After the pleasant surprise that was Brussels, we moved on to sample the much better publicised efforts of Paris to become a cycling friendly city. Lulled into a sense of false security by the delights of Brussels’ car-free day, we didn’t really plan our route from Gare du Nord to our accommodation in the 14th arrondissement in any great detail, other to not that it was more or less due south. Rookie error. According to the authorities, Paris’s car free day led to a 40% drop in traffic compared to a normal Sunday – but this turns out to still be quite a lot of traffic, to the point where we were wondering whether we’d actually got the date wrong. In fairness we’d missed the properly pedestrianised sections of the event, but compared to the incredible experience we’d just had of a Brussels empty of cars, it wasn’t quite in the same league
So our ride to the hostel (the wonderful FIAP Jean Monnet which is highly recommended, not least on the cyclist-friendly grounds of its FREE BREAKFAST) involved a number sections where we had to – not for the last time – put on our big girl pants and mix with the organised chaos that is Paris traffic. This was combined with the joys of navigating a city which eschews the conventional grid system in favour of junctions where five, six, or even seven roads would meet in a gloriously confusing system of radiating diagonals which meant you (and by ‘you’ of course I mean ‘me’) were never quite heading in the direction you thought you were. Throw in Google Maps’ conviction that telling you the name of the street you’re looking for is nothing like as important as informing you that the café on the corner has 3.7 stars, and we resorted to choosing whichever road at any given junction looked like it had the best infrastructure and then regrouping periodically to correct our course if we had gone too far adrift.
Over the next couple of days we conducted a rigorous test of Paris’s cycling infrastructure through the medium of getting lost while trying to work our way around a number of tourist attractions of Paris. What was encouraging to see was that not only are the city authorities building new cycle tracks (and not just in the honeypot tourist locations) but they are widening existing ones to make space.
And a good thing too because Parisians are FAST – they drive fast, they walk fast and they cycle like stink – if you hear the squeal of poorly maintained brakes behind you on a cycle track then move over because a Velib is COMING THROUGH, generally with inches to spare from your elbow.
And there are lots and lots and lots of cyclists and scooters everywhere you look, which can actually be the most stressful part of cycling in Paris, especially if you’re sticking to the better routes where cars are less of an issue. There’s no getting around the fact that Parisians take a relaxed and interpretive approach to the rules of the road and the cyclists are no exception: there are signs allowing bikes to turn or go straight ahead at some red lights if it’s clear but at pretty much every light, most of the cyclists would go a little bit before they got an actual green. In a way, it’s a roll-your-own version of the cyclist advanced green – getting the bikes out of the way of the right turning traffic (and probably the only way to safely manage a left turn short of doing it Copenhagen style in two stages). For those of us who were sticking to the rules, any turning drivers were pretty good about waiting for the bikes to clear before turning across the lane – one advantage of bikes reaching critical mass in a city, I guess. As with Brussels, turning conflicts were already built in to the system (cars can turn into a road while the pedestrians have a green man to cross it), which would be hard to translate into the UK context where we’re used to everyone being given their own cycle of the lights.
There’s no doubt about it – cycling through Paris is an adrenaline ride, and one which remains off-putting to many. You arrive feeling fully awake after a 360 degree, senses-working-overtime experience. There were roads which were objectively scary (usually when we’d got lost and strayed into the parts of Paris which remain untouched by the cycling revolution) and there were junctions where we had to resort to getting off and pushing (and ones where we couldn’t even fathom where we were supposed to do that – looking at you Place de la Concorde) but mostly it felt as if bikes were expected, catered for (to some degree), even perhaps welcome, and that you almost definitely wouldn’t die if you kept your wits about you. For a massive, busy, complex place like Paris, that’s an achievement indeed.
And as always, while the best cycle tracks were pretty good – wide and well separated – the best cycling experience was not those, but the places where whole roads had been given over to people rather than cars. The cycle lane up the Champs Elysee was pretty meh (I think I may have mentioned that I’m not a fan of cobbles) but the ex-car tunnel underneath it at the top was brilliant. And for those looking for a joyful ride rather than an exhilarating one, the ex-expressway along the Seine is an absolute delight. Like Brussels car-free day, it was a reminder that roads designed for cars tend to just work, whereas most bike infrastructure (especially the retrofitted stuff) tends to be a bit more improvised.
I’m now in London, having ridden the 8 miles north from St Pancras along a mixture of nice infrastructure, quiet filtered streets, Finsbury Park, and then a hang-on-to-your-hat blast up the inaptly named Green Lanes until reaching the relative safety of Enfield.
Like Paris, London is a big and complex city that has made impressive strides towards retrofitting a cycle network onto streets that have become traffic clogged over the years. Both are so much better than they were – although Paris definitely has the edge at the moment, both in terms of density of infrastructure and of sheer numbers of cyclists. It shows us what can be done when the will is there not just to build new stuff but to keep improving, scaling up, and taking space for people. Because, for all the talk of a cycling revolution, it’s evolution that’s needed if we’re to bring a whole city along for the ride.