Lyon’s corner: Velo Ville – Bike Project

This article was published in 2005, in Newsletter 63.

I am writing from the busy but beautiful city of Lyon. At the confluence of two big rivers it is the second biggest city in France with big hills, one way streets along its long grid system and a comprehensive public transport network. The metro system includes a funicular railway and one driverless line.

To address the very poor modal share of cycling the city has introduced a high quality fully automated on street bicycle hire system. Called ‘velo’v’, Anglo-French word play on ‘velo ville’ and ‘velo love’, it has been phenomenally successful.

Almost 100 ‘Stations Velo’ are now very distinctive additions to the streetscape, at railway stations, tourist attractions, street corners and transport hubs. At each, anything from 10 to 50 bikes wait for hire and they are in the same colour scheme as the rest of the transport network. Each console is fully automatic: armed with an appropriate credit card, just sign up, agree to terms and conditions and receive a hire card. The hire card is used to free one of the bikes from the stands and you have 60 seconds to get the bike before it locks again.

Commuters prepared to queue for 15 minutes for a hire card and bike
Image as described adjacent

The bikes are well equipped with a low step-through frame. Seat height is adjustable through a wide range, and the bikes are equipped with roller brakes (smooth, no squealing), lights (always on), front wire basket, 3-speed Nexus hub gears, skirt guard, partially enclosed chain (no fear of snagging clothing or grease marks) and a solid kick-stand that lifts the bike off its back wheel. Security is paramount for such well-equipped machines and every part of the bike has security bolts which require specialist tools to undo. Even the tube valves are protected so you can’t easily let the tyres down. At the ‘Stations Velo’ the bikes lock into the specially designed bollard-style cycle racks via a clamp affixed around the down-tube. For locking elsewhere around the city there is a simple, but strong, steering lock. A thin cable can connect the bike to street furniture.

Bike hire for the first half an hour is free and then something like one Euro per hour. Details at

One of Lyon’s 2000 Velo’v bikes
Image as described adjacent

The whole system has been very well thought through and attention to detail has been exceptional. It’s difficult to criticise the system, and it seems that people are prepared to queue for fifteen minutes to get their bikes. There are 2000 bikes on the streets and it is already planned to expand the scheme.

Lyon does have a number of ‘pistes cyclable’, but the city is still dominated by fast traffic. Well over half the bikes I’ve seen around the town are these special bikes, so well done Lyon for introducing a bike scheme that works so well when so many other schemes have failed.


The company operating the scheme is JC Decaux. They are one of the biggest advertising and street furniture operators. I understand that they have the monopoly on street advertising in the city, but in return they have to provide bus stops and other systems as decided by the local council. Four months before the scheme started a promotional scheme began, which built up an expectation about what the scheme was and how it would work. Apparently this played an important part in the success of the scheme.

Hire Charges

The following has been translated from the web site courtesy of Nigel Deakin:

There are three types of payment:

1. Long-term card: This is a pre-pay card which is valid for 12 months. It costs €5 plus a €150 deposit and when you buy it you need to load it with a minimum of €5. Buy these by post with a cheque and enclosing proof of address. You can top-up your account by using your bank card at the machine at a bike station or by sending a cheque. Note that your balance must be positive to use a bicycle.

  • Cost of card: €5 + €150 returnable deposit (to cover loss, damage or theft)
  • The first 30 minutes: free
  • 30 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes: €0.50
  • Per hour following: €1

2. Short-term card: This operates for a seven-day period and you pay at the end. It costs €1. You buy one of these from a machine at a bike station using your bank card. During the period of validity, it adds up the total time used (beyond the 30 minute free allowance). When the card expires, the cost of the time used will be charged to your bank account. If you want to use the bikes after your card has expired you will need to purchase a new card. Note that you may be charged up to €150 if a bike is lost or stolen.

  • Cost of card: €1
  • The first 30 minutes: free
  • 30 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes: €0.50
  • Per hour following: €2

If the bike is lost, damaged or stolen your bank account will be charged up to €150

3. Carte TELECY (Lyon public transport card): If you have one of these you can apply to use it as a pre-pay card, just like a long-term card, but with reduced rates. This costs €5 plus a €150 deposit and when you buy it you need to load it with a minimum of €5.

Cost of card: €5 + €150 returnable deposit (to cover loss, damage or theft)

  • The first hour: free
  • 1 hour to 2 hours: €0.50
  • Per hour following: €1

Using the bikes

Eventually I did find a couple of things to quibble with the scheme, but I still remain very impressed by it. Sometimes the only bikes left at the ‘Stations Velo’ are the broken ones, but the system seems to know this and won’t release them. So occasionally you need to wait until someone else comes back with another bike.

Also it could happen that the bike racks are full and that you cannot leave your bike. This did happen to me when it started to rain, when suddenly no one wants to be on a bike.

The bikes continue to be hired and ridden throughout the night. As I left my hotel at about 10 pm I was astonished to see about 2000 rollerbladers scooting along one of the main boulevards in Lyon. They were across the entire five-lane width of the road in a massive solid lump.

All ages were there and police, volunteer stewards and city officials were stopping traffic to let them pass through for a rally in the Place Bellecour. Apparently this is a regular phenomenon on the last Friday of every month – very uplifting! We should learn from these innovative attitudes to transport.

Would it work in Cambridge?

Cambridge did introduce a ‘Green Bike Scheme’ in October 1993, but it was a spectacular failure and brought international disrepute to the city. Therefore it seems that it would take a very brave councillor to suggest trying again. Lyon has a much bigger city centre than Cambridge, and so perhaps the scheme is not appropriate. However it might be useful if implemented and administered by the university as it spreads itself across the city towards the M11.

Cambridge seems to have very little spare space in the city centre. I tried to introduce as much on-street cycle parking as possible during the Cycle Theft Reduction project. Also, the ‘Stations Velo’ are much less space efficient than city cycle parking so this would present problems. On the other hand it should be possible to find locations where car parking could be removed. The following places have been suggested:

  • The railway station.
  • All the multi-storey car parks: Grand Arcade, Park Street, Gonville Place, and the Grafton Centre.
  • Shire Hall.
  • All the Park and Ride sites.
  • Addenbrooke’s.
  • All the major supermarket sites.
  • The science park.
  • The cattle market.
  • King’s Parade
  • Outside St Catharine’s College
  • The walkway between the bus station and King Street.
  • Along Regent Street
  • Green Street
  • Drummer Street

Simon Nuttall