BICYCLE CULTURE IN
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Cramer has been cycling in Paris for more than 10 years. In
this guest blog for Freewheeling France, he traces the
growth of bicycle culture in the French capital.
Paris from the seat of a Vélib bike.
Vélib is one of the world's most successful – and
public bike share schemes.
years ago, city authorities of Paris, led by Denis Baupin,
then Deputy Mayor of Transportation, decided to reduce the
space occupied by cars, replacing it with wider bus-bike
lanes and bike paths. (You can read more about the campaign
that got the city to this point
One of the
goals was to improve air quality. Of the three greatest
enemies of air quality (motor transport, heating and
industry), they knew that motor transport was the greatest
culprit. Detractors called Mr Baupin names like Mr.Gridlock
and “the Khmer Verte” (because he was a Green Party member).
constrained car space, some suburban drivers would surely
choose to take the train into Paris. But most drivers from
the suburbs refused to be socially engineered, especially
commuters who would otherwise face the onerous bus-to-RER
(suburban train)-to-metro trifecta in order to get to work.
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increased, the driver rage index skyrocketed. Some drivers
blamed the new bicycle lanes for their agony. Unwittingly,
we bicycle commuters became the silent army of City Hall,
Baupin’s unpaid mercenaries, fending off disgruntled drivers
in this man-made turf war. It seemed as if Toronto Mayor Rob
Ford was right when he said: “There’s this huge animosity
between the cyclist and the motorist and it’s never gonna go
away.” Ford called cyclists “a pain in the ass for the
would later express what many car commuters began feeling in
pro-bicycle municipalities: “Bike lanes violate a
fundamental principle of democracy. We, the majority who do
not ride bicycles, are being forced to sacrifice our left
turns, parking places and chances to squeeze by delivery
trucks so that an affluent elite can feel good about itself
for getting wet, cold, tired and run-over. Our tax dollars
are being used to subsidize our annoyance.”
O’Rourke ignored the taxpayer health-care costs of car
pollution. We cyclists were still outnumbered. Collectively
we became a tool of idealistic Paris planners.
As days and
years passed, most Paris drivers learned to tolerate the
increasing presence of cyclists while some cyclers tried to
understand the plight of the driver and the potential for a
turf war reached low tide.
Bike paths all over Paris initially
sparked a turf war between cyclists and motorists. Today,
it's hard to imagine Paris without its cyclists.
To avoid the
increasing congestion, a significant number of drivers began
downsizing to motorcycles. Motorcyclists and cyclists have
one thing in common: we flow like water. Our circulation is
a plumbing issue. If we reach a stoppage and there is a free
canal (like a thin corridor between idling cars and parked
cars), we flow in. Sometimes a bicyclist and motorcyclist
decide to flow into the same cramped space at the same
time. Whenever I aim for an opening, I first make sure
there is no motorcycle darting from behind into the same
narrow slot. I don’t trust my ears. The one time that a
motorcycle stops making noise is the one time you need to
mid-2000s, motorcyclists reached a critical mass. When
confronting gridlock, motorcyclists would muscle in on a
bicycle path. On one occasion, just across the river from
Notre-Dame, a few motorcyclists in the narrow bicycle lane
were squeezing past me with a sense of juvenile
At a red
light, I asked a traffic cop why our sacred bicycle lanes
were being subjected to such blasphemy. She smiled. “There
are so many motorcycles,” she shrugged, “that we can’t stop
them.” That was one unintended consequence of City Hall’s
free bicycles for short commutes, that you can pick up all
over the city, including in the near suburbs, and leave off
at the Vélib parking nearest your destination.
introduction of Vélib
beginning, Vélib was a new toy, and users rode as if they
were playing a video game. Car drivers, who also disobey the
rules, were re-infuriated. Driver-cyclist friction reached
high tide once more. As Vélib riders became savvier, the
driver rage index subsided once more.
unintended consequence of the car-space reduction plan has
been additional congestion idling time for cars, which
temporarily stymied the plan for reducing lung-deteriorating
pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone. (Air quality
is complex, and the Airparif association’s graphs exhibit
that at least some categories of air quality have actually
improved. But until officials from the Paris region improve
transport amenities for suburban dwellers, there will not be
the needed critical mass of cyclists.)
Balancing both positive and negative results, air quality
has modestly improved. Cultural gains are more remarkable.
In the 10 years that I’ve been commuting, I have seen
increasing numbers of old-timers cycling (I’m one of them),
and more business people. We’re a long way from becoming
but the bicycle culture is taking hold.
has put together a short
cycling in Paris safety quiz
– see how you'd go cycling in Paris.
cycling in Paris
Best time to roll:
Sunday morning. The air is clean, you own the streets, and
it’s almost as quiet as car-free Venise. But beware of
broken bottles near curbs, the product of Saturday-night
Canal Saint-Martin's protected bike
paths make a scenic route. Photo:
Toi & Moi
Eye-catching historical neighbourhoods away from the tourist
core: Canal Saint-Martin, (10th and 11th
Arrondissements, with protected bike paths), Buttes-au-Cailles
(13th Arrondissement), Les Batignolles (17th Arrondissement,
with bike markings): three partly gentrified neighborhoods
that retain a village atmosphere.
Country in the city: Bois de Vincennes (east side),
Bois de Boulogne (west side) are obvious choices, but don’t
miss the Promenade Plantée (Coulée Verte), an amazing green
corridor with bicycle path, that gets you from Vincennes
forest nearly all the way to Bastille, a treasure of
landscape architecture that passes through the 12th
Places to avoid (when possible): When choosing tour
routes, be aware that the densest pollution is near the
outer motorway (the Périphérique), Champs-Elysées and Place
de l’Opera. Those with asthma or anyone susceptible to
respiratory problems should avoid these places.
read more about how years of campaigning by cyclists
ultimately led to a more cycle friendly Paris on our
guest blog by campaigner Audrey de
you'd go cycling in Paris – take our
in Paris safety quiz.
Paris: Women & Bicycles
is a photographic book by Gil Garcetti
that celebrates cycling culture among the women of Paris.
fans of cycle sport,
Paris-Roubaix: A Journey
Through Hell is a
wonderful overview of one of the legendary one-day race.
(Gerry Patterson cycled the route for Freewheeling France
and has this report.
His tips for surviving the ride are
our interview here),
author of the excellent
The Discovery of France,
Parisians: An Adventure History
which includes Robb's discovery of a
col in Paris.
tourist guidebooks to Paris, see
Lonely Planet's Paris city guide,
Pocket Rough Guide to Paris,
Time Out's Paris guide.
city maps, see
tourist map or
Michelin's Paris city
Michelin's Outskirts of Paris map
is useful for getting in and out of
the city. See also
IGN's Paris and Surrounds map
IGN's Ile-de-France map.
the walks in
City Walks Paris: 50 Adventures
on Foot can be
adapted to two wheels if you want to see Paris' key tourist
sites by bike.
and accommodation in Paris
bike hire in Paris, see our
France bike hire listings.
our accommodation page
to search for hotels, B&Bs,
self-catered apartments, hostels and campsites.
Cycling Fontainebleau to Milly for
a lovely dayside outside of Paris. We will be adding more
dayrides out of Paris to the site over the coming months.
one of France's "Green Ways"
from Paris to the Oise River, where Van Gogh and Cézanne