Reading about Velib is easy, with ubiquitous articles, TV spots and blog entries; renting a Velib, on the other hand, is not.
Stendahl dedicated his books to "Les Happy Few," the small number of readers who would get it. Velib (short for "velo en liberté"), a new one-way, short-term bike rental program for Paris, is like that. You can't get it unless you have a French bankcard or a transit pass issued by a local authority that requires an attestation by your French employer. No short-term exceptions for the 25 million visitors to Paris, many of whom would no doubt love to pedal around for an hour or two. Les Happy Many!
Launched over the Bastille Day weekend with great fanfare, Velib had a big flat tire by midweek. Nothing was working properly: not the day passes meant to be available by swiping a credit-card at the hundreds of automated booths around town, not the multi-lingual instructions, not the locking mechanisms that shut down the debit to your account.
City officials, having made their media splash, retreated into their habitual stance toward awkward questions: a Gallic Pff! Ticket sales and information were supposedly available at Metro offices (where the bored ticketseller handed out brochures), post offices ("not here, Monsieur"), tourist offices (two summer interns, giggling but unhelpful), the main City Hall (two bored civil servants, "Not here, try the neighborhood mairie"), the neighborhood mairie (where the woman already had a sign up: "Complaints about Velib, call 01 30 79 79 30"). Call that number and you get a telephone tree of sales pitches for the service without any opportunity to leave a message of complaint.
Right now all those complaints are being directed toward the entrepreneur behind it all, JC Decaux, the folks who put up public toilets in exchange for advertising space. Decaux--a giant media company involved in far more than "urban furniture"--installed a system of red bicycles called V'Love in Lyon that we wrote about last year; it's hugely successful. The Parisian Velib may yet come around, but not this week. The elegant website (which belongs to the city of Paris, not Decaux) doesn't work worth a damn, and crashes completely when you try to register online.
What makes it maddening is that Velib is such a great idea. Ten thousand bikes are already on the street, waiting (and waiting, and waiting, since the system doesn't work) with twice as many bike stations as Metro stops. The price is right: first half-hour free, second half-hour, one euro, with increasingly steep rates thereafter. Idea being that you get where you're going and return the bike to the nearest "station." Think of it as a one-way Flexcar rental.
Those JC Decaux toilets, for all that, work fine, and they're free.