We've heard much about the Vélib' Revolution in Paris. Marie was down there for a visit a while back and now it was my turn, together with Wifealiciousness. I was looking forward to seeing how the bike share programme worked and how it fit into the urban landscape of the French capital.
In short, I was astounded. It's hardly been a year since the Vélib' was thrust upon Parisians and yet the Vélib' has already become an iconic addition to a city hardly lacking icons.
This first photo doesn't even feature a Vélib' bicycle and that is on purpose. The Vélib' Revolution has spawned bike culture. Vélib bikes are everywhere, of course. There are 20,000 of them in the city. But what amazed me was seeing so many normal bikes. I've read that bike sales have increased since the beginning of 2008. Parisians have tried the Vélib and now many are investing in their own bikes.
Ah... there's a Vélib'. Wifealiciousness and I were in Paris for three days - sans enfants. Friday was spent visiting old haunts and certain shops we love. All the while we regarded the flow of bicycles in the streets. Who was riding them? Was it easy or hectic?
What is fantastic is that there is no one demographic group cycling on the streets. It's men and women, young and old. Couples, families, you name it. The key to any successful bike culture is to get women onto bikes. They are the group that is most likely to ride and yet least likely to actually do it, especially in urban settings. But the Parisiennes are out in force. Vélib' is short for Vélo Libre and Vélo Liberté - Free bike and bike freedom. The perfect name.
Wifealiciousness and I hopped on our first Vélibs on Saturday and never looked back. It takes three minutes on the machine at any bike rack to set up a subscription. One day, seven days or one year. All you need is a credit card with a chip in it, but when even the Chinese have chips in their credit cards, that's hardly an issue anymore. We took the one day subscription and were issued a card with a number. Each time we wanted to take a bike we went to a machine, typed in the number and selected a bike. In under a minute we were cycling away.
It's even easier with an annual subscription. You get a permanent card and you just wave it in front of the card reader next to each bike and the bike is unlocked.
Once again, it is segregated bike infrastructure that makes bike culture possible. You cycle, by and large, along existing bus lanes, although there are many dedicated and segregated bike lanes around the city.
The most fascinating thing is that motorists have already figured out how to deal with all the bikes. The cars watch for bikes and the cyclists take it easy [Style Over Speed... :-) ] and watch for vehicles. This karmic co-existence is remarkable, especially so soon after the introduction of the Vélib'.
I've driven in Paris many a time and it used to be a witches cauldron of automotive chaos. You get used to it, but it was always a nervy experience. Second only to Roma in my experience for stress. Riding through the city on a Vélib, however, is no great feat. It is liberating, glorious and it is easy.
If chaotic Paris can adapt to the sudden appearance of 20,000 Vélib bikes and thousands of normal bikes, then it should be no problem for other cities. Bike share programmes, segregated bike lanes, ease-of-use. Off you go.
The mentality of Parisians and the French in general is a big plus, but Paris is now the yardstick that all other cities itching for bike culture have to measure themselves by.
I'll post photos and commentary all this week - La Semaine du Vélib' here on Copenhagen Cycle Chic.
JOIE DE VIVRE AVEC VÉLO LIBRE - PART TWO
Riding Vélib bikes - shouldn't we just call it Vélib'ing? - around Paris is a breeze. I'm sure that to some the above photo, however, looks a trifle perilous.
Not to worry, though. Busses in Paris have frequent stops so you can usually stay
ahead of them. If you find yourself next to one at a light, they provide ample room for cyclists and, most importantly, they know the cyclists are there. Wifealiciousness and I were overtaken by busses a few times, but they drove slowly and gave us a wide berth.
Taxis in Paris use the bus/bike lanes, too, but even on speedier stretches along the Seine or Rue du Rivoli, taxis slow when overtaking bikes. Brilliant.
There is a sincere sense of 'joie de vivre' present in Paris these days, thanks to the bicycles. The system itself is so easy to use and the massive number of bike racks means that you're always within spitting distance of a Vélib. As the map below shows, Vélibs are widely available :-)
One thing that we noticed was that with the Vélib you get to see parts of Paris you would normally zip past on a Metro deep underground.
One evening we rode up to Sacre Coeur. It's a long climb up the mountain, especially the last stretch, with all the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix combined with a Haute Categorie climb in the Pyranees. The Vélib bikes have three gears, like most normal bikes in European cities, and while getting up the mountain required a bit of muscle, it was no problem. The real hell was all the tourists up at Sacre Coeur, but we were the only ones on Vélibs, which was quite cool.
We didn't fancy running the gauntlet of tourists to get back down so we merely followed the road that cars take, down the backside of the mountain. We realised that neither of us had ever been on the other side. Who has? Millions of tourists climb up the front and back down again, like so many camera-toting Dukes of York. We discovered a hidden corner of Paris that we would never have visited without the Vélib.
The whole time we rode down streets we've never seen before, discovered cool shops previously unknown to us and generally experienced a whole new Paris.
Joie de vivre, indeed.
VÉLIB - SOCIABLE AND SUSTAINABLE - PART THREE
One of the best things we noticed about cycling in Paris was that Parisians have understood how sociable cycling is. Cycling in couples is a common sight in Copenhagen and by all accounts Parisians have embraced this sociability as well.
Couple contemplating directions.
Pere et fils in the bike box at the traffic lights.
Casual moment. He was pointing out various buildings to the girl as they rode.
A flock of Vélib's on the bridge.
Chic couple at an intersection.
An interesting aspect of this bike life in Paris is that the Vélib is seen on the streets at all hours. The metro closes early, compared to other cities, but the Vélib is always there for you. Nightlife in Paris is made so much easier.
VÉLO LIBRE POUR HOMMES - PART FOUR
We're getting ready to wrap up our love affair with Paris and Les Vélibs this week. There are a couple of things left, however. Firstly, some photos of les hommes doing their casual thang in the French capital.
Still going strong. And I just love his driving gloves.
Any bike will do. Even if you have to borrow it. :-)
And then there's this chappie. Zipping along the Seine on his [what are they called?], casually smoking a cigarette. Tres cool. Trop cool.
VÉLIB - THE MOVIE - PART FIVE
What better way to wrap up Semaine du Vélib' here on Copenhagen Cycle Chic than with a little video tribute.
The music I used is courtesy a friend of mine, Jason McNiff. The song is called 'Bella Ciao' and it's from his latest album 'In My Time', which is available on Amazon.co.uk
He used one of my photos from New York for his album cover:
Which is lovely, of course. My son and I run around the house singing Bella Ciao, Bella Ciao, Bella Ciao Ciao Ciao! :-)
I love that it's an Englishman singing an Italian song in a Danish film about the French capital. Vive l'Europe... :-)