A revolution takes place on the streets of Paris as the city launches Europe’s biggest bike-sharing scheme. More than 10,000 “free” cycles will are available at self-service stations across the French capital in a bid to transform Paris into a clean, green 21st-century utopia.
Anybody with a bank card will be able to borrow a bike: simply turn up at one of 750 stations (you will never be more than 300 metres away from one, it is claimed), swipe your card and type in your Pin. If you return the bike within half an hour, it’s free.
Cycle-share schemes have been tried before, without success. In Amsterdam, the bikes were left unlocked – before long, most had been stolen or tossed into canals. But the Paris scheme, called Vélib’, is more sophisticated: bikes are parked securely at kerbside stanchions and fitted with alarms. When you borrow one, a €150 deposit (about £100) will be held on your card. If you don’t return it to one of the stations within 24 hours, you’ll be billed.
Vélib’ is the latest attempt by the socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, to persuade Parisians to kick their addiction to cars. It’s a bold scheme. By the end of the year there will be more than 20,000 bikes and 1,400 stations – all funded by street-level advertising. Other administrations are watching closely. If Vélib’ is a success, the idea could be aped across Europe.
Paris is slowly becoming less hostile to le vélo. Thanks to Delanoë’s enthusiasm for ripping up its roads, the city now has 370km of dedicated cycle paths and bike-friendly bus lanes. Signage is improving, and every Sunday, roads and bridges along the Seine are closed to motorised traffic, and swarm with cyclists and skaters. So, to test the waters, I spent last weekend pedalling around Paris – and got a sneak preview of the Vélib’. The bike itself is sturdy and comfortable, with a wide saddle, chain guard (no need for ugly bicycle clips), basket, bell and dynamo-powered front and rear lights. The hard tyres are virtually indestructible and the three-gear Shimano hub should cope easily with the city’s modest slopes. At 22kg, it’s not built for speed, but it is undeniably stylish, finished in pearl grey with a discreet multicoloured logo. I think Parisians will ride them with pride.
Now, the costs. After the first free half-hour, rental rises steeply: €1 (70p) for an hour, €3 for 90 minutes and €7 for two hours. There is also a fixed daily charge of €1 to use the scheme. This means if you plan to rent a bike for a full day, Vélib’ isn’t for you. But if you want to nip from cafe to shops to museums and back, it’s ideal.
The benefits of cycling in Paris extend beyond the environmental. On a bike you are free to create your own narrative and let caprice be your guide. Plus, of course, there is the deep satisfaction of knowing you are no longer subsidising the world’s rudest taxi drivers.
If you ride regularly in London, or just about anywhere else in urban Britain, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the relaxed pace over there. Parisians pootle along sedately, like Oxford dons in 1950s films, determined not to work up a sweat. And perhaps because they don’t have a sliver of hard steel slicing into their buttocks – when it comes to saddles they favour something large and padded – they deport themselves with relative grace, not bellowing at pedestrians or punching cars.
On the other hand, they’re notoriously bad at paying attention to traffic signs. They jump red lights, ride on pavements and routinely go the wrong way up one-way streets. Until now, drivers and pedestrians have been surprisingly tolerant of this kind of behaviour, but with another 10,000 cycles appearing on the streets overnight, that could change.
So where should you start? If it’s a Sunday, head to the Seine, otherwise you may need to do a little homework. The city publishes a free map that shows the official cycle routes, but I found it more fun to explore unknown neighbourhoods.
Céline Esperin, who leads cycle tours of the city for a company called Paris à Vélo C’est Sympa!, says the key is to avoid the big roundabouts like the Place de la Bastille and the Arc de Triomphe. She recommends the historic streets of Le Marais, lined with fashionable cafes and boutiques.
I followed Céline through Le Marais, stopping in the gardens of the Place des Vosges before heading west past the Pompidou Centre into Beaubourg and Les Halles. Miraculously, we managed this without encountering a single busy road. And who would have guessed it was legal to cycle around the gardens of the Palais Royal and the courtyards of the Louvre?
For skinflint tourists, the real fun will come in dashing around the city looking for Vélib’ stations before the 30 minutes are up. In theory, there is nothing to stop you parking your bike at a station then hopping straight back onto another, so it should be possible to spend an entire weekend riding around without paying more than a euro a day.
If you venture out of the city centre you’ll find some great rides, such as the 4½km Promenade Plantée, a former railway line converted into a footpath and bike track. Straight and flat, it cuts a sylvan swathe through the eastern suburbs, taking you from the Bastille all the way beyond the Périphérique to the Bois de Vincennes, a vast wild park of woods, streams and boating lakes.
In the 10th arrondissement, you can cycle along the banks of the Canal St-Martin, gazing up at footbridges and peering into the windows of houseboats. Once you reach Place de Stalingrad, head right to one of the city’s most beautiful green spaces, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a fairy-tale park of lakes, cliffs and wooded paths. From there, I cruised downhill through the former villages of Belleville and Ménilmontant, both fascinating and gritty districts rarely seen by tourists.
Handing back the bike was almost as painful as hailing a taxi to the Gare du Nord. “What do you think about Vélib’?” I asked the driver. Barely able to contain his rage, he flecked the windscreen with spittle and declared it “ une catastrophe”. How very wrong I hope he proves to be.