Biking Europe--A bit of Vélib'
Yeah yeah I'm not in Paris any longer. So what. I had long intended to attempt a piece about the bicycle culture in Paris, or rather Europe in general for that matter, and was just recently returned to the subject by an article in the New York Times describing the system. So, on y va.
The bicycle is an image synonymous of all that which is "quint-essential European", the pinging little bell in the distance, the Parisian women clad in flowing summer dresses peddling home as the designer bag and evening groceries bob to and fro in the small panier stylishly affixed to the front, baguette pinched in alongside the flowers and brie. Ah yes mes amis, the bicycle has been a Parisian fashion statement a la mode since the eve of the Second World War. Chic, beneficial to the health, and visually pleasing above the ground, the bike is the way to commute, the way to shop, the way to see, and the way to be in Paris.
The city of Paris--the darling gem of a city that it already is, instituted nearly a year ago, in July 2007, a system to bring affordable and convenient bike rental to the many wishing for an alternative to the dark underground, head pounding traffic jams, and tedious bus waits. It is called vélib; (velo + liberté) an arsenal of bicycles that can, for a mere 1.50euro a day, provide the European bank-card holder unlimited bicycle use for a day. And I--I have had many a go on velib. Yet just another thing America needs to catch up on.
Good for you and your shiny memory is what i say now to you long time readers who are thinking, wait a minute cod-girl, don't you have a bike? Why yes I do, Emile. And I did use Emile on a regular basis, however, without a basket, shopping was a bit difficult, and forget about consecutive days of long rides, for Emile's rock-hard seat meant sore ass-bones that were indeed relieved by the more forgiving cushions of the velib. But Emile, the lovely Emile served us well. Especially during those times when the bank account ran below the 150euro mark; the minimum in-account-specie required in order to check out a velib.
The velib system in Paris consists of 20,000 bicycles available throughout the city at some 1,500 checkpoint stations, all an average 300 meters distance from one to the other. A day pass costs the cyclist a scanty 1.50euro, however if the bike is used for more than 30 minutes without being checked into a station, it begins to automatically deduct fees from the credit card used to rent the bike, and as time begins to stack, the charges become quite steep. So, to avoid charges--just check in the bike every 30 minutes! Ce n'est pas difficile! On the contrary, it becomes quite the adventure: with the clock ticking down...3 minutes to go...look there's a station! Vite vite! Allez! Ah Merde! There are no empty slots to check the bike in! Encroyable! Vite on cherche un autre! 1 minute to go...30 seconds...STOP on the right! Allez! 3,2,1...click! Red light: blink green. Woohoo! Made it! Pull it right back out, and here we go again for the next 30 minutes. And we can pull this loop for a full 24 hours! Chouette!
The velib, however, is slightly limited to non-european tourists; a european bank card with an electronic chip is required to rent. So, no card?--make friends with some Frenchies fast and get 'em to take you out on the town. That's my advice to you. Otherwise, tant pis pour toi, you're a fish out of water.
As much as i would like to say that the French, with their superior intellect and all-around reputation for grand reform and incredible discovery, were the first to come up with the idea of a bike rental system in the big city--I can not. Many other European cities have run similar programs, and that having been said for years. My first realization came at first hand experience: in Barcelona. Hey, i shouted to my friend living in Barcelona at the time, those our ours, you copied us! But on further inspection, it became clear that the bike rental system in Barcelona was a bit older than that in Paris.
The Bicing bicycle rental facility first appeared in Barcelona in March of 2007. My second sighting of a velib-style system outside of Paris was in Rome with Roma Bike, inaugurated the 13 June 2008, just 2 days before I arrived. Other European cities maintaining such systems include Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse, myriad cities in Germany, Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, Seville, Brussels, and Sandnes (Norway). The first, however, the very first civilian bicycle transportation system ever put into action was in Copenhagen, which has been providing free bicycle rentals to the public as well as tourists since 1995. Chouette! I mean, in Danish rather then, ugle!
Though quint-essentially Parisian, the bicycle is a thing shared amongst nearly all societies in Europe. The French bike, the Irish bike, the Spanish bike, the Polish bike, the German bike--the Portuguese, well not so much in the cities; too many hills. All of Europe bikes. Good for the health, good for the myriad transportation strikes that leave you contemplating, do I walk or call in sick? Good for plaisir, good for the environment, good all around (except maybe for the car and bus drivers, bicyclists oftentimes appear as pills in their repertoire). Bicycling is the perfect mode of city viewing--when acting the "Parisian tour guide" the stories that come back to me the most from my visitors, is always those of the bikes. Biking to Sacre Coeur in the Rain, around the arc de Triomphe at dusk, along the Seine at dawn, and under the sparkling Tour Eiffel at night.
Going to Europ--get on a bike. If not, you will miss exactly what ought not be missed.
Biking is a lifestyle, a way of life; one a bit more European than American. Can America bike? It's getting there. Slowly catching on. One pedaler at a time. Though city bike systems like those in Europe--I am pessimistically, though practically of the opinion that they will never be a reality in America. The bicycles will be kept to the private sector, like most institutions in Uncle Sams Land. And the bicycles role in the rest of the world? In Asia? in Africa? in South America? I have no authority--yet. But you will be the first, well probably the second to know.
So this silly cod-girl will privately bike to school, though Emile was left behind in Paris, the wheel still turns, and the gears still shift. Je vais bike to class, to work, to here, to there--and to you. Let's go biking.