There’s a reason so many Americans have written books and poems and songs about Paris: It’s a mind-bendingly fascinating cultural, historic, and architectural contrast to the United States. On more than one ocassion on each of the five days I recently spent there I found myself whispering to my wife Juli, mouth agape in awe during one of our many marathon walks, “I have never seen anything like this before.”
We probably walked an average of 10-12 miles a day. Many of the things that left us awe-struck have absolutely nothing to do with bikes or transportation (remember, I wasn’t there to work), so I won’t bore you with them here. I did however manage to snap a bunch of photos of wonderful things that are more on-topic and that might be of interest. I’ve put them in four categories: The Bikes, People on Bikes, Street Scenes, and Bikeways.
Mixtes are to Paris what those old old, upright, bomb-proof, black dutch bikes are to Amsterdam. I liked the mixte aesthetic before going to Paris and I had no idea they were the official bike of France. What I loved about the bikes I saw in Paris were that so many of them were French brands like Peugeot, Gitane, Motobecane, Nord France, and so on. They even had mixtes made by pro racing legends like Jacques Anquetil, Francesco Moser, Raymond Poulidor, and others.
People on Bikes
Someday when I’ve finally achieved my goals for BikePortland, I want to travel the world and photograph people on bikes. In Paris, my veloflaneurism (not a real word) was taken to new heights. I found that — even without world-class cycling infrastructure (see below) — Parisians’ well-known mix of style, personal confidence, and full embrace of everday life translates beautifully to cycling. It’s easy to look cool and relaxed on a bike in bike-oriented places like Amsterdam or Copenhagen; but Paris? Despite an unsophisticated bike network, Parisians manage to ride with sophistication.
This messenger was taking a break while snacking on a baguette.
Paris is legendary for its street life. To me, the everyday tableaus and urban vignettes were a mix of art and poetry and placemaking — all unfolding in real life. Walking in Paris was like a dream.
Now for some serious business. I found the bikeways in Paris to be an extremely mixed bag. It’s clear they’ve thought about a complete network of bikeways. And in many ways that network exists. But — and this is a big but — the network is full of gaps and high-stress, shared environments. As newbies to the city, it was often a challenge to follow the convoluted, faint breadcrumbs of striping and paint and signs that would get us through town alive and with relative efficiency.
For example, bikeways on the Rue Magenta (a major street) go from a narrow path on the sidewalk (where walkers have priority) to a narrow dedicated bikeway in a park in the center of the boulevard, to a shared bus-bike lane that would give most Americans a heart attack.
They also have a fair number of really sketchy, contraflow bikeways without any real striping or protection at all. Just one bike symbol and an arrow pointing against traffic and a very narrow slot to ride (see below).
And then there are the massive traffic circles. If you can find the bikeway, you’ve won half the battle. The other half is getting up the nerve to ride in it.
All this being said, once you just go-with-the-flow, it’s much lower-stress riding than you’d expect given the infrastructure. Why? Culture. America has an extremely hostile and divisive traffic culture where road users have built-up considerable animosity for one another. Add in the our lack of respect for others and a pervasive car culture centered around speed, machismo, oversized vehicles, and distraction; and people have reason to be afraid to ride bikes here.
Paris felt different. People don’t appear to have the same fears about traffic. I saw many older women wearing dresses and no helmet ride in the middle of massive boulevards and traffic circles during rush-hour in what would appear to American eyes as a death-wish. It’s amazing what can happen on streets when people don’t assume their fellow road users are out to kill them (willfully or “accidentally”).
Even without world-class non-motorized infrastructure, it’s amazing how relaxed people can be when they have faith in each other and mutual respect.
And a word about their bike share system, Velib. It’s a vital resource for Paris and a huge success. While Portland’s Biketown is used mostly by tourists, Velib is used by locals. The bikes are everywhere and I was heartened to see it have such a strong hold on the city. But when it comes to details, it’s nowhere near as good as Biketown. Several times I rented a bike that was poorly maintained and a pain to ride. The seatposts don’t go high enough (I’m only 6′ 2″). And the stations aren’t balanced (we pedaled around looking for a spot to park more than once). We’re lucky to have such a well-run system like Biketown! (Granted, our system is very small by comparison. We have 1,000 bikes, they have nearly 20,000.)
A walking priority zone. Note how the sign shows priority based on size of the symbol.
Thanks for looking at my vacation photos. If you’ve been to Paris, I’d love to hear from you.
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