bikes in Paris

How Paris Quietly Became a Bike City

When I moved to Paris in 2013 one of the first things I did was obtain a Navigo card and after a couple months of buying monthly passes manually via machines I switched to an annual pass and have not had to think about topping up again.  The metro was the way I moved about Paris.

But after getting to know the Metro fairly well you realize that it’s often just as easy to walk to a certain location and you start making choices about what form of transportation makes the most sense given the weather, your mood, what you’re carrying, and what else you still need to accomplish.  Velib was already around when I arrived in 2013 and the shared bike boom followed by the rise in trottinette usage meant that options for transport have only multiplied since then.  The one form of transport that has received an explosive infusion of support from local government is bicycles.

Infrastructure

Now that bike lanes are so well-established in Paris, I wonder how so many of us were brave enough to ride with vehicle traffic for many years prior.  Cars and their drivers, convinced that everyone but them were simply “intruding” on their entitled space, didn’t make life easy for those of us on bicycles, but we figured that was simply the way it would be.  I mean, this wasn’t Amsterdam after all.  But little did most of us know that the Dutch model was exactly what Mayor Anne Hidalgo had in mind to transform Paris from the ground-up.

Plan Velo

Back in 2015, a year after Hidalgo’s first term began, the city started a project called Plan Velo.  This was a big play to make it significantly easier for bicyclists to navigate the city by creating north-south and east-west reseaus express velos (REVes), or “bike express lanes.”  Similar to what you are going to see on almost every street in the Netherlands, this is a protected bike lane that not only provides bidirectional traffic but also allows bikes to continue moving when their right-of-way is not impeded by traffic.  If you haven’t ridden in one of these before, you can’t possibly know how transformative it is.  It changes the experience of bicycling in the city from one analogous to driving a car, i.e. having to always pay attention while being subject to a lot of traffic and stoplights, to one of breezy insouciance: these north-south and east-west corridors make point-to-point travel significantly faster, safer, and more pleasant.

Plan Velo has paid off in numerous ways, not least of which was featuring as the centerpiece of Hidalgo’s successful re-election bid as Mayor.  Paris jumped up into the top ten of bicycle-friendly cities in the world during her first term.  The infrastructure in place during the late 2019 transportation strike also allowed for an overnight 54% jump in bicycle use among Parisians, many of whom did not go back to the Metro even after the strike ceased.

Hidalgo also seized on Danton’s (in)famous notion of audace during the early days of Covid-19 and took back Rue de Rivoli, the longest street in Paris, and limited it to one lane for buses and taxis.  She also created a number of “coronapistes” which created new protected bike lanes via removable plastic cones.  The reasoning given was that fewer cars were on the road because of lockdown and some people weren’t comfortable traveling in the confined spaces of the Metro.  But, just as with the accompanying “extended terrasse” permissions given to the restaurants, rights ceded were not going to simply be given back, and now Plan Velo 2 has arrived.

Plan Velo, Acte 2

Part of the infrastructure changes needed to pérennisée both the so-called coronapistes and the extended restaurant outdoor terraces was removal of the largest enemy of vibrant life in any city: cars.  Cars need a “home” in the form of parking places and 70% of the existing on-street parking spots designated for cars are being removed.

Hidalgo is running for President on the slimmest of chances and Plan Velo Acte 2, released last month (two days before her announcement to run for President), has to be seen as part of her case for progressive measures to form economic and social life at a granular level.  The benefit is enormous for those of us who live in the city (Paris as 100% cyclable by 2026, it promises), but it’s doubtful that people outside of Paris really care, as life in the French countryside, like life almost everywhere in America, is unimaginable without cars.  Indeed, such denizens would snort at her proposed 2030 gas-powered car ban, which seems quite reasonable to those of us who live in the capital, but might seem very odd to those who don’t.

That said, this plan involves investing 250M euros to make the entire city bikeable by adding another 180km of dedicated two-way cycling paths in addition to making permanent the 52km Hidalgo and her team snuck in via the coronapistes last year (to put that in perspective, at the moment we already have more than 1,000 km of bike paths, quite a few snaking into the suburbs).  There’s also budget for more passenger and cargo bike parking spots and cleaning and trash removal for cycling paths.

In addition there will be programs to teach children to ride bikes in schools, repair workshops in each arrondissement, and a cycling tourism push.

