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Paris a bicycle paradise? Hmm, not quite

June 19th, 2013 · 140 Comments

And here is my account of nine days in Paris, using Velib for various trips around town (though not all).

Completely anecdotal, with no statistics except my own experience.

So, I love bike-share systems. They make it so much easier to hop on a bike and get around than the usual procedure of tracking down a bike-rental store, usually far from wherever it is you are, and having to pay a full-day rate when all you want to do is maybe get from Point A to Point B.

In terms of access, Velib is great. Within two blocks of our apartment near Republique, there were three Velib stations with about 20 bikes apiece. There were always plenty there whenever I wanted to ride.

But what about riding around the actual streets? That’s another question. I never did manage to get a map that showed cycling routes or Velib stations in my time there. One Google source told me I could get such information at bike stores. The bike stores didn’t have them and told me to go to the local city hall. (Each arrondissement has its own city hall, so 20 of them.) I went and all they had were the Velib cards that you could load up for access. They said I should contact Velib itself, which seemed convoluted for a one-week stay.

That meant that I ended up riding the way most tourists and newcomers do — based on whatever signs, painted lanes and other clues I could find on the street. (As I’ve discovered in  other bike-share cities, those street signs, painted messages on the road, green arrows, and cyclist symbols  are invaluable as you’re making your way ad hoc through the city.) In spite of all that, my rides were, if I may say so, hairy. And I’m someone who is relatively adventurous on the street, so I can’t imagine what it might be like for the more timid.

When the signs were there, it was great. On some of the big streets, eg. Boulevard de Sebastopol, which cuts a big north-south swath from Gare de l’Est to Ile de la Cite, there was a wide separated lane. Of course, as with all the big streets, that was shared with buses, taxis, and scooters. It was fine if there was not too much traffic. When a friend and I used a lane like that on the street running between the Seine and the Louvre, however, it was intimidating to be mashed in between a couple of buses and five motorcycles.


It was a mixed bag on the smaller streets. Frequently, there were signs indicating that bikes were permitted to go the wrong way down a one-way street. Other times there weren’t.


In the end, I never made a trip where I didn’t end up going the wrong way down a one-way street, unsure of wheether that was actually allowed. I did any number of other outlaw things — riding on the sidewalk if necessaary, running red lights, weaving in and out of dense pedestrian crowds. It seemed to be what everyone of every mode of transportation does in Paris. Cars park on the sidewalk; pedestrians and scooters invade the bike lanes,  and everyone in general just muscles their way into the space they need.


Surprisingly, it does all seem to work. I discovered that Paris had zero bicycle fatalities last year (compared to 16 in London, something that the British papers were making hay of at one point). I can only assume it’s due to a few circumstances: 1. People are eager to ride bikes, no matter how hairy it is, because it’s ultimately a better solution for them than irregular or out-of-the-way transit and impossible cars. 2. Paris has made some efforts to make space for bikes, in spite of the fierce competition for space on city streets that   it is experiencing along with every other city and 3. People on the road in Paris do pay a lot of attention to what’s going on around them, which means that when a cyclist ploughs out into cars turning right against the signal (as my friend did inadvertently), everyone watchfully makes way.


Still, it’s far from what I’d call a cyclist heaven. I think those titles probably go to the relatively small city centres of Amsterdam and Copenhagen, because car traffic there has always been limited and the it’s easier to carve space for the bicycle out of that geographically confined central territory. In a bigger city like Paris, with more people and more traffic, it’s all far more complicated.


One disappointing aspect, too, was that in spite of the efforts with Velib, Paris’s efforts to close down roads occaasionally in order to accommodate bicycles seem to be in retreat. When I was there four years ago, major boulevards like Beaumarchais were closed on Sunday. This time, the streets closed on Sunday were either in heavy pedestrian areas — which meant they essentially became pedestrian streets, impossible to cycle through — or they were the lower roads along the Seine — nothing too disruptive for cars.

A few final observations:

1. Yes, it happens sometimes that you arrive at a station and there is no place to park. Following the cue of others, I just waited until someone showed up to take a bike out and then parked. It only took a few minutes.

2. Keeping the bike for longer than 30 minutes mounts up. A friend who couldn’t find a station near the Tuileries ended up paying an extra 7 euros for her 90 minute visit there, when she just locked it up and kept it until she was ready to move on.

3. Checking to make sure the seat isn’t loose, the brakes are working and the tires aren’t flat is always a good idea.

Otherwise, it was all a fun, though occasionally startling experience, and a great way to get home instead of walking after a couple of glasses of wine at the end of the night.












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