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Paris perspectives: The beauty of a bike share scheme

Simon Wilson is fresh back from France and filled with enthusiasm for ways to make Auckland better. Here’s the first: a great big bike share scheme.  

Ten days ago I rode a bike around the Place de la Concorde. It’s that roundabout in Paris with about 10 lanes, none of them marked on the road, and more streets leading on and off than I could count. I’m not ashamed to admit, I sat and watched for a while before I tried. But hey, I’m still here. So is every other bike rider I saw there. All of us in street clothes, none in a helmet.

Paris traffic can be scary. You get a green light and head out, along with the cars and trucks and bikes all lined up next to and behind you, only to find another set of traffic has also been released into the intersection and they’re coming at you side on. And then some of the vehicles leave their bunch and start to push their way across the lanes. No one slows to do this; instead, they all head firmly for the gap in front. You’re lost without confidence. And when you’re on a bike, you don’t signal with an arm out horizontal, but raise it to about 45 degrees and repeatedly wave your hand back and forth. The gesture is aimed at the cars behind you and it means stay back, I’m changing lanes.

I don’t pretend to know how French traffic works. But there’s a lot to learn from that gesture. It tells drivers you’re going to do it and you’re not looking back so it’s on them to let you. It belongs in a world where bikes have no less a right (and no more) than cars to nudge their way through traffic and everyone accepts it. Where there is no obvious hierarchy of road users, no sense of superior rights, and no one – not the drivers, not the riders and not the pedestrians – gets angry.

Velo ideale: Simon Wilson’s Vélib’ bike sees the sights of Paris

I spent two days riding a bike around Paris, courtesy of the Vélib’ bike hire scheme. Vélo = bicycle; liberté = so much fun. It cost me €1.70 for bike hire each day. Bike stations were everywhere. So were bike lanes, although not at the Place de la Concorde. You can probably tell, I really loved riding a bike in Paris.

The bike hire system in Paris is brilliant, although not so brilliant that it can’t be improved on. By the end of the year a new contractor with a new system is going to make it even better.

Right now, though, you can join online or do it casually at the stations. You can buy a year’s worth of riding, or a week’s, or a day’s, or an hour or two. You can take a bike from one station and leave it at another. It doesn’t cost the council much because the service is offered by the company with the concession for bus stop advertising. It was a requirement of their contract. How inspired is that?

Most bikes you see in the central city are hire bikes and most of the people you see riding them are locals. In other words, many Parisians use hire bikes as their preferred form of transport for short trips in the city. That’s why it works.

Why do Parisians do that? Here are 10 good reasons.

  1. Lots of bikes and stations

There are close to 15,000 bikes and 1200 stations all over central Paris. Wherever you are, you’re close to a bike you can hire, or a place you can leave it.

  1. Free for the first half hour

For short trips, you don’t have to pay anything. That single factor turns the bikes from “good to have” into “first choice” for getting about town.

  1. Easy to use

Signing up is easy online, while casual use, paying with a credit or debit card, is easy too. The bikes themselves have three gears, adjustable seats and a sturdy step-through frame. Using them could not be easier.

  1. Convenient add-ons

The bikes have a carrier basket in front, to throw your bag or shopping in. They have a simple security lock so you can make short stops along the way. For short-hop commuters and people going to meetings or hooking up for lunch, they’re extremely fit for purpose.

  1. Bike lanes

There are bike lanes (often doubling as bus lanes) on almost all the main roads of the city. Some are physically separated from other traffic but many are just painted on. There are also bike routes that cars can’t take: along the Seine, for example.

And get this: on most of the narrow one-way streets, a bike route is painted on the side of the road heading the wrong way. That’s right: in Paris, it’s legal to ride a bike the wrong way up a narrow street.

A Vélib’ station near Place de la Bastille, Paris. Photo: Pline / CC-BY-3.0

Because of those five things, cycling is positively enabled. And there’s more.

