23 August 2015

Cycling In Paris, Then And Now

If you've been reading this blog during the past week-and-a-half, you know that I did a pretty fair amount of cycling during my stay in Paris, which ended just the other day. 

When I went to the City of Light in 2004, I didn't do any cycling.  However, I rode there during eight previous trips from 1984 to 2000, and during the time I lived there before those trips.  (On those previous trips, I rode to and from Paris as part of longer tours in addition to riding in the city itself.)  Now, I'll admit that I can draw only so many conclusions from spending only ten days there, as I did on my most recent trip.  Still, I feel confident in saying that pedaling in Paris this year was a very different experience from that of previous years.

One reason is, of course, that I am a decade and a half older--and my body is very different now, due to the hormones and surgery.  Naturally, those factors make all of my riding different:  I simply cannot rely on pure strength and chutzpah, as I did when I was younger.  Also, I am more careful about where and when I ride, though I must say that I felt less hesitation about taking a midnight ride alone in Paris than I do in New York.  Then again, I stayed in neighborhoods and on streets that were well-lit and full of pedestrian traffic even at a late hour.

But the main reason why riding in Paris was such a different experience this time had to do with how the nature of cycling itself in Paris has changed.  The two most obvious changes are the Velib program and bike lanes.  The former was non-existent, and the latter were nearly so the last time I cycled in the French capital. 

As I have said in previous posts, I am not as enthusiastic as some other people are about bike lanes.  In Paris, as in other places, lanes end abruptly or at rond-points or other intersections that are more difficult or even dangerous for cyclists to traverse than they would be if cyclists had been riding among automobile traffic.  Also, it's not always easy to see where lanes begin or resume.  To be fair, these problems--which also exist in New York and other cities--may be a consequence of the fact that the system of lanes is still a work in progress.  But I think that if the lanes are to become part of a true transportation alternative, they must be integrated with each other, and with the points at which they intersect with motor vehicle traffic.

Also, as in other cities, taxis pull into the lanes (at least, the ones that aren't separated from the streets by physical barriers) to pick up and discharge passengers, and trucks use them to make pickups and deliveries.  Worse yet, in overcrowded districts, such as that around Barbes-Rochechouart, people walk and even congregate in the lanes because there simply isn't enough room on the sidewalks.  Those neighborhoods are also home to African and Middle Eastern immigrants, who don't seem to ride bikes as much as Caucasian Parisians or tourists (at least, those from other European countries and North America).   I think that's why when I rode through those areas, some people looked a little surprised to see me riding in the lane--though, again in fairness, I must say they were very prompt and courteous in stepping aside for me.

Which brings me to another point about how cycling in Paris differs--or, actually, doesn't--from times past, but differs from riding in New York:  One doesn't find nearly the level of hostility from drivers and pedestrians toward cyclists that one can encounter in the Big Apple.  Part of that, I believe, has to do with something I've mentioned in earlier posts:  A culture of adult cycling continued in Paris, and in France, when it was all but dead in the United States.  Thus, as I've mentioned, many drivers and pedestrians are also cyclists, or were recently.  And those who aren't or weren't are at least familiar with cycling and cyclists. 

The one time a driver cursed at me, I deserved it: I made a wrong turn and rode the wrong way on a street near Bonne Nouvelle (ironic, isn't it?) as said driver approached.  I apologized; he yelled "Faites attention!"  Good advice.

As for riding the "wrong" way:  Often, one sees the international Passage Interdit (Do Not Enter) sign with a caption that reads "sauf velos" or "sauf cyclistes".  In other words, it's a one-way street for motor vehicles, but not for bicycles.  I have never seen such a thing here in New York, and for me, it was strange to see it in Paris because the streets are narrower. 

Also, I saw only a few cyclists on sidewalks, and they were riding only from a curb to a door.  They didn't experience the admonishment, let alone the hostility or attention from the police one can experience (especially if one is a Black or Hispanic male) for riding on a New York sidewalk.  Mainly out of habit, I didn't ride on sidewalks:  I rode to wherever I was going, dismounted and walked my bike to the store or museum entrance.

Given what I've described in this post, I will be very interested to see if cycling seems like a different experience yet again should I return to Paris and to the rest of France, as I hope to do one day (year?) soon.


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