Can Paris become the world's bicycle capital?

Can Paris become the world's bicycle capital?

Mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to make Paris the world’s most bikeable city. But the congested and polluted capital still has a long way to go before it can rival the likes of Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

Foreign visitors often describe it as the world’s most beautiful road, a chance to soak in unrivalled views of the Eiffel Tower while coasting along the River Seine, a few inches from the water. But to Parisian commuters, the Voie Georges-Pompidou is primarily a motorway into town, the only uncongested express route that can get a car from the western edge of Paris into the city centre in the blink of an eye. At least, that’s how it used to be.

After a summer of road works, motorists taking the familiar ramp down to the riverside drive have found themselves channeled into a single lane – the other one, closest to the water, having been converted into a two-way bike path, the French capital’s very first express route for bicycles. Officially, the “voie express” for bikes opens in October, but the first cyclists have already begun racing along the 4-kilometre track between Boulogne and the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.

Among them is Pierre, 40, sporting a black T-shirt and shades as he whizzes to work while basking in the sun. “What a treat in this weather!” he exults. “I can get some exercise, work on my tan and even overtake cars!” Pierre is clearly enjoying the ride, and saving time too: “It takes 20 minutes to get to work on my bike, as opposed to the usual 45 minutes by metro,” he points out, vowing to take up cycling on a daily basis.

Her floral dress fluttering in the late-summer breeze, Julie, 57, is also loving the ride. The cycle lane is a chance to revel in “the best sights Paris has to offer, with the Eiffel Tower and the Seine”, says the Canadian diplomat. “Before this I was stuck with my bike in between cars or on pavements clogged with tourists,” she adds, hailing the new express lane as a “fantastic” improvement.

Bicycle capital

The refurbished Voie Georges-Pompidou marks the first step in Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s ambitious plan to transform car-choked Paris into the world’s cycling capital. The “Plan vélo” (Bike Project) is a key part of efforts to reduce pollution by taking motor vehicles off the streets of Paris. The aim is to double the length of cycle lanes (from the current 700 kilometres, which includes unprotected lanes) and create 10,000 new parking places for bikes by 2020.

The scale of the plan has angered many motorists, who accuse Hidalgo’s team of seeking to impose a foreign model. “You can’t force people to become cyclists,” says one disgruntled driver on the Voie Georges-Pompidou, lamenting the fact that the expressway’s 30,000 daily users will be confined to just one lane in order to make way for bikes. “[Cycling] isn’t part of French culture,” he claims. “It’s a Dutch thing. Here we don’t have that many bikes!”

According to Danish expert Mikael Colville-Andersen, who monitors cities’ cycling infrastructure, the notion that there is such a thing as a bycicle culture is “a completely fallacious concept invented by opponents of the two wheels”. Bicycles, he points out, “were very popular in the French capital up until the 1940s.” They were then gradually squeezed out by war and the boom in the auto industry. “There’s nothing new about cycling in Paris,” he argues. “Paris simply wants to take up the habit again.”

Picking up that habit will require a major upgrade of the existing infrastructure, and the Paris Bike Project is currently lagging behind schedule. One of its flagship routes, a broad two-way lane along the famed Rue de Rivoli, which will allow cyclists to zip past the Louvre museum and Tuileries Gardens, is now expected to be ready in the summer of 2018, almost a year late. Paris City Hall has blamed the delay on a six-month moratorium imposed by the local police prefect, who still wields considerable power on matters pertaining to road traffic.

The prefect, Michel Delpuech, has voiced concern about the impact of the planned cycle lane on traffic along Rue de Rivoli. In an interview with French daily Le Monde, he warned that the cycle lane might hinder the movement of police and other emergency vehicles. But Hidalgo’s team is confident that a new statute voted earlier this year will unblock the situation by transferring some of the prefecture’s powers to the city hall.

The Nordic cycling utopia

Meanwhile, work on other lanes has also fallen behind, according to the pro-bike group “Paris en Selle” (Paris on the saddle). Its “Observatory of the Plan Vélo” says only 5 percent of the planned infrastructure has been completed so far, with only two and half years left before Hidalgo’s term is up for renewal. In order to speed up construction, the Socialist mayor has declared 2017 a “bicycle year” and urged her team to speed up construction.

The backlog is no surprise for Colville-Andersen, who has worked with cities around the world to improve conditions for cyclists. He describes the French capital’s plan as more “ambitious” than “realistic”. “But we’re used to this,” he adds. “Politicians around the world are all eager to make their city the world’s cycling capital.”

By all accounts, Paris still has a long way to go before it can rival the world’s current cycling capitals, namely Copenhagen and the Dutch cities of Utrecht and Amsterdam. As things stand, the French capital is only 13th in the annual table of the world’s most bikeable cities, an authoritative ranking drawn up by Colville-Andersen’s Copenhagenize Design Company. It lags well behind two other French cities: Strasbourg (4th) and Bordeaux (6th). Figures for 2015 showed that only 4 percent of Parisians ride a bike to work, against 16 percent in Strasbourg and 11.8 percent in Bordeaux.

“Our aim is to reach 15 percent,” says Christophe Najdovski, who is in charge of transport at Paris City Hall. “But obviously we can’t manage in five years what Copenhagen and Amsterdam achieved with four decades of bicycle-friendly policies.” In the Danish capital, a veritable cycling utopia, the number of bicycles has recently overtaken that of cars.

‘Copenhagenising’ Paris

According to Colville-Andersen, who lives in Copenhagen, one of the city’s main assets is its user-friendly network of bike paths. “Visitors who come for the first time will easily find their way around by bike because the network is uniform,” he explains. “That is not the case in Paris,” he adds, pointing to a number of “incoherent” choices, such as placing bikes and buses in the same lane on some roads. And then there’s the “utterly stupid” ideas, including a planned cycle lane in the middle of the Champs-Élysées due in 2018. “It will fail, because obviously it will lead to accidents, and give ammunition to the bike haters,” he laments.

“Paris en Selle”, the pro-bike group, also criticises the discrepancies and disconnect between bike paths. “You can count the number of truly bikeable roads on the fingers of one hand,” says the group’s spokesman, Simon Labouret. “What’s really important is not the target of 1,400 kilometres of cycle lanes, but rather ensuring their quality by creating proper itineraries for bikes wherever they are needed,” he says.

Bicycle taxis on the Champs-Élysées in 1942, when Paris was a city of bikes. © Photo credit: ww2gallery/FlickR
The brand new express way on the Voie Georges-Pompidou is a much more encouraging sign of the French capital’s “Copenhagenisation”, says Colville-Andersen. “It meets the required standards, with a continuous axis in both directions, enough room to overtake and a separator to protect cyclists from motor vehicles,” he explains. More generally, the Danish expert says Paris officials should take inspiration from their “extraordinary underground metro system” to provide bike users with a similar network “allowing them to move about quickly and safely”.

Colville-Andersen notes that cycling infrastructure is considerably cheaper to finance than roads. “And the return on investment is swift and significant, including major benefits for public health,” he adds. But critics say the Paris Bike Project will need far greater resources to meet its ambitious targets. For now, the City of Light has revised one of those targets. It no longer aims to become the world’s cycling capital, but rather “one of the world’s bike capitals”, says city hall’s Najdovski – “in all humility”.