The Paris Velib. A test ride.
Posted on 25 February 2007
Editors comment. This was our first fact-finding trip in Europe, a trip that helped us observe the differences between different bicycle cultures in Europe, and how these differences might lend influence in North America. The observation here that many bike stores in Paris didn't sell real city bikes is an unfortunate fact in North America as well. In cities like Montreal it could be argued that bike-share programs have supplied citizens with bikes rather than bike stores. And in cities like New York, shops that we have long supported have closed down due to the impact of Citi Bike. It begs the question, are bicycles private or public objects?
France is home of the bicycle, it is, after all, where the bicycle was first invented. However, France never adopted the bicycle as transportation like Holland. Nonetheless, cycling runs thick in the blood - think of the Tour de France - the French are mad about bicycles. So, when it came to reconsidering bicycles as transportation, it appears that instead of creating bicycle infrastructure - like bike lanes - to encourage bicycle use, the Parisian government bought everyone in Paris a bicycle to rent.
The Velib program (whose outstanding bikes, incidentally, are produced by the parent company of Batavus) not only sees tourists using the bikes, but a massive proportion of native Parisians. And indeed Parisians were zipping all over the city on bikes that the city provided for a reasonable yet tidy annual sum. Smart. Now, Parisian drivers are a mad lot, and the lesson learned in the Velib program is that road safety is determined by a show of strength. With the sudden appearance of an excellently designed city bike, Parisians rapidly became friends with the Velib program and have swarmed the streets en-masse en-bicyclette. Suddenly, the drivers had to share the road. And they do.
The oddness of the situation is that French bicycle stores appeared to be completely uninterested in selling dedicated city bikes - well, at least the stores we visited. Thus, the Parisian government collects fees from the rented bikes which they can reinvest into cycling infrastructure, like bike lanes. Did we say Smart? Very smart. Within a couple of years, Paris has established a full fledged bicycle culture from above, an amazing accomplishment. But what we can’t figure out is, if there was always such a market for commuter bikes, how come the bike shops in Paris didn’t figure this out years ago?
The same can be asked of North American bike stores. Luckily, Curbside's retailers are some of the most forward-thinking people in the industry. If you want a real European city bike and not some faux imitation, you can find them all over North America.