It took me a while to get it. During my first two hours in Paris, I saw at least a dozen people riding identical gray bicycles, with baskets in front and a kind of throwback design that evoked memories of old Schwinns. How could so many people have bought the same bike? They hadn't. The bikes I was seeing belong to the new Vélib' system, which stands for Vélo Libre (Free Bike) and is a brilliant new program in the city that is designed to get people biking again without the hassle of owning, parking and maintaining their own bikes.
The way it works is the city has installed kiosks at numerous locations around town, each of which has locking stalls for a dozen or more bikes. The rider checks out a bike using his or her credit card, receives a code to unlock it, and then rides off to their destination, where they return the bike to another Vélib station, locks it up and checks it in. The service is free for the first half-hour and then charged nominally, for one Euro every half-hour after that.
There was a Vélib station near where I stayed, at the top of a hill near the Pantheon on the Left Bank, with sixteen bikes and maps for seventeen other locations in that quarter of the city alone. It seemed like a brilliant way of getting down the hill to the river or to the nearest Metro station. There has apparently been some problem with American credit cards other than Diner's Club and American Express working in the machines, but if they iron out the system, I'll gladly use it the next time I'm in Paris.
Here's hoping that some of our city planners are watching Vélib closely, and will bring it to congested American streets soon.