In the 90’s, when the first bicycle lanes were set up, riding in the streets of Paris was considered particularly risky. Since then, things have changed. The French capital is making a major effort to promote cycling in a city where motorists’ driving habits are seen as dangerous, aggressive and far from civilized.
Commuting everyday on my Vespa, from the Parisian suburbs to the central business district, has given me the perfect chance to observe the increasing popularity of the bicycle in the French capital. In the 90’s, when the first bicycle lanes were set up, riding in the streets of Paris was considered particularly risky. Since then, things have changed significantly.
As in most European cities, a lot has been done to reduce car traffic and pollution with the promotion of public transport, new tram and bus lanes being built, parking costs increased… and alternative sustainable transport modes have been promoted. In spite of strikes, the Parisian public transport system is pretty good compared to other cities. Now more efforts are being made to promote the bicycle, in a city where driving habits are seen as dangerous, aggressive and far from civilized.
On a national level, thanks to regular prevention campaigns and increased police controls, the number of people killed on the road has been halved in the last 10 years and the French have progressively adopted a safer way of driving. This does not mean the average Parisian motorist has suddenly become polite and calm behind the wheel, but he is now more careful about his behavior because he risks losing his driving license more quickly than before.
The biggest effort to promote sustainable transport systems in Paris came in summer 2007 when the city mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, launched a bicycle-rental system called Vélib (Vélo + Liberté). Up to 20,000 bicycles, in 1,200 rental stations, were made available to Parisians and tourists alike. The subscription cost €29 per year or €1 per day and the rental was free if the bike was used for less than 30 minutes. Those prices have not changed since 2007.
The Vélib was pretty much an instant success, with 200,000 users in the first year, and daily use by between 15,000 and 100,000 cyclists, depending on weather conditions. With so many new cyclists on the road, a new form of co-existence with motorized transport was inevitable. The cycling community gained more of the road space and car drivers were now obliged to consider this new group carefully. Nevertheless, although there are now 400 kilometers of protected bike-lanes, the development of the bicycle-sharing system has not been without its share of problems: including vandalism, theft and accident damage.
Despite the fact that the Vélib is rather heavy (22 kilos!) and slow-moving, 80% of the bikes had to be replaced or repaired during the first year. Some bikes were found for sale in the markets of Africa and Eastern Europe or thrown into the River Seine. The system turned out to be much more costly than planned, both for the city council and for the advertising company, JC Decaux, which finances and manages the project (in return the company receives the exclusive-use contract for the city billboards). A few months after launching a similar bike-hire scheme in London, Mayor Boris Johnson joked about ‘light-fingered Parisians’, comparing the number of stolen bikes (three in London versus thousands in Paris), and praising the civic spirit of his fellow citizens. Vélib organizers however put the disparity down to resentful and angry youth, who are the main users of the system late at night, after public transport closes.
Three years after its inauguration and its exciting début, Vélib has become part of the Parisian way of life and represents a third of all bicycles in circulation. Tourists have also adopted it as a cool way to discover la plus belle ville du monde, following dedicated ‘scenic routes’. Most of all, it has encouraged Parisians to repair their old bikes and get them back on the streets. Since 2007, the number of cyclists has increased by 10% per year on average. However the number of cars on the streets has not declined that much (as most of the new cyclists are, or were, public transport users) and Paris still has Europe’s worst traffic jams. The growing use of bicycles remains mainly limited to Paris itself; for Greater Paris commuters (like me), the distances are long and the infrastructure inadequate.
The Paris cycling community
This growing community is far from homogeneous and includes a number of recognizable Parisian stereotypes:
The cycliste classique is stylish, elegant and takes loving care of his faithful ‘mount’. He has been a cyclist for a long time. He respects the driving rules carefully and overtakes the slow Vélib user with superiority and condescension, perched high on his ‘Holland’ type bike. The suit, coat and hat are chosen to match his style, in predominantly dark colors.
The teenager on a Vélib respects no rules and rides on the pavement, simultaneously phoning or typing text messages to his mates, while shouting at passing car or scooter drivers. He once used to terrorize old ladies by riding his skateboard on the pavement; he has simply changed his mode of transport, but not his rebellious behavior.
Le bobo (for ‘bourgeois-bohème’, or trendy urban middleclass) lives in the popular areas of Eastern Paris. He supports all ecological trends and movements, repairing his old bike to make it look vintage and basic. He is often seen taking his kid to school on the back.
The fixie rider has adopted the ultimate NY courier messengers’ cycle and even the traditional bag. Attracted by the pure and simple fixed-gear bike, he is part of a small but growing group. The ‘fixie’ has no breaks; it requires a training period and not too much slope. To be avoided from Montmartre.
The sportsman is dressed in the most up-to-date cycling equipment, as if he was going on Le Tour de France, (except that he carries his work clothes in a tiny backpack). He uses the journey from home to work to keep in shape and knows the way by heart, as he makes the same trip every day. The head is down, the gaze fixed straight ahead; he doesn’t have any time for the magnificent façades he passes, but he keeps an eye on his chronometer. He curses at those damned traffic lights and sometimes runs the red light to keep up his rhythm.
Last but not least, la Parisienne has adopted le vélo as an appropriate way to commute to work, to take care of her body with style and to combine all her daytime activities. In the summer, when skirts and sleeves shorten, she is terribly sexy and she knows it. The ‘head-turning’ Parisian male just can’t resist the view. American photographer (and former US prosecutor) Gil Garcetti has dedicated a whole book to this subject: Paris: Women and Bicycles (with a preface by Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris). One day, when he was on the Place de la Concorde, Garcetti took a photograph of an elegant woman riding her bicycle and he got the idea for this book. He is now trying to promote a bicycle scheme in Los Angeles.
On your next visit to Paris, forget the gregarious bus trip, avoid the grumpy taxi driver, escape the packed Metro and go for the bicycle experience as so many Parisians and tourists do. However, beginners should beware of leaving the protected bike lanes to cross large squares with circular traffic such as (crazy) Place de l’Etoile or La Concorde – the experience can be rather challenging: Sacrebleu! Some areas of the city, such as the banks of the Seine, the Canal Saint Martin, the Marais and Beaubourg districts are far more suitable. Paris has made some serious progress but has yet to equal bike-friendly Amsterdam in terms of cycling culture…