What Vancouver can learn from Paris: bike-sharing
Paris, despite its frenetic traffic, turned out to be a much more cyclist-friendly city than Vancouver. Part of it is the cultural acceptance of bicycles on the road, another one is access to bikes via a bike-sharing program called Vélib, discussed in last week's article.
Seeing a motorcycle flying down an empty sidewalk (“Why?” Because it’s empty) or a truck parked on a bicycle lane, are examples of how Parisian flow thinking works. I attribute this to a Latin flow conscious compared with our Anglo-Saxon insistence on following the letter of the law, over the spirit of the law.
If you find Vancouver cycling harrowing, this article is not for you (cycling in Paris is not for the faint of heart). This article is for the intrepid cyclist who’d like to experience Paris by bicycle.
Chaos in the Streets
As in any large city, the first concern cycling in Paris is safety. That I should mention safety first—and my return to Vancouver confirmed it—is an indication of the extreme short tempers that prevail on the roads of Vancouver. How can a city of only two million be so uptight about sharing the road with other modes of transport, while Paris’ vast traffic chaos is taken in stride so well?
Maybe it’s just another way Paris trumps us with its superior culture. Or, as City of Vancouver Councillor Louie when I interviewed him for the last article put it, “there’s a much greater bicycle awareness in Europe than here”. Still, I would shake my head at the rage that sort of behaviour would arouse in Vancouver. But in Paris—pas de problème.
Conclusion: Paris is scarier, but it's actually safer.
So, armed with a knowledge of flow, I’ll describe how to use Velib’, the city-wide bicycle service that is easy to use (with a few tips I learned) and very, very cheap.
The Judgment of Paris – Velib’s Usability Challenges
Setting up a pass at the Vélib’ station near my hotel turned out to be very difficult, and it wasn’t a language difficulty. After several attempts to understand its lexicon, I finally asked a very helpful Parisian who, not understanding how the kiosk worked for short-term borrowing himself, called Vélib’ headquarters on his cell phone and we finally got me set up for me to start cycling.
There are several design flaws that make it hard to use:
- Vélib’ is designed for local users who buy year-long passes. One can buy a one-day or six-day pass, but it’s very difficult—even locals can’t figure it out.
- The self-serve kiosk by the bikes has input on one side and a screen with directions on the other. This means you have to jump around to follow its logic.
- The other language options don’t carry through, so even when I started in English, the machine seems to forget my language choice and part way through, revert to French. In the end, I gave up on English and used the French. At least it’s consistent.
- The procedure times out too quickly. After keying my way through five screens, I’m presented with a policy screen to read (in French), which times out before I through it. I have to start again.
- Occasionally, it just doesn’t work for any apparent reason. I learned a lot about patience with this machine.
Taking a Bicycle
My suggestion is that you buy your pass on their web site. It’s easy to use. You can buy a six-day or one-day pass and it provides you with the code you’ll need to sign out a bicycle.
Armed with a code, the kiosk is very easy to use (really):
- Enter the code it provided.
- Enter the four-character passcode you set up on the web site.
- Accept responsibility for the bicycle. Press "V", which stands of valider (not "Voila!", as I’d imagined).
- Enter the number of the bicycle you want (I always start by checking a bicycle’s tires and brakes and memorizing the number of the one I prefer. In Vélib’ parlance, a broken bicycle is identified by turning the seat backwards).
- Press the button at the stand of the selected bicycle and pull it back—hard. Sometimes they’re sticky.
- Allez! Remember, your first half hour is free so off you go.
Returning a Bicycle
The beauty of Vélib’ is that you don’t have to return the bicycle where you picked it up. You can park it at any of the Vélib’ stations—if there’s an opening. Here are a few tips about returning the bicycle:
- You’ll learn to keep your eye out for the line of green lights that identify the stations.
- Be aware that sometimes the stations are full and you’ll have to cycle to another to drop off the bicycle. Each station has a map of the vicinity showing its proximity to other stations.
- If your destination is time sensitive, plan extra time in case you aren’t able to park right away. I had little trouble with this, but it is a potential concern if you need to be somewhere on time.
- When you return the bike, slide it into its slot.
A yellow light appears for about ten seconds while it registers your return. It then turns green. Don’t leave until you see the green light; otherwise, you’ll be charged for indefinite use. If the light is flashing or you here a buzzer, there’s a problem with the connection. Try re-parking the bicycle or move it to a different stand and try again.
Okay, now we’ve explored the challenges of setting up a bicycle share program in Vancouver and looked at some of the challenges of using Vélib' in Paris. Next week, I’ll describe what it feels like to cycle in the most romantic city on earth, and look forward to what visitors can expect from a bicycle share program in Vancouver. Like Paris, Vancouver has many secret treasures far off the tourist radar. Please send me your cycling favourites in Vancouver and I’ll try to include them. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org