If you look at old film and pictures of Paris through recent decades, you will not see many bicycles. The city has never been an Amsterdam, let alone a Beijing, mainly because modern planners have traditionally focused on creating roads and underpasses primarily designed for hundreds and thousands of Renault and Citroën cars.
The two-wheel revolution
All that is rapidly changing. Cycling accounted for just three per cent of journeys in the French capital a decade ago, but now the two-wheel revolution is in full swing. There are currently more than a thousand kilometres of bike lanes across Paris, and more are under way. Even the Rue de Rivoli – the historic thoroughfare that links Bastille and Concorde, two of the great squares, via the Hotel de Ville and Louvre Museum – has effectively been turned into a long and spacious run for two-wheelers.
Ecological reasons for cycling
The main reasons for all this are, of course, ecological. Air pollution in the city is at chronic levels, with the quality of air back to what it was before the coronavirus lockdown, which is appalling. The level of nitrogen dioxide – which is linked with all kinds of respiratory ailments – has doubled since confinement was lifted.
In such circumstances, the daily sight of legions of two-wheelers manned by young and old of all shapes and sizes would be an uplifting one, were it not for the fact that they are becoming incredibly dangerous. Traffic laws are seldom obeyed, and pavements are just as likely to be used as the roads themselves. Bikes are silent and often hard to catch sight of until they threaten to collide with those standing in their way.
Worst of all, the dreaded trottinettes – hired electrical scooters – bomb along with other powered vehicles, including many bikes that now come with boosters. Contraptions with carbon fibre frames and massive watt motors can reach speeds well above 50kph. They are normally driven by manic riders wearing ornate helmets with blacked-out vizors. Very few – if any – are insured.
Beyond Rivoli, try walking up the Champs-Elysées nowadays, or along the newly pedestrianised Seine quays, and you will be competing with all these potentially lethal human missiles, endangering life and limb. A recent craze involved youngsters filling themselves with laughing gas and then taking part in races on high-speed scooters. It often looked as though bonus points were being awarded for the number of pedestrians who could be knocked over. The horrific sight of ambulances screeching towards road traffic accidents is now common in the most surprising places.
Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Mayor of Paris, has sanctioned the addition of some 15,000 trottinettes by three authorised operators in time for September, when students go back to schools and colleges. All have pledged to respect public spaces and the environment, but such idealism means nothing when you see how riders really act.
What is required is an updated transport code that takes the power and speed of the new two-wheelers into account. Regulations also need to be enforced by the police who now generally show no interest whatsoever in trying to deal with the problem. It is not just one that is blighting Paris, but cities and major towns all over France, from Nice upwards.
An obvious solution would be the creation of bicycle marshals who have the authority to regulate the smooth flow of two-wheeled traffic, especially in places where the largest numbers now build up. Unless something is done, the roads will remain as dangerously chaotic as ever, and France’s very powerful car lobby will be strengthening their arguments to carry on as before.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion.
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