A practical guide to city cycling
Self-service bicycles are a persuasive and competitive sustainable development option in an urban setting. More importantly, they enhance the quality of life for locals, giving them a healthy dose of exercise and a pleasant alternative (especially in the summer months!) to public transport and congested traffic. They also bring new style and charm to city breaks for tourists. Consequently, all the major cities in France have launched their own practical bike hire scheme, often centred around an existing network of cycle paths. Here's a guided tour.
Paris - long live Vélib'
This original scheme has been a roaring success since it was first introduced to the French capital in the summer of 2007. Today it boasts almost 183,000 long-term subscriptions, and that's on top of occasional usage, which is very easy (you pay by credit card at a Vélib terminal) and attractive (first 30 minutes free, then from €1 per 30 minutes). Following on from its initial success, Vélib' is expanding and by this summer will have nearly 1,450 stations and 20,000 pushbikes in service across Paris (that means 70 pick-up/drop-off points and 1,000 bicycles per arrondissement!). The Vélib' concept gives city-dwellers real freedom of movement and just requires a sense of civil responsibility and caution (for example, by respecting the Highway Code and pedestrians, using your own bike helmet and watching out for motorised traffic, including scooters and motorbikes). These trendy bikes can be used by young people from the age of 14 (minimum height 4ft 11in/1.50m), so you can cycle as a family. Vélib' customers can also join the rollerbladers and cyclists using their own bikes (estimated to number 180,000 in Paris) who make the most of the 150-km network of dedicated cycle lanes in the centre of Paris.
La Rochelle - a self-service bike pioneer
This Charente-Maritime port town, a major tourist destination on the Atlantic coast, paved the way for "green towns" as long as 30 years ago and now has 300 yellow bicycles in circulation for use by its citizens.
Strasbourg - quick off the mark
The capital of Alsace is a French record-breaker: bike use represents nearly 10% of journeys in the city, which is four times the national average! It has 120,000 regular cyclists who take advantage of the biggest network of dedicated cycle lanes (around 300km) in France. On top of this, the Vélocation bike rental service has been in operation in the city for about 15 years.
Lyon - a cycling pioneer
To the delight of its residents, the capital of the Rhône-Alpes introduced 3,000 bicycles in May 2005 as part of a scheme known as Vélo'v. This popular initiative enables locals to enjoy a ride along the banks of the Rhône and the Saône, or to cycle to the large parks and gardens in the suburbs!
Rennes puts bikes on the menu with Vélo à la carte
This scheme has been in existence in the Breton capital for 10 years and today offers 200 bicycles in 25 stations.
Bordeaux sets the wheels in motion
The city of fine wines has introduced a bike lending service with the Vélo-cité association, where 4,000 bicycles are available for free for four months (in exchange for a deposit). Users just have to look after their bike and enjoy pedalling along the river and around the beautiful historic squares. This great service is for Bordeaux residents only and is very popular with students.
Aix-en-Provence - say hello to V'hello
Pushbikes are particularly appropriate for this Provençal city given that the narrow streets of the old town are so unsuitable for car traffic. However, it's important to respect the many pedestrians who wander around the colourful market squares and along the streets lined with majestic Renaissance town houses. A fleet of 200 bicycles is available for residents and tourists at around 15 bike stations.
Grenoble - Métro-Vélo
Métro-Vélo (in reference to Greater Grenoble's nickname "La Métro") offers half-day and weekend bike rental for €3 and €9 at two different rental locations (train station and the university campus). Unseasoned cyclists have nothing to fear from the landscape of this city in the heart of the Alps - it is in fact completely flat!
Toulouse - keeping up with the pack
The VélôToulouse scheme was launched in November 2007 and now hires out its distinctive, red mudguarded bicycles from 135 stations. The perfect option for navigating the typical old streets of the Pink City.
Taxi bike initiatives
Shrewd companies are bringing the craze for original and eco-friendly rickshaw and tricycle taxis to cities such as Toulouse, Lyon and Grenoble. These modern three-wheeler bikes, pedaled or sometimes equipped with small electric motors, carry two or three passengers for around €1 per kilometre.
The E-solex: a neo-retro electric bike also available for hire
Car rental firm Europcar is now offering a new version of the lovely and original all-black moped that was an urban icon in France from 1950 to 1970 - the French equivalent of the Vespa in Italy. This time round, the new Vélo-Solex has an electric motor with a rechargeable battery and a top speed of 40km/h. €20 hire charge for a half-day's rental in cities such as Paris, Marseille and Cannes.
The longest city cycle route networks
Strasbourg remains the indisputable leader with over 300km of cycle routes, followed closely by the Picardy city of Amiens, and Lyon (around 260km). Next come Paris, Toulouse and Rennes with over 150km, then Bordeaux, Nantes and Grenoble with some 100km.