Mindset Shift

But having the infrastructure in place is only one part of the problem.  The second is getting Parisians to realize they are now living in a bike city and to make the changes in their behavior necessary.

In my early years of living in Europe I often said that the Netherlands was the only place in the world in which I was terrified of bikes.  The “ding ding” I heard struck fear into my heart as I wondered if I was standing in the wrong place, completely oblivious to my pending death at the hands of some kind person mounted on one of the country’s 23M bikes who would mutter “wat jammer” before moving my body to the side of the road and making a call to the relevant authorities to take care of my remains.

Often I was standing “in the wrong place” and quickly moved to avoid being mowed down.  Sometimes I wasn’t and it was someone else who was needing to be “dinged.”  The reason I was “terrified of bikes” in the Netherlands was because I didn’t have the right mindset.  After my first visit to what the French call the “low country” I flicked on a mental orange switch every time I came to the country (more than half a dozen times since 2014) that I was in a place where bikes, not cars, ruled.  I even, like a new car driver, ventured into the bike lanes on a borrowed bicycle and realized just how different the bicycling experience was when it was treated as a legitimate source of transportation.

Now that 95% of my trips in the city are on a bicycle (which Anne Hidalgo and her team helped pay for) I’m very aware that there are many Parisians who continue to remain as I was on my first trip to the Netherlands and thus have failed to install that mental switch.  This leads to near-misses with pedestrians including one time that I braked hard enough to simply gently bump into an instantly apologetic female pedestrian.

The lack of mindset shift is the same for Parisian bicyclists.  Many of them, like me, are new and don’t even use the proper hand signals for turning, thinking that a left turn means just putting your left hand out the way you do with your right hand to indicate a right hand turn, or never thinking to signal for an unexpected stop.

This all leads to a sometimes dangerous mix of cars, pedestrians, and cyclists who are getting used to a new way of living with each other which leads to situations like the one well-captured in the tweet below at Bastille.

One of the reasons that bicycling is so safe in the Netherlands is that every single car driver is a bicyclist as well.  That leads to an awareness that is now normative in the entire country.

While I don’t expect the unbelievable growth in bicycles here in the capital to lead to changes everywhere in France, it’s clear to me that cities that protect bicycles necessarily change the mindsets of the pedestrians and the car drivers.  It only takes one near miss by a careless pedestrian in the bike lane to suddenly render visible to that pedestrian what was previously an “invisible” bike lane.

It’s also clear that whatever will happen to her presidential ambitions, Hidalgo’s mayoral legacy is assured, if only for the transformation she has achieved for bicycles in the City of Light, a transformation that she persevered in against the noisy protests of car owners and their lobbyists, who seem to have forgotten that Paris and the rest of the world managed to exist, and exist quite well, thank you very much, without personal cars, for centuries.  For her work on this issue, Hidalgo deserves every Parisian’s gratitude.

This change to our city will take time.  In the meantime I’m enjoying all the benefits that come with riding a bicycle in Paris: a different perspective, speed of transportation (I regularly beat friends who take the Metro and leave at the same time I do for a shared destination), and thanks to the aforementioned Plans Velos, more protected infrastructure.

Ding ding.

Photo by Svetlana Gumerova on Unsplash

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This article also appeared on Medium.

The Bike Explosion Happening During the Velib Transition

While it’s true that you often don’t know how good something is until it’s gone, you also don’t realize how much better things can be until you get to try alternatives, and during the last 60 days, as Velib stations have been slowly but surely been deactivated and then ripped up for refurbishment, the dockless solutions of Gobee, Ofo, and Obike have cropped up seemingly everywhere.

Velib

Before we talk about the new kids on the boulevard, it’s probably best to understand how we got here in the first place, and that is because of the dreadful performance of JCDecaux, who had the Velib contract from the beginning.  It was their complacency that brought us to this exciting (though painful) new start.  For those who don’t know, Velib is Paris’ docked bike-sharing system and was originally pitched not only as a system that wouldn’t cost Parisians a penny, but would make the city money.  I know, don’t laugh too hard at socialists promising to turn a profit on a capital-intense venture.

