Rediscovering the Romance of the Bicycle in Paris

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Spiegel reports on Mayor Delanoe and his deputy Denis Baupin of the Green Party as they attempt to turn back the clock to a simpler age. On July 15th, Paris will introduce a citywide system of public bike rentals called Vélib, intended to give pedal power to the people:

The high-tech idea is to let Parisians as well as tourists rent bikes from public stations with nothing but a chip card. No fewer than 750 self-service stations equipped with over 10,000 rentable bikes will go into service in July. The city’s Socialist-Green administration has been promoting the idea that bicycles produce no emissions, remain mobile in traffic jams, and — most importantly — are easy to park. They want people in Paris to choose the bicycle over the car, the bus or the subway. Cycling isn’t even slower than driving, since car drivers in Paris move through the avenues and boulevards at an average speed of just five kilometers an hour (3.1 mph).

The Vélib debut comes after a number of private and government initiatives encouraging people to ride. Three hundred cities in France celebrated the "Festival of the Bicycle" in June, and only a week later bicylists took to the streets naked in an internationally-organized protest ride to promote clean transportation and underscore the vulnerability of cyclists in cities.

This vulnerability is something Baupin and Delanoe also want to address, because riding a bike through Paris still requires a measure of courage. Trapped between a solid wall of motor traffic and breakneck motorcyclists — or kamikaze scooter drivers — bicyclists in this city of two million need strong nerves as well as strong calves, all the more so because the average French cyclist tends to navigate the streets in a Jacobin spirit of revolt. Red lights aren’t considered a stop signal; 71 percent told the newspaper Le Parisien that they just zip through the intersection. One-way streets are mainly symbolic. The French cyclist is assertive and reckless, like the Parisian motorist, who tends to behave like a truck driver even when he sits behind the wheel of a Citroën.

But the city has invested heavily in its bicycle infrastructure over the past three years. This measure is part of a larger strategy to spoil the fun for car drivers, a strategy that has earned Deputy Mayor Baupin the reputation of being a "dangerous madman," or even a "Khmer Vert."

The "man who declared war on cars" (as the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur calls him) can understand the anger of the drivers: "It’s about more than a means of transportation, after all," says Baupin. "It’s about their place in society." Still, the technocrat and advocate of metropolitan transit ("I drive in a car with a hundred seats: It’s called the metro") is convinced that it is only by such means that problems like air pollution and congestion can be avoided.