Paris is set for a transport revolution this weekend when a fleet of 10,000 self-service bicycles hits the city, providing a cheap and fun alternative to the metro for Parisians and tourists alike.
As the Tour de France annual bike race wends its arduous way across the country, in Paris amateur cyclists will from Sunday be able to use swipe- or credit-cards 24 hours a day to rent cycles for short trips, dropping them off at any of 750 bike points to be picked up by a new user.
The scheme, named Velib, is part of a growing global trend for eco-friendly, easy-access urban bike rental, but is the first in a major capital and is being keenly watched by city planners from Rio de Janeiro to Montreal.
City Hall hopes Parisians will adopt the system en masse, and expects to have at least 200,000 regular users by year end, when the number of bikes is set to double to 20,600 at 1,451 stations.
And the 16 million tourists who come to Paris every year -- making it the most visited city in the world -- will also havy easy access to the bikes for seeing the sights.
Users simply click on a website to sign up or pick up a form from bakeries, newsagents or metro stations citywide.
The stylishly-designed bike docking stations, spaced 300 metres (yards) apart, form a dense grid across the city, and cyclists can use the Internet or a mobile phone to check on bike availability at any one.
Each dock has a panel that gives instructions in several languages.
Costs for the user have been kept right down. Rental is free for the first half hour, rising to one euro for the second, two for the next and so on -- a progressive charging system designed to encourage short rents and quick turn-over.
There is also a small subscription fee. Registered bikers pay 29 euros (38 dollars) a year while occasional cyclists can use a credit card to pay a one-off daily fee of one euro or weekly charge of five euros.
Children under 14 are not allowed use the bikes, and helmets are recommended but, for hygiene reasons, are not provided.
The scheme will not cost French taxpayers a penny thanks to a deal between city hall and urban advertising giant JC Decaux, which is picking up the bill in exchange for exclusive rights to 1,600 hoardings across the city.
It will even generate funds for the city, with a slice of ad revenue paid back into its coffers.
Paris' strategy is to allay concerns -- such as bike theft and repairs -- that have kept people from taking up cycling and that have caused similar schemes to founder in cities such as Amsterdam.
Despite a growing 400-kilometre (250-mile) network of cycle paths, the city of two million, which has one of the best public transport systems in the world, has only 150,000 bike owners.
It is also rolling out a major campaign on road safety for novice cyclists, while reassuring users that bikes are less accident-prone than cars or motorcycles.
It is counting on the sheer number of bikes on the street to win over doubters, and force the notoriously aggressive Parisian drivers to be more considerate.
To allow for intensive use, the bikes themselves are sturdy machines, weighing 22 kilograms (50 pounds) with three gears and a large front basket with a lock for stop-offs away from docking stations.
Velib, a contraction of the French words "velo" (bike) and "liberte" (freedom), is modelled on a similar scheme run by JC Decaux in the southeastern French city of Lyon where 4,000 self-service bikes have been part of the landscape since 2005.
Fifty-five percent of the scheme's users in Lyon say they now drive less, and bike traffic has jumped 75 percent.
The Paris initiative dovetails with the pledge by newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy to push green issues up the agenda, illustrated by the appointment of political heavyweight Jean-Louis Borloo as a new environment superminister.