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A capital reborn: Paris by bike

How COVID-19 helped transform the City of Lights into a cycling mecca.

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I have been a resident of Paris for over 30 years, and I have always championed the City of Lights. I have championed the city’s amazing architecture, and its parks and wide sidewalks. But I rarely championed the city as a cycling town.

When I first moved to Paris in the early 1990s, the city was a car town. And even walking down the famed Champs-Elysées did not come easily, as it largely served as a parking lot for motorcycles and scooters.

Change first came in the mid-90s when a series of bike lanes — or often bike, bus, taxi lanes — were put in place in the city’s main arteries. And then, over the past 15 years a number of ecologically minded mayors have increasingly invested in cycling, first with the Vélib bike rental program in 2007, and more recently with an expansive extension of bike lanes. But no one has been a more proactive champion of cycling in the city than the current mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who was recently re-elected. But then it is safe to say that no Paris mayor has ever been so ecologically aggressive, and the development of cycling in the city is a key element in her campaign.

Starting in 2015, city hall put into place a five-year plan to double the city’s bike lanes from 700 kilometers to 1,400 kilometers, and one of Hidalgo’s campaign promises was to reduce the number of parking places in the streets by 50 percent in an effort to encourage cycling and walking. In addition, the city offers a €400 rebate to anyone purchasing an electric-assisted bike, and a €600 rebate for those purchasing a cargo bike.

“Until just a couple of years ago, movement around the city was like an animal with three legs: walking, public transportation, and automobiles,” explains Sébastien Marrec, an urbanism researcher who works for the city. “But the animal was limping because it didn’t have its fourth leg: the bike. Such an imbalance creates certain problems with noise pollution of traffic jams and the packed public transportation system.” Cycling is the city’s fourth leg, Marrec says, because it provides a key element to reducing such stress.

A man leans against a shelf of helmets at a bike shop
Nicolas Barbe, manager of the bike shop KM0, says he cannot keep up with the demands for new bikes and maintenance. Photo: James Startt

And then there was the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the coronavirus crisis, cities around the world have had to search for alternate forms of mobility with unforeseen urgency, since social distancing measures seriously compromise the use of public transport. And while some will take to their cars, cities like Paris are using the pandemic to further encourage the use of bikes.

Even before the city came out of its two-month lockdown on May 16, more bike lanes, or “coronapistes” as they called them, were added. Historic avenues like the Rue de Rivoli became bike lanes. Today the Rue de Rivoli — once a multi-lane drag strip for traffic — offers only one lane authorized to cars, while the rest is given over to bikes and pedestrians. In addition, the bike lanes expand well out of the city in an effort to encourage those who commute to the city from the suburbs to do so by bike. And while many of these pop-up lanes were seen as temporary, it is clear that some will remain in place long after the pandemic has passed.

And the result was immediately visible, as bicycles simply filled the city’s streets like never before. On a recent afternoon, I stood at a busy intersection and spoke to bicycle commuters who were using a popular bike lane on their way to work. Everyone I spoke to marveled at the huge increase in cyclists during the pandemic.

“There are definitely more and more people riding. And now with COVID-19, I really feel like cycling has taken off,” said Guillaume Andrieu, a cancer researcher at the Necker Hospital in the 15th arrondissement of Paris. “I arrived in Paris from Boston two years ago. I took the metro for about two months but quickly shifted to cycling. With the bike lanes, it is just so easy and fun. And the fact that you are not blocked in a metro is just great.”

Young man on a rental bike with girlfriend sitting on the handlebars
Photo: James Startt

Toumani Traore, a high school student, rode by with his girlfriend, Valentine Yelloz, sitting on the handlebars of one of the city’s Vélib bikes. “Any time we go out and we are together, we share a bike like this,” Traore said.

Traore raved about the Vélib bike share, and how practical it is for Parisians who live on the city’s outskirts. The bike-share recently debuted electric-assisted versions to make riding even easier.

“Whenever I can take a bike I do — I really prefer it to taking the metro,” Traore said. “It’s a lot faster and you are not closed in. And what’s more, it doesn’t close down in the middle of the night like the metro.”

In the weeks after lockdown, veritable cycling traffic jams could be seen on the major throughways during rush hour. But in this summer, with many Parisians on their annual vacation, cycling is more relaxed.

“We brought our bikes from Milan for a three-day stop. This is the way we are sightseeing, and it is great,” said Simona Zeni, as she stopped momentarily with her family along the Left Bank of the River Seine on a recent Sunday afternoon promenade. Zeni’s husband, Giorgio, and two daughters, Beatrice and Chiara, all rode bikes, while Gaia, the youngest, relaxed in the bike seat behind Giorgio.

A family on bikes poses in a Parisian street
Simona Zeni explores Paris with her family. Photo: James Startt

“In Milan, it is impossible to see the city like this,” Zeni continued. “Today we started at the Eiffel Tower and Trocadero. Then we went down past the Tuilleries and now we are going to Notre Dame and then probably back towards the Arc de Triomphe. It’s really a great city for riding. The bike lanes are tremendous and go everywhere.”

Of course, the sudden increase in cycling has provided certain challenges. For bike shops, simply stocking and servicing bikes is often difficult. On a recent trip to KM0, one of the city’s bike shops, I discussed the challenges posed by this surge with Nicolas Barbe, the shop’s director.

“We have two mechanics but our atelier is full up for at least three weeks. We just can’t keep up with the demand,” Barbe said. “In the month after confinement, we sold as many electric-assisted bikes as all of last year. It was crazy. People would come in and buy a bike without even really thinking about it.”

Distribution channels have provided additional headaches for Barbe. His shop simply cannot keep up with the demand for specific models of bikes, and the overseas distribution routes means obtaining these bikes requires a wait.

“It is just impossible to get any bikes, at least until September,” he said. “Many of the bikes are built in China, and the problem is that they were in lockdown even before us, so even before we went into confinement, our stock was limited.”

Teaching bike instruction outside
L’Association DAVS teaches refresher courses in cycling to new commuters. Photo: l’Association DAVS

Another immediate problem is that so many cyclists, with different kinds of bikes and different skill levels, are packing the streets, at times making riding in the city more dangerous than ever. Numerous associations offering refresher courses in cycling have long existed in the city. But they too are operated at overflow levels.

“We generally offer three courses a week,” said Fréderic Vitry, who works with l’Association DAVS (Dévelopement Animation Vélo Soidaire). “But after lockdown, we had to offer classes every day of the week. And still, we had to turn people away. There have just been so many people that want to start cycling. The months of May and June are always busy months for us, but this year was something else.”

With cycling such a resounding success, the principal question many are asking is whether the lifestyle changes so many of the city’s residents are making will last into the autumn, when the weather changes significantly for the worse. Will the changes last into the post-COVID-19 world, whenever that day does come?

Barbe is optimistic that the great Parisian bike boom will continue, even after the weather turns and life returns to normal.

“I think people will continue to cycle,” he said. “Sure, the weather might be worse in the fall, but I think that somebody that has been riding their bike since the month of May will have trouble getting back into the metro.”