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.