Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Getting an Annual Velib Subscription

Or, how bureaucracy and security norms can kill almost any good thing.

Background: Velib has 20,000 bicycles for hire (free for < 30 minutes at a time) everywhere in Paris. This combined with a fairly bike-friendly infrastructure means that getting around Paris by bicycle is a dream.

In order to use the Velib bicycles you must first purchase a pass, sold by the day for €1 or the week for €5. Passes are purchased at the Velib kiosks and require a credit or debit card with a chip in it. While many Parisians have such a card, Americans do not. (The one exception that I am aware of is American Express Blue, however you must make a special request of Amex to please issue you a card with a chip in it. And note that while Velib will accept an Amex Blue card with a chip, none of the subway or train vending machines will, so it doesn't really do you much good in France.)

How to use your pass:

First check the line of bicycles and select one which is in good operating condition. Flat tires, etc. are common. Don't forget which number it is. Now go to the kiosk and enter your 8 digit pass number and your 4 digit PIN code. Enter the bike number. Press more buttons agreeing to take care of the bicycle. There appear to be some bugs in the kiosk software that result in this process getting short-circuited back to the beginning, so you might have to do the whole thing two or three times.

But, Ho! what's this we see? Some people just come up to the row of bicycles, wave a card over the locking mechanism, remove the bicycle and leave. What magic is this? How did they avoid the rather tedious process of interacting with the buggy kiosk software?

It is called a Navigo card. A contactless stored value smart card which is used for subways, trains, and buses. You charge it up weekly or monthly then just swipe to get through the gates at the stations. Somehow these people have tied their Navigo card to their Velib account. How did they accomplish this? Just a few...ah...simple...um..."steps":

Step -6 (that is a minus sign, not punctuation for emphasis): First you must obtain a Navigo card. Spend lots of time on the Velib website and ask three friends to interpret. Is it saying that you need a Navigo to get an annual membership? And yet there is no link from the Velib.paris.fr site to the Navigo website. Yes, friends say, I need a Navigo card. Go directly to Navigo website. Finally understand that I want a regular Navigo instead of a Navigo Découverte, and make application online. Unfortunately, before I can apply I must:

Step -5 Get a permanent address. Neither Navigo nor Velib will give you anything without a permanent address, so you must find an apartment in Paris. That is a story for another blog (please provide 10 year salary and rental history in Paris for yourself and your personal financial guarantor).

Step -4: Get a Navigo card. Website is all in purple and white. The link to actually get a card looks exactly like a graphic, and not a link at all. I need an electronic passport-style photo. Thankfully I have a camera, take the photo to the special specifications, am able to crop it and upload it. Fill out form online. Push button to send! Ten days later I receive my Navigo in the mail. Excellent! Now I can...

Step -3: Go to the kiosk thinking that I will be able to purchase an annual Velib pass (only €29 for 1 year, I can't wait) at the same kiosks where I can purchase the daily or weekly passes. I assume that it will let me "charge up" my shiny new Navigo card with the annual pass information. No such luck. Annual Velib passes are only sold online or in some train stations (try finding one that will sell you one however, after I stood in a long line, the man behind the counter told me that they definitely did not sell Velib passes) or post offices.

Step -2: From the Velib.paris.fr site I learn that I need a French bank account with RIB code. That Amex Blue card that I told you about before won't do you any good now. Forty-five days after first stepping into an HSBC bank in Paris, I get an RIB code and a bank card with a smart chip in it. (45 days was what it took to open the accounts, transfer lots of money, get phone calls in the middle of the night from New York office even though they know we live in Paris, get email, snail mail, phone mail codes all of which have to put together in synchronized fashion to get my very secure bank account and then, do it all over again to open one in Paris-- impossible to do it all online in 24 hours, as it would be done for a local US bank account).

Step -1: Get my annual Velib membership! Go to website. Link options are down the right side in descending order: "Access my account; Activate my account; Non-subscribers (pre-subscribe). So, now I will "pre-subscribe." I fill out the long form online. I have all the parts (a bank account, an address, a Navigo card number). At the end of the form it says, please print this out, sign, and mail. What's that all about? Someone is just going to have to re-enter all this information on the other end.

Step +1: Still waiting for my annual Velib membership codes to arrive in the mail...

Meanwhile, Velib is wonderful and I am loving riding all over Paris.

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