Séjour parisien with lots of Vélib’

March 2, 2014 at 8:20 am

Despite a few visits and a 6-month stay for university studies, there’s always been something I felt like I never did enough of in Paris: riding a bike. It always seemed a little crazy to me, whether it was on the narrow streets or the arterial boulevards full of traffic. But sit down and look around long enough and you’ll notice that the vélo is not only for the risk-averse. It’s for everyone.

I’d estimate that only 1 in 10 people on a bike were wearing a helmet or hi-viz vests. In fact, many were wearing black coats while bicycling in the light rain at sundown! Reckless Parisians.

The amount of protected bike lanes in Paris is nothing like Amsterdam, but the amount seems to be growing. There are enough of them to bridge entire parts of the city along major boulevards, while calmer neighborhood streets fill in the gaps.

Along Boulevard de Rochechouart near Montmartre.

And take note, Chicago DOT! You can totally put protected bike lanes and bus stops together harmoniously:

C’est possible.

Here’s some more photos of nice bike lanes:

There are also nice protected lanes along the new tramway lines.

There are also plenty of substandard, white-stripe-only bike lanes in Paris, and drivers will park in them. The silver lining is that traffic usually isn’t moving so fast in the first place, so it’s not that harrowing to “take the lane,” because it’s not really taking it away from anyone. Everyone’s just kind of sharing.

Which brings me to the zones 30, or 30 km/h (18 mph) zones where drivers take a back seat to people on bikes and people walking. Despite being one-way for drivers, these streets are often open to contraflow bike traffic, and people on bikes can also usually turn right on red at lights (which is normally illegal) after yielding. In some cases, they may even be permitted to go through on red after yielding, particularly at T-intersections. 80% of bike riders think that the 30 km/h zones have made it easier to bike [PDF].

Contraflow bike lane, signal, and a sign letting you go right on red after yielding!

Short crosswalk, contraflow bike lane, and a 30 km/h zone.

There are plenty of these areas of Paris, however what is notable is that many of them are in the east of Paris and there are few, if any, in the wealthier western arrondissements.

Yellow: completely pedestrianized zone. Light pink: Existing 30 km/h zone. Dark pink: New 30 km/h zone. Dark blue lines: Zones de rencontre.

Yellow: completely pedestrianized zone. Light pink: Existing 30 km/h zone. Dark pink: New 30 km/h zone. Dark blue lines: Zones de rencontre.

Last year I wrote about the new zones de rencontre, which I suppose are what woonerfs are in the Netherlands. Well, they’re amazing, and we need more of them in every big city. Even if we could never get pedestrianization of neighborhood streets in Chicago, we should at least get something like these mixing zones/woonerfs/zones de rencontre.

This is a zone de rencontre in the Marais neighborhood. Just walk wherever you want.

The speed limit is 20 km/h (12 mph) and the car is absolutely the lowest priority. I don’t recall seeing many cars on these streets anyway. The situation in many of these areas is chaotic, in a good way. There’s so much going on that it’s necessary to slow down and pay close attention even when riding a bike. It was still possible to move quickly through the neighborhood, and completely safe. 59% of bicyclists believe that these zones have made it easier to bike [PDF].

Back to Vélib: I feel like it played a huge part in transforming bicycle riding in Paris. The ubiquitous, if ugly, bikes are scattered all around the place in permanent stations. I’d estimate that more than half of people riding bikes were on one. The front baskets, bigger than the bike share bikes we have in the US (Alta’s systems, anyway), can hold a lot, and the bikes feel lighter than ours, too.

The stations are also sometimes perfectly placed along protected bike lanes. The stations themselves are the protection!

All told, Vélib also has some serious distribution problems. I was staying in the 20th arrondissement near the Gambetta Métro station, an area at a higher elevation than the rest of the city. Most of the time, there were very few, if any, bikes to take. It seems most others had the idea that it would be fun to take the bikes and ride them effortlessly downhill, then never bring them back up. In fact, Vélib attempted to solve this problem with V+ stations – if you bring a bike from a non-V+ station to a V+ station, your account gets 15 bonus minutes added on so you can worry a little less about overtime. Seemingly, it still hasn’t convinced anyone to bike back up the hill (and I don’t blame them, it’s exhausting).

There’s also stations that aren’t uphill that are empty, and other stations that are completely full. It didn’t really make any sense to me. Paris doesn’t necessarily have the same neighborhood usage homogeneity that many US cities do – that is, there’s a downtown where lots of people work, and residential neighborhoods where people live, and throughout there are places where people shop. In Paris it’s mostly just spread all over, and there never seemed to be any rhyme or reason as to why entire neighborhoods had empty stations while others were full.

Vélib is massively popular and this is probably why it has some distribution problems. One of the best months was September 2011, with 3,488,267 rides taken. Some more stats about bicycling in Paris: 60% of Vélib subscribers are men, 46% don’t have a car, 64% don’t have a public transit pass, and 20% wear a helmet. 66% of the trips are for work-related reasons, and 90% of users take trips more than 3 times per week. More stats (in French) here.

The bike parking situation seems pretty decent as well. There’s usually a sign for the on-street corrals and I like the design of them.

Permanent bike corral.

I also wanted to point out that while walking along the promenade plantée, a linear park that’s both elevated and street-level (depending on where you are), I noticed a nice solution to separate the Parisian runners and promenaders from the bicyclists. Perhaps this is what we need to do on the Lakefront path in Chicago – a wall.

Promenade plantée or coulée vert.

Bikes to the left, runners/walkers to the right.

All in all, bicycling in Paris is still young. It’s on the Copenhagenize index of bicycle-friendly cities and made it to #14 on last year’s list (only one North American city – Montréal – came before it). Indeed, Paris has played catch-up and is a global city that’s getting there faster than other equivalents like London and New York. There’s still the occasional stressful moment, like riding around a major traffic circle…

I just wanted to get to the other side!

…but it’s getting there. Especially considering the amount of neighborhood zones de rencontre that have made it pleasant to just be on foot or two wheels, Paris is a city that’s doing a lot to make itself even more livable.