Velib's from a software engineer viewpoint

The Velib’s are becoming insanely popular in Paris because of the strikes (strikes in public transportations is a national sport in France, a bit like baseball is in the US). Thus, I have been taking my first Velib ride yesterday, a few months after their initial launch.

The Velib both the name of a public bike renting system in Paris but also the name of the bike itself. There are now 10.000 Velib’s in Paris (the figure will increase up to 20.000 at the beginning of 2008). The key idea is that take a Velib from any Velib station and put it back into any other Velib station (it does not have to be the same station).

Velib’s are a bit bulky (17kg), but in overall they are quite nicely designed.

In my opinion, there are two main weaknesses in the current Velib’s system

The idea of taking/letting the Velib wherever you want is quite nice. Yet, in practice, there are very important daily migrations of Velib’s within Paris. Basically, in the morning you observe that all the Velib are taken (by the people) toward the inner center of Paris. Then, at the end of the day, there is the opposite flux, and the Velib’s get massively migrated to the outer part of Paris again.

For the average user, strong migrations means that that you are having hard-time to actually find a free Velib in your starting area; but also that you are having hard-time again to find a free slot to park your Velib in your arrival. In order to overcome such a situation, the deal with JCDecaux (the company in charge of the Velib system) include some Velib traffic regulation to organize counter-migration of the Velib’s (through special trucks). Yet, I suspect that the initial deal was massively under-estimating the strength in the migrations in Paris.

At this point, I can hope for two things: Paris re-negotiates with JCDecaux another agreement to increase the Velib traffic regulation; and/or JCDecaux upgrades its traffic regular software to anticipate the migration and respond more pro-actively to them.

Also, the software interface to rent your Velib is a pain. The first mistake comes from the fact that there is not one but two display devices: a big color digital screen that displays the main interface and below, a small alphanumeric display that displays some informations related to the credit card processing. Together those two display devices are a real pain, because you are never sure were to look at while waiting for the next instruction.

Then, the total number of keys that have to pressed iteratively on the numeric pad to do a rent-for-the-day operation is completely insane. I have quickly lost the track, but it must be around 50 key operations or so; which takes 10 mins no matter how much familiarity you have with the system (I was yesterday assisted by somehow who did dictate to me the instructions in order to speed-up the process).

Among the things that are plain nuts with the current UI, I think the password management is a design truly born in Hell. You have to choose a password, then confirm your password, then re-enter again your password. Now, you are asked to enter your credit card password; don’t mix the two of them or your going to block your credit card (and get sent back to the starting point). Actually, the whole password thing is completely useless. The credit card should be the default way to perform authentication for those who do not have an RFID pass (the RFID pass comes with the 1-year subscription). That would save half of the operations.

Not sure that the Velib UI would have succeeded against any hallway testing; yet, during the strikes you got the perfect excuse to be late anyway. You can perfectly afford some 20min struggle to rent your Velib.