September 4, 2007By Nick HammondWhat's New Potpourri

Bicycles Built for Two?

Is the the Vélib’ dating service just around the corner? Photo © Paris Update

Something extraordinary happened in Paris this summer. Normally surly Parisians were smiling at each other in the street. Some were even doing their utmost to help tourists, speaking to them in broken English. More surprisingly, others allowed tourists to speak to them in even more fractured French. Perhaps most amazingly of all, French drivers paid careful attention while navigating the city’s avenues.

The cause of this revolution? Vélib’, the phenomenally successful new system that allows anyone to hire a bicycle for a nominal fee and leave it at any of the many “stations” situated throughout Paris (53,000 people have already purchased yearly memberships since the system was instituted on July 15). In every street and at all times of the day and night, people can be seen pedaling the solid but easily maneuverable greige-colored Vélib’ (the name is a conflation of “vélo,” or bicycle, and “liberté”).

At street corners, the most common topic of conversation among this burgeoning mass of novice cyclists was where to find the nearest Vélib’ station. And no effort was spared to help other Vélib’ users in dislodging or replacing bicycles in their berth. A single female friend of mine says that never has she had so many opportunities to chat with Parisian men – the Vélib’ dating service could be just around the corner!

Paris’s manageable size means that it is possible to get from one side of the city to the other in 30 minutes, and bicycles offer an ideal way to see the whole city from a different perspective.

True, the Vélib’ stations on hilltops like Montmartre tend to be emptier than those at the bottom (an inevitable consequence of cyclists being happier to coast down slopes than pedal up them). It will also be interesting to see if the system proves as popular when autumn and winter set in. But overall, the city that created “Paris Plage” (a beach on the banks of the Seine) has shown itself to be as creative as ever with the introduction of Vélib’, which seems to be boosting Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s chances for re-election and – who knows – future election to a national post.

London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone (also a candidate for re-election), is said to be keen to bring a similar system to his city, but
its greater size and the British obsession with health and safety make it less likely to succeed. While Vélib’ users in Paris are not required to wear helmets (and probably wouldn’t do so even if it were obligatory), it is unthinkable that British cyclists would be allowed such freedoms. I have a suggestion of a name for London’s version of Vélib’: how about Cycrule?

Nick Hammond

Editor’s note (Sept. 6, 2007): The Vélib’ honeymoon may well be over as Parisians’ back-to-businss impatience reasserts itself. Today, as I was picking up a Vélib’, a man behind me – instead of good-humoredly helping as so many did during the summer – shouted rudely at me to push this button and that.

And has anyone mentioned how absolutely terrifying it is to ride a bicycle in Paris traffic, with cars, taxis, trucks, motorcycles, pedestrians and other cyclists coming at you from all directions?

While I was riding today, a young man unwittingly saved me from an accident when he passed me in a bicycle lane (where one has the illusion of safety). Two seconds later, he was violently knocked off his bike by the door of a big truck suddenly swinging open. Luckily, he was unhurt.

At a red light, the woman cyclist waiting next to me had this to say about biking in Paris: “C’est la guerre. You have to impose yourself or you’re lost.” I think I’ll just walk.

© 2007 Paris Update

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