Paris is rolling out 10,600 bicycles for the public to use practically for free. Similar public bike programs can be found in Lyon, Brussels, Vienna, Helsinki, Oslo, Copenhagen, and elsewhere.
Update (Oct. 17, 2007): Last summer, Paris launched a bicycle-sharing program, called Vélib' —a pun on "free bicycle." Budget Travel noted the program in its July/August issue.
After the program started, we learned that the kiosks that unlock the bikes only recognize credit and bank cards with microchips in them. Americans were, in effect, banned from renting Vélib' bikes because most U.S. credit and bank cards lack these chips.
Since then, JCDecaux, the company that set up the bike system for the city, has been working to accommodate non-chip credit cards in its kiosks.
In a terrific first step, the company updated its kiosks to accept U.S.-issued American Express cards (with and without chips), according to a recent New York Times article.
Our own sources tell us that some hotels may begin selling short-term subscriptions (described below) to American guests.
Below you will find details on Paris's program, along with a rundown of similar bike-sharing and bike-rental programs in Lyon, Brussels, Vienna, Helsinki, Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Drammen, and Copenhagen.
As part of its new Vélib' program, Paris is rolling out bikes by mid-July for the public to use. First you have to subscribe for the city bicycle service on a daily (€1), weekly (€5), or (€29) yearly basis. These subscription plans get you all the half-hour rentals you can handle; keeping a bike longer incurs fees. The bikes will be available at more than 750 stands around the city, and the system will expand through the year.
For daily and weekly subscriptions, go to a curbside meter at any station—there will be one every three or four streets—insert your bankcard, and type in your personal identification number. The machine will ask you to create an access code (instructions are in eight languages), and then it'll spit out a Vélib' card.
Wave the card in front of the screen at a bike stand; then punch in your access code. The machine will list the available bikes at that station. Choose one and then race over to it: You have about a minute to press the button that detaches it from the stand. There's no charge for the first half hour of each "rental." The second half hour costs €1, the third €2, and every half hour thereafter is €4. There's no limit to the number of times you can rent a bike, but kids under 14 aren't allowed to use them.
Returning the bike is simple: Take it to any of the stations and reattach it to an empty stand. It'll beep and flash to let you know you've locked it back up properly.
Lyon's system is called Vélo'v and the pricing is €2 for every extra hour after the first free 30 minutes. Otherwise, the system closely resembles the one in Paris (see above).
Despite being the headquarters of the European Union, Brussels' public bike system, called Cyclocity (cyclocity.be), only has 250 bikes available from 23 stations throughout the city. Tourists can sign up for short-term subscription cards (€1 a day or €1.50 a week) from free-standing meters at every station; rentals cost €0.50 a half hour. The sign-up, rental, and return instructions are identical to those in Paris and Lyon.
First you have to get a Citybike tourist card for €2 a day. Request one from your hotel or one of two "issuing offices" (Royal Tours, Herrengasse 1—3, or Pedal Power, Ausstellungsstrasse 3) . Once you have a card, you can pick up a bike from any of about 50 stations around the city, which are usually located near subway stations. The steps to picking up and returing a bike from an individual station are nearly identical to those in Paris and Lyon. (There's one small difference: Instead of waving your card in front of the terminal's screen, you have to swipe it through a slot.)
The first hour is free, the second is €2, the third costs €3; you'll be charged €4 for the fourth hour and for every hour thereafter. You can only rent out one bike per card, and the rental is limited to 120 hours after which it will be considered lost. If you lose the card, you'll be charged €10. For more information, check out citybikewien.at.
During the summers in Helsinki, you can pick up a bike from any of 26 stands around the city center. All you need is a €2 coin deposit to stick in the lock, which you'll get back when you lock it back up again. (There isn't any rental time limit but you have to stay within the city limits.) Otherwise, the sign-up, rental, and return instructions are similar to the programs described above. See hel.fi for more details.
OSLO, BERGEN, TRONDHEIM, AND DRAMMEN (NORWAY)
Again, you'll need a Citybike tourist card to ride the public bikes in Oslo, Bergen, and Drammen. (Note: Their systems only operate on a seasonal basis, usually shutting down in late fall and reopening in the early spring.) City visitor information offices rent the requisite cards out to tourists.
In Oslo, though, there are some important differences. Oslo's Bysykkel program charges tourists 70 kronor, or about $10, a day. Rentals are a maximum of three hours. After three hours, you have to return it to a bicycle station, but it is possible to rent the bike for another three hours without paying an additional fee.
Note that, when biking, you must stay within Oslo's city limits. Stations will only allow you to take out bikes between 6 a.m. and midnight. They will give you merely 30 seconds to pull your bike from its stand once you've been assigned one—but they will accept bike returns 24 hours a day. (When bikes are properly returned to a stand, a little light in the lock changes from red to green.)
In Trondheim, Norway, people can use a free bike simply by popping in a small coin into the lock, which pops back out again once it's locked back up. More info for the programs in all of these Norwegian cities at adshel.no.
Denmark's capital has 1,300 free bikes for the public to use annually between May and mid-December. All you have to do is find one of the 125 City Bike stations in the city center and deposit a DKK 20 coin (about $3) and start pedaling (staying within the city center). You'll get the coin back when you lock it back up at a City Bike station. Details here.