Continuing my description of a recent trip to Paris from Switzerland....
Sunday, however, we abandoned the Metro for the Velib bike-share system. This would have been a far, far better way to get back from Notre Dame. ("a far, far better place..." Sorry.) The Velib system, in contrast to the San Francisco bike share system, made a huge impression on me.
First, there was the number of users. A substantial majority of the considerable number of cyclists we saw on the streets of Paris were on Velib bikes. And it made sense. With Velib, there was no reason to worry about locking your bike or returning to your bike after finishing with a destination. You could park it at a station, go do stuff, then move on to a different station closer to your destination and check out another bike. Being somewhat scatter brained my internal alarms were screaming at me "you forgot your bike!" as I'd walk away from where I'd docked the previous one. But of course it wasn't my bike.
Then there was the ease of use. We got day passes, which we purchased on-line for only 1.30 Euros each. This is substantially cheaper than the San Francisco system, something Paris can afford because the daily utilization of the Paris system is no doubt considerably higher than the San Francisco Bay area's barely more than 1 ride per bike per day. Then at each station we'd go to the machine and enter our ID numbers, our PINs, and the number of the bike we wanted. We'd then go to that bike and depress the button, releasing it from the rack. This was all relatively easy and quick, although it would have been far quicker still had we been subscribers, in which case we could have simply waived our cards in front of the rack at our selected bikes and released them for use.
Arc de Triumph: less auto traffic when riders circle it in Le Tour
The downside of the high daily utilization, however, in combination with the common Paris pavé cobblestoned streets (but a remarkable lack of potholes and road glass), was that the bikes apparently suffered a fairly considerable degree of wear. I had a seat post which didn't tighten properly, a front end which had considerable play, and a shifting system which freewheeled in 2nd gear (I stayed in 3rd, which sort of worked) on the first three bikes I tried. The fourth was the charm, though, and I had good bikes from that point onward (I think I rode 6 in total). I learned to check the bikes before selecting them. Cara had similar luck, including a bike with low tire pressure.
Key to making the system work was an app Cara had downloaded. This was provided a map of the nearest Velib stations, reporting semi-real-time the number of available bikes and the number of free spots. Sometimes the app was slow, taking in excess of ten seconds to update, but far more often it was fast.
Velib stations are essentially only half the use if they have either no bikes or are 100% full. We never encountered the latter, but exceeded the 3-minute prepaid time-limit, going into the one-Euro overtime period, because one station we passed had only a single available slot. Still, despite the app, getting to the nearest station wasn't without its challenges. First, the streets of Paris are a maze of one-way streets arranged in nearly random orientation. Bikes can ride both ways on many, but not all of these one-ways.
The bikes-either-way on one-ways (note I resist writing "wrong way", since it's right-way for bikes) works surprisingly well. The only issue is on the narrow streets the bikes are forced into the door zone on parallel parked cars. Drivers parked on what them is the left side of the road need to check for oncoming cyclists before flinging open their car doors. But this is easy: the cyclist is visible through the windshield. For a rider violating the law, riding wrong-way in the US, this oncoming cyclists might be unexpected, but in Paris, this isn't the case. Obviously doordings can be a very serious matter, as they can push a cyclist into the path of an oncoming vehicle. However, the Paris system seems to work, and it certainly facilitates getting around by bike.
Really we never had any issues. Of the roads we rode, only the Champs Elysee was really worrysome, being an exceptionally wide road which serves as a major through-way for Paris drivers. But it had fantastically wide sidewalks, on which it's legal for cyclists to ride. This provided another contrast with the United States, where allowing cyclists on urban sidewalks is considered guaranteed carnage. For some reason in Paris it works fine.
Velib equals smiles
In addition to the price difference, another source of contrast between the bikes in Paris and San Francisco is the time limit. They both have 30 minute time limits, but in Paris this works. We only missed the 30 minute deadline once, because there's such a fantastic density of bike stations, if a trip goes long you can dock at a nearby station and recheck out the same bike. With a card this would be quite fast, but having to enter a one-day code at a kiosk, it's slower. An additional aspect of the density of stations is that if a desired station is full, there's probably another station not too far away. So with a buffer of just a few minutes you can still find a spot for your bike with good probability.
San Francisco BABS kiosks
So in summary, comparing the Paris system to the San Francisco, the overwhelming difference is simply the number of stations: both the density of stations and the extent of the system. In Paris we didn't even think about if the Velib would get us where we wanted to go. We just found a nearby station, got bikes, rode to near the destination, then checked the real-time app to find the nearest dock with available spots.
I've not been an enthusiastic adaptor of the San Francisco system. It works only for a very limited range of trips due to the insufficient deployment. Expansion has been retarded due to the hardware supplier filing bankruptsy. Hopefully that can be resolved and the system can be brought closer to its capacity. It really is wonderful when done correctly: no worries about finding secure bike parking, or about returning to where a bike was parked. Just dock it and forget it.