Monday 18 October 2021

Cycling in Paris - La vie est belle!

When I lived in Paris almost 30 years ago I never thought of travelling around by bicycle. Cycling was something I did while on holiday or as a special excursion out with friends. 
I only knew one person who travelled around Paris by bike, and he was a bit "bohemian" so I just saw it as part of his ways. Seeing cyclists go around the Bastille roundabout, or even worse the Charles de Gaulle Etoile roundabout with its 12 avenues radiating from the Arc de Triomphe made me think they must have a screw loose or are even on a death wish! 

But 30 years on, I have happily joined those folks. There is a difference though nowadays. I have just returned from a trip to Paris with my bike, and I must say it was very pleasant.

Commuting by bike is very much part of Parisian culture, and everyone seems to be doing it!

Over the years, various improvements have been made to the infrastructure to accommodate cyclists. I first noticed changes about 15 years ago, the first time I cycled from London to Paris. At that time the famous Vélib bike sharing bikes had just been introduced (the first major city in the world to have this system), and there was a segregated bike lane that went all along the boulevards north of the River Seine (the right bank) following the same route as Line 2 of the métro (Porte Dauphine to Nation). 

It was great whizzing along there, even if you had to dodge the odd vehicle parked in the bike lane, or the errant pedestrian! Outside of this lane there weren't many segregated bike lanes - just cursory lines painted on the road. So it was no different from London. 

Personally, I was still happy to ride around Paris though, as by then I had started doing a lot of bike riding, be it my daily commute, training rides or cycle races. Also I felt confident navigating around Central London by bike, so I didn't imagine cycling in Central Paris would be much worse. 

The thing I did notice, and continue to see even now, is just how compact Paris really is. Back in those days I lived in the 12th district (arrondissement) next to the Marché d'Aligre. To get to Chatelet-les Halles would be about a half-hour by métro. But by bike you can do it in about 20 minutes. These days when I visit Paris I stay in Vincennes, a nearby Eastern suburb. To cycle there from Gare du Nord just takes half an hour.

Funnily enough when I lived in Paris back then, I thought any suburb was a long way away. But through cycling, I have realised that places really aren't that far away. 

In the last four or five years there has been a massive growth in the number of cycle lanes in Paris. As well as the "line 2" cycle lane there are segregated lanes in many other places. My ride from Chatelet to Vincennes (via the Marais, Bastille, Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Nation, Cour de Vincennes) takes in separated lanes. Then there are cycle lanes along the "boulevard exterieur" (the boundary between Paris and the suburbs), plus along both sides of the River Seine. The right bank is actually a traffic-free path, the Voie Georges Pompidou, with various other activities going on - running, rollerskating, picnics, mini expeditions, and a few hammocks if you want to just lounge and watch the world go by. 

These days there are loads of people on all kinds of bikes - all shapes, sizes, genders, race, levels of fitness (and competencies), dressed however they want - some even with mini sound systems blaring out. It's great to see this democratisation of cycling. 

The improved infrastructure has largely been as a result of the policies of Paris Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who is aiming to reduce pollution in Paris by slashing motorised traffic, and promising a bike lane in every street in Paris.

Last year I interviewed Jean-Sébatien Catier of Paris en Selle, Paris's answer to the London Cycling Campaign and they had similar gripes to their London counterparts - not enough was being done. 

However, it was acknowledged that for changes to be made to the cycling infrastructure, the road layout is altered and this needs approval from the Home Office (Ministère de l'Interieur). So it's all in the bureaucracy - just like London Mayor Sadiq Khan has to get the green light from each London Borough before he can change the road layout. 

A couple of other points of interest around the Paris cycling network are a) they took ideas from the London Cycle Superhighway network when they designed their lanes, which is interesting considering that folks in London regularly slam the London Cycling network and b) Anne Hidalgo was up for reelection last year (postponed to this year due to the pandemic). She was unanimously voted in for a second term, and now she's just been confirmed as the Socialist Party candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections. 

Does that remind you of a trajectory of another Mayor of a capital city across the English Channel who put in place a decent cycle network and later ended up as head of state....?? 

That aside, I would certainly recommend taking a bike to Paris. It really enhances your experience of a trip to this beautiful city. Granted, it's not yet Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but it's definitely going in the right direction.

No comments: