Paris Bicycle Culture
Posted on 20 October 2008
Editors note: Our second visit to Paris. Watching the rise of the bicycle-share program while we were importing city bikes was interesting. While one was about public bicycle ownership (only those left-bank socialists in Paris could pull that off) and the other private (though hardly libertarian) the net results were striking. The bicycle - once a symbol of the inner city poverty - was experiencing a symbolic transformation to that of enlightened transportation. Moreover, it appeared that the bicycle - not bicycle lanes - was the first barrier to remove when building a bicycle culture. Infrastructure follows ridership (it does not create ridership) and ridership builds through the proper tools. You can't build bike lanes and expect people to ride to work on their silly mountain bike. It's not just bad for your back (or your clothing), it also just looks dumb.
- February 2016
A friend from Amsterdam once told us that he loved riding in North America because there were no rules. This came as a shock for a company like ours that idealizes Dutch bicycle culture. North American cities have more rules than you would think. Paris has no rules whatsoever. Unlike NYC, Chicago or LA, Paris is swarmed with thousands of loud two-stroke mega-polluting motorscooters who treat traffic laws with more disdain than the meanest NYC bicycle courier. Bicycles, however, have had a civilizing effect. Within one year of installation the Velib program has introduced city cycling to Paris, and Parisians have accepted it with unbridled enthusiasm. Yes, those cashmere clad Parisians - the worlds most unlikely cyclists - have embraced the city bike as the most romantic grand projet in the cities history. This, of course, has provided the opportunity to build more infrastructure. It has been a year since we have been in Paris and already there are numerous dedicated lanes (which cars still manage to park in) and unfortunate sharrows. The Parisian solution of starting a bike culture by essentially buying it outright is a brave and expensive move, but it worked.
Private ownership of bicycles has increased considerably since we were in Paris last, and while there are still few bikes, this is an encouraging sign. A bicycle culture cannot depend on the grand projects of civil authority (and Paris loves grand projects), it defined by actual cyclists. While many look to Paris for trends, in the case of bicycles, it appears that the hippest thing to ride on the streets is Dutch in origin. We got a flat tire around the Latin Quarter and visited a bike store that had about 30 old Dutch bikes parked outside for sale.
Dutch bikes have taken over Paris, and it gave us great glee to see Parisians chugging up the hills of Bellville and Montmarte. Who says Dutch bikes can’t climb? However, the Velib program has introduced a cycling mono-culture whose uniformity is still unchallenged by increasing private bicycle ownership - and that’s why we still love North America. For instance, in Toronto the bicycle culture is as impossible to describe as Toronto itself. It is without a doubt the most colourful multicultural mishmash of bicycles and people that we have ever seen. Toronto lacks the rigid rules of Amsterdam, but it also lacks the insane risk taking motorcyclists of Paris. Like Paris, city infastructure will grow with the growing number of cyclists. But Paris is a unique city. Despite the civilizing effect of bicycles, riding in Paris is not a matter of equal opportunity, but equal opportunism. No one has a right to the road more than the person who makes the first move - car, cyclist, or motorscooter. It’s frenetic, but its also instinctual and intuitive - like when we rode around the Arc D’Troimphe for the sheer sake of adrenaline.
Like we said, bicycles have a civilizing effect - and this has certainly been true in North America as well. A recent trip to NYC proves this. More infastructure and more cyclists have tamed the mad cabbies - and that's a good thing.