Firstly, Americans do not have a monopoly on freedom. (Yes, boo and hiss. But read on.) The French have taken this state of being and combined it with being on a bicycle. Six years ago “Velib” (http://en.velib.paris.fr/) was born, an aptly named bike share program marrying the words “vélo” (meaning bike) and “libération” (meaning freedom). For a scant 1.70 euros ($2.23) a day, one can take unlimited 30 minute bike trips between any two stations in the city, mostly spaced only a couple blocks apart. In two days I was able to easily see the whole of metropolitan Paris spanning 10+ arrondissements (boroughs). As a sidebar, a bit of classic choir preaching: The entire time I was riding I did not have to worry about scheduling (e.g. when is the bus or train going to arrive?) or parking (there were bike share stations everywhere). I enjoyed the clement weather and had a wholly unobstructed experience--truly seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling the city. This is what biking is all about!
By the end of the weekend, I felt I had begun to grasp the city layout and its flow. In the busier parts of the city, protected bike lanes existed. Cyclists are also allowed to share lanes reserved for buses. However, the protected lanes and rules of the road had a tendency to break down in the busiest of intersections, resulting in a complete clustercuss of cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians as seen in the picture below.
Overall, I would say that cycling through Paris was incredibly convenient and economical. The Velib system was easy to use and could be quickly set up either at a docking station or online. A smartphone app was available for finding the closest station and displaying the availability of bicycles and docking spots; I was not able to test the app because it required internet access. Perhaps the greatest testament to the effectiveness of their bike share is that I noticed many locals also using the system (for 29 euro/yr, or less than $40/yr).
A quick comparison of Paris vs. London bike share systems
In the spirit of America, let us build it bigger and better. Or at least better.
- London was slightly more expensive (£2 = $3.04), although still far cheaper than using the Tube.
- Paris docking stations were more efficient, i.e. more bikes available when I needed them.
- The Paris system gives you a single unlocking code (lasting 24 hrs) that you enter at the docking station kiosk after paying online or at the station. After entering the code, a bike is selected from the kiosk and released at the press of a button on the dock.
- The London system requires you to submit your credit card at the kiosk (a more secure method for identification) and then receive a printout of a new temporary code (lasting 10 minutes) every time you needed a bike; this ended up being far slower than the Paris system. At the individual docks, the temporary code is entered through a keypad to unlock your bike. However, I found that the keypad was frequently worn out and unusable (leaving perfectly good bikes unrentable).
- In London I also discovered a number of broken docking stations to which I was unable to return my bicycle. In a weekend it also happened more than once that an entire bicycle station was out of order (see below).
Secondly, I will proudly say that Atlanta has done a phenomenal job of preparing me to ride anywhere. Wrong side of the road? No problem. Navigating a roundabout (a.k.a. traffic circle)? Doable. (Although admittedly, “hairy” at best.) Hills? Not impressed. (Notable exception: Montmartre, Paris--had to walk this one).
..but did not completely prepare me
Prior to arriving in the Netherlands, I had thought of it as a Bicycle Mecca. This notion was dispelled as I quickly realized that there is no novelty in cycling there, it is simply a fact of life. Separate bikeways were a comfort, but being passed by other cyclists shy of an arm’s length away was still unnerving (thank you Atlanta for the three-foot rule!) And while I was getting a grip on the situation, I temporarily forgot how to bike in a straight line. After recovering, I discovered how smoothly the bike traffic always flowed (intuitive paths, motorists yielding to cyclists) provided you knew where you’re going. But something still felt different to me. And I realized that in a land where cycling is the norm, cyclists inevitably acquire the same skills and habits as motorists. There will be rude riders and speeders. Some people will listen to music while they ride. Others will send text messages and check their email. And rush hour traffic will still be rush hour traffic.