Cycling in Paris: A tale of two cities

It’s fair to say that, once we’d arrived safely at our hostel near Gare du Nord yesterday afternoon, we weren’t particularly impressed by the cycling conditions in Paris. Heading out of Gare Montparnasse we’d made our way to the Seine along a mixture of bus lanes and ‘put on your big girl pants*’ type scary roads.

drowned cycle symbol

Once actually at the river, once we’d found our way down to the path along the Seine, things were a little better as we joined ‘le tout Paris’ in pootling along the former expressway, enjoying the tranquillity of a space that had been designed for cars but then handed over lock, stock and barrel to the people instead.

Seine expressway

All good things must come to an end, however, and without an actual cycle route map, we weren’t sure how best to make our way up to the Gare du Nord safely. We figured the canal would be the best bet, and soon found a narrow but functional segregated track that would have been all right if every cyclist (and scooterer) in Paris wasn’t impatiently but silently trying to squeeze past in a bicycle space that really wasn’t built for two.

narrow cycle track

Our next cycle track was even narrower but on the pavement which was better for the bikes but worse for the pedestrians – as a little old lady let us know in no uncertain terms when we made the beginners’ error of obeying the signs telling us to give way to pedestrians. Having finally got the attention of the only four cyclists in Paris who actually knew how to stop, she made the most of it, delivering us a lecture that my French didn’t entirely keep up with but we managed to get the gist (it ended ‘Paris merde‘) and frankly, given the way many cyclists wove  past pedestrians you have to admit she had a point.

pavement cycle track

We arrived at the hostel somewhat sweaty, nervewracked and ready for wine, and it’s telling that when I suggested we leave the Bromptons and explore the area on foot during the evening, none of us demurred. Fortunately, Paris was ready for us and had laid on a wine festival in our honour. This morning, fortified with pastries and caffeine, we felt braver and ventured forth again, and I’m glad we did for this time we happened across the real infrastructure – not, perhaps, up to Dutch standards, but a number of wide, forgiving and reasonably well implemented cycle tracks that gave us space away from both the frightening traffic and the terrifying old ladies and gave other Parisian cyclists space to get round us when we stopped for red lights.

Bidirectional track

They’d even solved the ‘van parked in the bike lane’ problem by providing delivery bays outside the cycle tracks, which most drivers seemed happy enough to use (not all, obviously – but how would you know if your cycle track was wide enough if there wasn’t the occasional van parked on it?)

bidirectional cycle track

The network wasn’t exactly extensive but it took us more or less to the Pompidou Centre and right past the Louvre so we had a whistle stop tour of the tourist highlights before we had to turn around and head back for our train in what would have been plenty of time had we actually known that we needed to have our Bromptons in a bag to get them on the Eurostar. It’s safe to say, I’ve had less stressful starts to a train journey …

Bromptons in Paris

Compared to Nantes – or indeed, Seville – cycling in Paris was not exactly relaxing – but then again, even five years ago there’s nothing on God’s green earth that would have got me cycling through Paris at all. This time, there was only one time where I actually felt in fear of my life – and that was at a junction at the end of a bus lane when a driver decided to muscle in on the space that I was actually using to exist in at the time, something that happens approximately every 20 minutes in urban traffic in the UK. On the whole the cars (and bikes and scooters and little old ladies) are way more in your face than they would be in the UK and there’s a bit of give and take needed (as in give the drivers even an inch of hesitation and they will take it a mile) – even when you get a green signal, there seem to be vehicles turning across your path if you don’t deploy a Paddington hard stare and visible determination to cross anyway.

It’s hard to do more than form anything more than a superficial impression after a few days, but the lesson I’d take from our brief visit to Paris is that you need to build the infrastructure at a scale that works for your city. If you have a big and congested city then you need to build infrastructure that doesn’t mess around and gives space to cyclists without making things merde for the pedestrians. Fortunately Paris has the space and it is starting to use it – those big wide boulevards have room for everyone, once cars stop taking the lion’s share. A city like Glasgow should take note.

And as for me – while it’s been an interesting and enjoyable couple of days, I’m quite glad to be heading home to a place where the only traffic jams tend to be made up of cows.

Bike by the Seine

* For those wondering, we found some actual ‘big girl pants’ at the market in Nantes where apparently there are women who want something that makes their bottom look bigger, rather than trying to squeeze everything in, and I for one heartily approve of that.

One Response to Cycling in Paris: A tale of two cities

  1. […] We need to ensure that safe space for cycling doesn’t compromise the needs of pedestrians; our #5GoMadInFrance adventure last year gave us a glimpse into what happens when you mix pedestrians and cyclists into crowded spaces amidst the bustle of a global city – elderly ladies shouting ‘Paris merde!’ at you in the street in frustration and anger.  […]

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