BikePortland

Dreaming of a truly public bike system like the one I used in Paris


The author riding a Velib’ bike in Paris in 2013.
(Photos: Maritza Arango).

This is how I navigated my student in Paris years being a full-time bike and public transport commuter without having my own bike and without draining my student bank account. When I was in school I could get around the city without using a car or a bus.

The later the night gets, the drunker the people are on those buses. Another reason to use the bike share system and avoid the cold and creepy bus station.

The “City of Lights” is a great city for biking along the Seine River and the multicultural neighborhoods, while avoiding its dark side: the crowded, dirty and sometimes dangerous public transportation system.

Whenever I hear people speak about Paris they mention the marvels of the city, the cultural heritage, the museums, the food and all the positive and beautiful things the city has to offer. When I mention that I spent almost six years living in the city and then decided to move back to Colombia and now to the United States, I always get surprising comments about how sad and wrong it was for me to leave such an amazing place. What people don’t know (and never ask about) is that Paris is one of the most expensive cities in the world. It’s also a city that can be very aggressive towards women on streets and public transportation — which one of the main reasons why I used the public bike system almost all the time.

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Paris is a party city that stays up very late, every day, all year long. Unfortunately, the metro or other public transport don’t work late, leaving people the only option of using the night bus — or the “nightmare” like some people, especially women, call it. The later the night gets, the drunker the people are on those buses. Another reason to use the bike share system and avoid the cold and creepy bus station.

When I was a student between 2010 and 2015, I used to pay €30 (about $35) a month for my Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP) card. RATP runs the Paris transport system that includes the Metro (subway), tram, suburban express trains, bus and the “Noctilien” (night bus). The price I used to pay included unlimited rides on all the RATP services. As part of my student benefits, this card also included the unlimited Vélib’ bike service.

Vélib’ is a public bike share system that offers “Bikes for everyone”. And it lives up to that claim. There are 1,400 docking stations and 20,000 bikes (35% of which are electric). As of 2020 there were 400,000 Velib subscribers who make about 5.5 million trips every month. The one-day trip record was 215,000 on September 11th, 2020.

[Postcards from Paris: Mixtes, street scenes, and a budding bike network (2017)]

When I moved to Portland earlier this year, the idea of having access to a public bike service again was very exciting. I quickly discovered that the system works very differently and that it is not at all a bike system for everyone. With no doubt, Portland’s Biketown offers a great solution for sporadic rides when my bike is not working, or when someone that doesn’t have a bike needs one, or for tourists to discover the city; but I still wonder how accessible it really is.

It’s true that Biketown is not a public transport service like Velib is (even though the latter was a major influence on the former, as our post from 2007 points out). Biketown is a private service that occupies the public space. For that reason, I still remember those university years when biking was part of my public services. And when not just me, but thousands of other Parisians, could benefit from having an amazingly accessible bike service. I look forward to the day when Portland and Oregon (and the U.S.!) can create a difference in how easily people — especially those who can’t afford a bicycle or Biketown rental rates — can get access to a public bike. This is not just a way of giving affordable access to biking to everyone, it’s also a huge step to creating a more responsible and sustainable public transportation system.

Bravo les français, qu’est ce-que j’aime une Vélib’! 

— Maritza Arango, @arango_mari on InstagramTwitter and TikTok.
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