There has been some scepticism about the possibility of the Boris Bikes causing a critical mass of cycling that will turn our city into a pedal-powered Utopia. My experience of cycling in Paris this week suggests that it could. The Vélib hire-bikes are everywhere in Paris, and since their introduction the number of people cycling Parisians has increased hugely, despite physical conditions on a par with London.
Sceptics of vehicular cycling say: “The problem is not a lack of bikes, but that Londoners in the main don’t cycle because conditions for cycling in London as with the rest of the UK, are terrible when you compare them with Dutch cities. Londoners are scared to cycle and it’s quite obvious why. This problem cannot be resolved by making fractionally more bikes available. It can only be addressed by making conditions for cyclists better.”
I agree. But Paris shows that getting a critical mass of people on bikes can increase the number of people cycling, even if the infrastructure isn’t welcoming.
Paris is technically a horror for cyclists. Haussmann’s wide Boulevards are fast-moving, multi-lane roads that are frightening for cyclists to navigate. The boulevards meet at huge roundabouts like the Place de la Concorde and the Place de la Bastille: chaotic, unmarked, terrifying wheels of death for a cyclist. Parisian drivers have scant regard for lane discipline even where there are road markings. The Byzantine one-way systems stymie each and every attempt to reach ones destination. There are very few advance stop lines for cyclists at traffic lights.
There are cycling routes across Paris, but not noticeably more useful than the ones in London. And the French attitude to cleaning and maintenance means that parts of the cycle paths are in a state of disrepair, blocked by rubbish and parked cars. Parking enforcement in general seems non-existent, with cars and vans casually abandoned all over the place (in one case, in the middle of a four-way intersection).
The Vélibs themselves are in a poor state of repair. Most had poor brakes and made concerning mechanical noises. Many in the stands were completely unusable- with flat tires, broken seats, no brakes at all. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of attention to moving the bikes around to where they are needed as there is in London. A lot of the stations were either completely full or totally empty – whichever was worse at the particular time.
It ought to be a nightmare – but somehow it works. The Vélib scheme doubled the amount of journeys taken by bike, and it shows. Cyclists, especially Vélibists, are everywhere. Presumably in consequence, motor-drivers seemed to understand how to share the road with bikes, and treated cyclists with more respect than the average London cabbie. Pedestrians were similarly understanding of cyclists mounting the pavement at the worst roundabouts and most inhumane stretches of road.
The Velib has performed a real modal shift in how Parisians get about. Paris has terrible cycling infrastructure on a par with London’s– so I’m optimistic that the Boris Bikes could be part of a similar revolution in our city.