Vélo-city: Life in the fast lane

Hep! T'es pas à ta place! Motorists who park on bicycle paths and sidewalks may be finding this sticker on their car instead of a fine these days, as Paris city hall hopes to tap civic conscience by reminding drivers, chacun sa place. Good news for city cyclists if it works, and one more example of Paris' creative approach to encourage urban cycling.

It's been 10 years since mayor Jean Tiberi unveiled Plan Vélo, months after the huge strikes in 1995 that left most Parisians either walking or biking to and from work or school. His goal was to establish 100 km of bicycles paths in town by the end of 1997, with legislation guaranteeing provision of a bike path anytime roadwork was planned. Today, there are over 330 km of bicycle "pistes" around Paris, and more on the way.

So how is life in the fast lane? Was the money invested in constructing bike paths and narrowing city streets worth the traffic jams and motorists' frustration? More importantly, is riding a bike in Paris really worth the exposure to danger and pollution?

What danger?, scoff the statistics. According to a recent survey, riding a bike is only 1% riskier than driving a car, which is only half a point safer than being a pedestrian. Those whipping through the lanes on motorcycles and scooters are involved in 60% of the accidents in town, and represent 50% of those injured or killed. This, compared to "four-wheelers", who are involved in 78% of accidents but account for only 22% of the victims. Pedestrians account for 23% of the victims and despite qualms, cyclists are involved in only 7% of Paris street collisions.

Riding a bike is only 1% riskier than driving a car,
which is only half a point safer than being a pedestrian.

In any case, for those of us who use our bikes daily, the ease and speed of getting anywhere in town in an average 25 minutes more than compensates for the perceived risk, to say nothing of escaping metro madness. It has its frustrations, of course. Sharing the bus and taxi lanes is a daily exercise in civility and patience, yet again, the city has done its part by installing a friendly warning "ding" in buses in place of blaring horns. Motorists are often as leery of cyclists as we are of them, and competing with the motorcycles and scooters, well, let's just say it's an unhappy - and illegal - competition for piste space.

Of course, we véloistes need to make an effort. Obligatory accessories include lights, reflectors and some sort of attention-getting noisemaker. Helmets are not mandatory in France, and only 16% of riders bothered to wear one in 2005, although that figure has gone up from only 7% in 1998. It doesn't help that a UK survey found that cars will drive three inches closer to a cyclist who is wearing a helmet than one without. Apparently a helmeted cyclist seems a safer bet - ironic because research has also shown that those who wear helmets tend to feel safer to take more chances.

Off the road, many cyclists fighting for lock-up space on one of the 4,500 two-wheel parkings in town may not be aware that it is actually illegal to attach a bike to a sign pole, pipe or other public utility. However, as there are over 41,000 cyclists rolling the streets per day in good weather, police are not encouraged to enforce that law. On the other hand, they will pull a cyclist over for riding at night without lights (cost: 11-38€), and even if 37% of cyclists say they don't worry about going the wrong direction on a road and only 29% obey traffic lights, 3,431 tickets were given out to cyclists last year for circulation non-conforme, for anywhere between 135-170€. Further, many bikers are unaware that riding on the sidewalk could cost them a fine of 35-75€.

The latest trend in constructing bike paths is to have them going against the traffic, with the provision that speed shouldn't exceed 50km/hour. This may well help reduce Danger Number One for urban cyclists, the dreaded car door opening. Renaud Sherpa, delivery rider for Urban Cycle, attests, "That is our biggest fear." If everyone who shared the road paid attention to the latest city initiative, that risk could be reduced: chacun sa place!

NOTE: Bicycle service stations offer not only rentals
but also secure parking by day, week or month,
which includes a cleanup and checkup.