  1. Traffic lights for bikes

At the larger intersections bikes have their own traffic lights. They’re in phase with the car lights, but sited at bike rider eye level. This has obvious use-value but the symbolism is powerful too. They remind everyone the city encourages cycling.

  1. A culture of cycling

Nobody looks twice at a cyclist. In a country where cycling is a national sport and in a city that’s inordinately proud of its traditions as a civilised society, cycling is normalised. You’re not doing a weird or dangerous thing.

Related to this, the Parisian bikes are grey. A subtle, smart, normalised colour. Not some garishly painted “look at me I’m silly tourist” colour. It makes a difference.

  1. It’s so cheap

It’s ridiculously cheap, and not just for casual users taking a free half-hour hop. It’s also really cheap for longer use: the 24-hour fee of €1.70 is less than the price of a café au lait. A year costs €29.

  1. Riding a bike in Paris is wonderful

On both the left and right banks, Paris slopes very gently to the river running through it, the Seine. There are very few hills. Being essentially flat makes riding easy; having that gentle slope means whenever you get lost it’s easy to find yourself again. Being on a bike, in Paris as everywhere else, puts you among the people, makes you part of the life of the city. The streets lined with plane trees, the beauty of the 19th century facades, the buskers, the Parisians, the palaces and parks, the boulevards that sometimes seethe with life but are often surprisingly relaxed and human scale.

In a day, you can cover 10, 20, 50 kilometres if that’s what you want. You can get lost, find yourself, get lost again. You can also head off to the museum of your choice, dock the bike at the nearby station, take in the art, pick up another bike and ride to a café for lunch, dock the bike, pick up another after lunch, repeat.

  1. No helmets

Helmets are compulsory for children under 12 but not for adults. You see almost no bike helmets in the city. This works because of all the other factors that help make the city safe for riding: respect for cyclists, having lots of cylists around and having lots of bike lanes.

These things are mutually reinforcing: not having to wear a helmet encourages lots more people to ride; lots more people riding makes it safer not to wear a helmet.

So now what?

This great bike share scheme will soon be replaced by an even better one, with 25 percent e-bikes, stations located in a much wider suburban area and extra services like wifi. Yes you did read that right. Wifi on bikes.

But now what in Auckland? The council is already considering how to introduce a big bike share scheme here. Good on them. But it has to be big and bold enough to force a big bold disruptive change on the inner city. We’ve got hills, so we’ll need e-bikes. In most other respects, though, the Parsisian model would work very well – especially on the cost-to-customer side.

Make it cheap enough to make it preferred. And remember this: when it comes to the dreaded infrastructure costs, they’re a damn sight cheaper than every other transport option except walking.

Would it really work here? Of course it would. Just think cafés for a moment. Until the 1980s the prevailing view in New Zealand used to be that European-style outdoor seating at cafes and restaurants would not work, so councils protected us by forbidding it. Our weather was wrong (I don’t know, too much wind?), our culture was wrong (we’re too indoorsy or something), we didn’t have room on the footpaths. I’m not making this up.

Talk about a disruptive change. Took less than a year, I reckon, once it started. How long after a decent bike share scheme starts for Queen St and Albert St and High St/Lorne St to fill up with cyclists off to meetings and lunch and shows in the summer evenings? And K Rd and Ponsonby Rd and Victoria St too?

And, especially, the waterfront. You could pick up a bike in the early evening and ride west to Silo Park or all the way to Westhaven, dock, meet a friend for a drink or whatever you like to do with your friends. Go the other way, to the Parnell Baths, Okahu Bay or further. Bikes throughout Wynyard. Bikes busy on Quay St, forcing the council and Ports of Auckland to open up more of the council-owned port land to the public.

All we need to do is just do it.

Simon Wilson visited Paris as a guest of the French government, where his head got filled up with all sorts of ideas for Auckland. Hold on to your croissants, this post will be one of many. Contact him at simon@thespinoff.co.nz


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