Paris by Bike

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Paris by Bike

I have never understood. The most famous bicycle race in the world is the Tour de France. Many of the first tinkerers and inventors to turn their hands to the bike were French, starting with the Comte de Sivrac in the eighteenth century, though the Germans say he never existed. In the nineteenth, Pierre Michaux added pedals to the rolling hobby horses that had preceded the bike, and his vélocipède may be the first true bicycle, though others give this honor to Pierre Lallement. If the bicycle’s pedigree is not completely French, it had a lot of midwifery here.

And that’s the reason I don’t understand why over the years I have seen so few people riding bikes in and around Paris. A walk in the Bois de Boulogne has always been sure to flush out a few lone cyclists on a nice day, and you could always count on seeing a parisienne d’un certain age pedaling along with her groceries in the handlebar basket and a couple of baguettes and a bottle of wine sticking out of the rear-wheel panniers. Charming.

But given the history of the bike in France, where were the hordes of cyclists I should expect to see? In Washington, they are everywhere. Bicycle couriers routinely terrorize downtown Washington. Packs of cyclists, sometimes in racing duds, at other times in civvies, are commonplace everywhere in the city, and the foot path in Rock Creek Park is a menace on weekends. All around Washington there are bicycle commuters, posting on holier-than-thou Websites. But in Paris?

I remember walking around somewhere near the Boulevard Haussmann on a Saturday afternoon in the 1990s and hearing a large number of people chanting. A manif on a Saturday afternoon in a quiet neighborhood? It made no sense. In a minute or so, they got close enough for me to see them and make out what they were saying: Paris à vélo, Paris by bike. They were ragtag, some looking as if the were ready for the Tour on road bikes, others pedaling the middle-aged lady’s ride with the baskets.

They were earnest, maybe grim, as they chanted. I think they were trying to make a point: ride your bike. Too bad for them, the only member of their audience did not have one, that member being me. They chanted, shook their fists, and rode off—into history I had been thinking. But maybe they too were pioneers.

In 2007, the city of Paris introduced the Vélo libre, or the public bike, usually shortened to Vélib’. Anyone can rent one, and first half hour is free. This being Paris, it is necessary to have a subscription before putting a credit card or smart card into the rack to release the bike, and the longer you use the bike, the higher the half-hourly rental fee climbs. I think the idea is to encourage turnover. Ride out to the Bois for a picnic and spend five hours, the Vélib’ will set you back €31 or about $47 at current exchange—wrong. Keep it to half an hour and rent another for the trip home—right you are.

The bikes are the ugliest, clunkiest I have ever seen—perhaps to discourage theft. But they are solid, so they might last longer. It’s a good thing Paris is fairly flat because they look impossible to ride up a self-respecting hill. No matter, Parisians are using them and at last there are bikes on the streets. It helped, to be sure, that mayor Bertrand Delanoë who brought Paris the Vélib’ also blessed Paris with bike lanes, reducing the terror factor of pedaling in Paris.

I am not sure if I understand the social implications of the Vélib’, perhaps because there may be none. But knowing how the public bikes came to be tells me something. I have been overwhelmed, as I wrote in “Signs of the Times,” by the recent explosion of advertising all along the streets of Paris, especially the high-tech signs. Now I get it. When Paris conjured up the Vélib’, JCDecaux, an advertising firm, helped finance it in return for advertising rights on the sidewalks, those rights being infinitely more valuable than a piece of the pie. Look long enough and everything is connected—or, as the French say, everything explains itself finally.

This entrepreneurialism, this public-private partnership, somehow seems not French—strangely so, since entrepreneur is a French word we’ve appropriated in English—because the French don’t get cozy with capitalism until they absolutely have to. So I get to wondering how this would work in Washington, and I think I know the answer.

It would not. Washington knows how to marry government and private enterprise, for example, coaxing a developer to replace a school in return for some adjacent land on which the developer built an apartment house. But I don’t see Washingtonians renting bikes on a grand scale like Parisians. They like to own things, and don’t like to share. Perhaps if the bikes were slicker, the costs were lower, and the bureaucratic subscription were removed… No, it won’t work.

I think I know why. Washingtonians do not have a very strong communal sense—though like all Americans they talk about “a sense of community” until it hurts the ears—because in their hearts they are suburbanites. Parisians, maybe because they are much more urban in their souls, have a communal sense, understanding that you cannot avoid other people, pretend they are not there, or decline to share a bike with them.

Advantage Paris? I don’t know. I own a bike in Washington, and I don’t in Paris, but I can always rent a Vélib’.

Postscript. Soon I might be able to rent a SmartBike in Washington. The city has just begun a program not very different from the one in Paris. Now it will be possible to test my prediction, and I’m giving odds that I’m right, let’s say two to one.

© Joseph Lestrange

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