how many users are like me? How many people get super frustrated to the point of threatening to cancel my subscription take the Métro just because they don’t know how to use the already excellent system? Is there room for better user education here? At least larger font? Or is this just the Vélib’ learning curve?

No answers yet, but valuable lessons learned. That the Musée d’Orsay excursion took place on Thanksgiving and all, I suppose I should be thankful for my big anecdotal data point, but truth be told I really just wanted to go to the museum! Ah there’s always more time, and taxis.