Ass Backwards Is Just Right in Paris

Now I’m in Paris and yes, as always, it’s absolutely beautiful. This evening, a light rain brushed the city, leaving a gorgeous, cinematic glaze on every surface. They make everything look right here, even if it’s only as humble as a fleeting bout of precipitation.

Right: Right as rain. Newly slicked street in the 6e arrondisement.

This afternoon, I got a brief tutorial on how to use the city’s famous Vélib shared bicycle system, in which a credit card will get you access to any one of a fleet of readily available bikes stored in public racks all over the city. It’s ingeniously designed and, apparently, also massively successful.

Right: Caveat cyclist. The reversed seat indicates a faulty bike.

My favorite part, though, is one user innovation that’s already become widely understood among the thousands of regular Vélib customers (or so I’m told): while parked at a rack, a seat turned backwards is an indication that that particular bicycle has a flat tire, a broken chain or some other fault, and other users should avoid it. Though the rental system itself is a modern marvel — GPS chips track all of the bikes constantly, and computerized help redirects customers returning bikes to nearby locations when a given rack is full — there’s still room for a simple hack like this for users to create added value for the community at large. That’s good design at work, because the system’s users are also, in part, the system’s designers. Awesome.

  1. Yeah, the new style is turning the seats for as most of the bikes are broken :/
    It is a nice idea, but: since this year, there were almost no cycle tracks in Paris! Can you imagine how bad the parisians are riding the bike? No wonder they are all broken.
    The bikes weight 26 kg and are designed for no more being comfortable on long distance (which is good, because otherwise it’s really going to be expensive). I once also did a blogentry on this, when I was looking for a bike – the 1000th time without succeeding.. here.

  2. They tried a scheme like this in Cambridge (UK) in… oh… 1993 I think. They used all the stolen bikes that the police hadn’t managed to return, painted them all green and made them free. They all disappeared the first weekend the scheme was in place. All of them.

    Glad to see that little problem has been ironed out, anyway.

  3. When I used to live in Boulder Colorado we had bright green painted bicycles all over the city that were for public use. They were usually junkers with wobbly tires and creaky gears, but it was an absolute pleasure to find one leaning up against a building when you were running late for class or had a long walk home from the bars to look forward to. Every time I rode one the bicycle theme from The Wizard of Oz would play in the back of my mind.

  4. In Copenhagen they have been doing something similar for years. The bikes are much simpler (no GPS, put a deposit of a 20KR coin to ride, etc). Problem is always that many of the bikes get stolen/broken, but overall it’s a great idea/success. Also, Copenhagen is perhaps the most friendly bicycle city in the world with special bicycle lanes, traffic lights, etc.

    Read more here.

  5. One of the great observations about Paris is that it’s a great architectural city not because of its great buildings, but because of the uncommon high quality of its everyday, normal buildings. So true, and it makes the city such a pleasure to wander and enjoy. I’m jealous. Have fun and have a sidewalk cafж on moi.

  6. We used just such a system in Lyons last summer and loved it too (and rode around the city as fast as we can with silly grins on our faces). Awesome, wish they had them in every city.

  7. Not being able to ride the velibs is one of the minor albeit lingering disappointments from my honeymoon. My wife and I could not get a kiosk near Hotel de Ville to take any of our U.S. cards.

    But I love that the system is there and to hear that other cities have them as well.

  8. Paris by night is so amazing and beautiful. I’m sure you enjoy in your trip in france.

    Have you test our famous food? it’s an other particularity that represents the most the french culture.

    A french man !

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