Pedaling across the Seine on a sunny day is a peak experience. How did the City of Light become a city of cycles?
PARIS — I used to consider the people who biked around this city to be members of a fearless warrior tribe. Mostly men, they dressed for battle in helmets, chain locks and reflective gear. The city’s few cycling lanes were shared with swerving buses or sandwiched between rows of pitiless drivers and were known as “les couloirs de la mort” — corridors of death.
I’m risk averse, and I have three kids. For the first 16 years I lived here, I never got on a bike. But something changed recently, and it’s not just because I fear catching the coronavirus on the Métro. In a feat of urban chutzpah, Paris — though not yet a cyclists’ paradise — is becoming a cycling town.
Of course, cities like Brussels and Berlin have been improving too. And Paris is still far behind Europe’s true cycling capitals, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which have been building their bike infrastructures since the 1970s.
But Paris is notable for the speed of its makeover. When visitors kept away by the pandemic finally come back, they’ll see that cordoned-off bike routes now crisscross the capital and connect it to nearby suburbs. Rue de Rivoli, the wide street that runs past the Louvre, has been entirely closed to private cars. Parisian drivers now expect to see bikes, and some even try not to hit them.
What happened? How did Paris go from a place where biking felt suicidal to one where even neurotics like me pedal around town?
Much credit goes to Anne Hidalgo, who became the city’s mayor in 2014. Shortly after her election, the city government passed the five-year Plan Vélo (Bike Plan) to carve out cycling-only lanes, separated from traffic.