But the reality wasn’t just that Velib failed to be revenue neutral.  It seems that for at least the last 5 years, Velib’s 24,000 bikes have cost the city of Paris about 15 million euros per year.  Those costs can be broken down into vandalism repair (10%), deployment to far-flung suburbs (75%), and maintenance (15%).  As most French firms sitting on a fat contract do, JCDecaux failed to proactively fix the system and predictably they were replaced at the first opportunity by a Montpellier-based company called Smoove which will offer a lighter bike, with over 1/3 of the inventory of the bikes in Paris being electric, which will surely help with the uphill/downhill problem in places like Montmartre and La Villette (people are happy to ride the bikes downhill, but uphill, not so much).  Unsurprisingly, JCDecaux reacted in a predictable French way when they lost the contract: crying, appeals, and attempted striking.

Dockless Options

While this has been going on in the foreground, regular Velib users like myself, reluctant to change from a system we knew well (though didn’t especially love), started to see some of the dockless bikes show up in the city.  Velib is docked – meaning the bikes are parked at specific stations, whereas the dockless ones can be parked, well, anywhere.  Now, while the apps all give you ways to find appropriate places to “park” the bikes not everyone pays attention and at the moment at any given moment you could find a rainbow of bikes around you (Gobee is bright green, Ofo is bright yellow, and Obike is a subdued yellow).  I didn’t switch to trying dockless bikes until it became impossible to reliably use Velib.  The native Velib app and apps like Citymapper that scraped from the information provided by that app were not indicating which stations had been shut for maintenance, so sometimes you would have to hunt for a place to park your bike, with no reliable guide other than trial and error.

That’s what led me to first try Hong Kong-owned Gobee’s system first.  They had flooded the inner city of Paris with bikes and I needed a reliable bike system as I went about Paris on a daily basis and Velib in complete rebuild mode wasn’t going to cut it.  For flat riding in short distances, the bike is certainly adequate.  When you download the app you put in a 20€ deposit and then add money to your account.  With most rides costing around 50 cents, 5€ is plenty to get started with.  The downside?  They clearly didn’t adequately plan for this deployment.  A couple weeks ago I tried to unlock 9 different bikes in the span of 15 minutes and each time I was told that the bike was broken, though the status of the bikes had not been updated in the app, leading to a waste of time for the end user as he/she tries to unlock a bike that is showing in the system as available when it really isn’t.  Such unreliability has meant that I’ve tried to unlock bikes that are not only off the system but have a hanging tag that says “I’m broken” but still managed to unlock and work for me.  The QR scanner technology is also not great and almost always you will have to manually enter your bike number to unlock it.  Will Gobee figure it out?  We’ll see.

Taking a much more cautious approach was venture-backed Ofo out of China.  They had been in talks with the City of Paris to make sure that the deployment of the bikes was something that the city approved of and they sought a collaborative process.  Given the speed of the French government, this meant that they were slower to deploy their bikes (they’ve only got about 1000 out at the moment).  Because they are pretty rare I only rode my first one a few days ago, but I have to say these bikes are dreamy.  Unlike the single speed Gobee bikes, the Ofo bikes have three speeds and simply feel stronger and sturdier.  This does make them a little heavier than the Gobee bikes, but the Ofo bikes are superior to the old Velib bikes, with the new Velib bikes not due to make their appearance until early next year.  As far as their app goes, unlike Gobee, their QR scanner works flawlessly in well-lit conditions and I have yet to run into a situation in which I scan a bike and then the app apologizes, telling me that the bike is actually broken, not available.  They also don’t require a 20€ deposit (for now).

There’s also Singapore-based Obike, but I’ve really only seen those bikes in the Marais, so alas, I don’t have anything to report there.  I do know that their bikes and pricing are the same as Gobees: single-speed and 50 cents per 30 minutes, as opposed to Ofo’s multi-speed bikes costing 50 cents per 20 minutes.

What’s fascinating is that studies show that dockless solutions do not necessarily eat into the revenues of an existing docked solution, but create more user demand for bikes overall.  This makes sense as I very readily joined up to two dockless schemes despite being a Velib user since 2014.  Will I go back to docked once I’ve gone dockless?  The 29€ annual rate for Velib subscription is likely to rise, and given my current rate of use on the dockless schemes, Velib, even with a price increase, is likely to remain the most economical.  What has changed is that Parisians have been freed from the staid shackles of one “okay” choice in bike sharing and have multiple options of varying quality.  Instead of solely relying on Velib, active users like myself are likely to retain accounts with whatever solutions are out there and use them as time and occasion dictate.  Whatever 2018 holds for bike sharing in Paris, it’s going to be orders of magnitude better than what we’ve had until now.