We spent the last week of August in Paris, just as tourists, celebrating life milestones. I quickly noticed that cycling in Paris is nothing like cycling in American cities. A case could be made for it being the premier large cycling city in the Western Hemisphere. This is not an in-depth study, though. Herewith a set of photos as tentative evidence:
A standard step-through city-use bike that is nearly always plain black; but someone went to a lot of trouble to give it a brilliant, unique Jackson Pollock-style paint job. And it gets regular use, as I found it gone some days. Maybe it was on loan to the Pompidou.
I include this shot of an ordinary vintage bike just for sentimental reasons; I rode a nearly identical bike for many years in the 80s and 90s, down to the chromed fork, top bar cable clips and center-pull brakes, and I hated having to change. (I did have a better seat post.) I forget what happened to it. Probably stolen. Nice to see someone keeping this thing going indefinitely.
Boulevard de Magenta Bike Lanes:
I was so amazed at seeing the Blvd. de Magenta for the first time that I was almost run down by a fast-moving young Parisian on a bike. You will note (if you are a cyclist) that there is a long, straight, well-marked, unobstructed, separate bike lane on each side of the boulevard which is protected on both sides by trees. There is a buffer zone on both sides of the lanes where the trees are planted. Cars stay on the roads, bikes stay on the lanes, pedestrians stay on the wide sidewalks next to the cafés. This was not installed last week; it has the solidity of time behind it. There is the occasional bench in the buffer zone, and bike racks on most blocks.
It's almost as if – dare I propose something so outré – as if the French consider cycling to be a normal adult activity on a par with any other, and cyclists to be ordinary human beings rather than depraved thrill-seeking children!
I'd dearly love to see a comparable photograph of any street in any major U.S. city. Anyone?
Bikeshare in Paris:
Named Vélib', it is ubiquitous, heavily used, and ridiculously cheap, considering that the first half hour trip is free, and there's no limit on the number of trips per day. A person could quickly become familiar with the locations of the stations and work it to be completely free after paying the yearly fee of 29 Euros. This would be a huge savings over any other form of transportation besides walking. There are other rate options, such as the one-week rental of 8 Euros, making sense for able-bodied tourists. According to the Wiki, in 2011 the system averaged almost 86,000 trips per day. The bikes are grey, either bland and soulless or tastefully chic, your choice, and I witnessed a wide variety of people using them, in all kinds of attire, almost never with helmets. This system was initiated in 2007. I would have thought that it would be closely studied and imitated by every city worldwide when planning their own bikeshare systems; but that would be painfully logical. To blazes with you, Mr. Spock, you pointy-eared pedant! We'll go to hell our own way, thanks.
The Bullitt Clockwork:
A bakfiets with disc brakes and a Fifties-style modern art cocktail lounge.
Give a man a brand-new, heavy-duty machine, maybe with one of those electric-assist front wheels, and what's the first thing he does with it? That's correct: he makes bets on how big a thing he can move with it. In this case it appears that the limit has been reached. Merde!
I saw rather few abandoned bikes compared to the average American city; of those, most had been heavily scavenged. So this stood out as an oddity: a typical step-in town bike, sitting there long enough for the tires to go flat and the pigeons to coat it with guano, and yet it is still fully equipped. Alternatively, it might be an art installation. This is Paris we're talking about. Art lurks everywhere, like young love, ready to ambush you and play you for a fool.
The “Fastlife” Fixie:
Elegant, sleek, stylish, yet inexplicably crowned with a torn up ruin of a seat. Minor disguise to discourage theft? Victim of sabotage? Something to do with protesting the evils of globalization? Or a police search for contraband cigarettes electroniques?
The White Foldie:
Notice the integral welded rack and the seat with the springs, which the owner locks to the frame.
(in voce Poirot) Observe, mon ami, here we have the Most Peculiar Ménage à Trois:In close cahoots, an inexpensive ordinary, a bakfiets with dwarvish coffin, and a velocipede apparently custom built for a member of some other species. Yeti? Wookie? Steve Buscemi? I regret I could not wait for this trio to emerge from their café.
Raffish, devil-may care, competent, and with a plywood platform (plate-forme de contreplaqué) securely mounted between the inverted bars. One imagines an impeccably Mohawked young savage briskly striding out of the bookstore with a volume of Marxist romantic poetry stuck in his jeans, clipping into his Looks and warping out into traffic as if piloting an X-wing fighter.
Probably the most typical privately-owned bike. Chain guard, mud guards, generator, headlamp, rack, wire basket, bell, paint it black. Practicality gone mad!
Poorly named, but with many interesting features: the braking rod below the handlebars, the integral rear-wheel lock, the full chain guard, the heavy duty mudguard, the fancy rear light, the heavy-duty rack, and the frame pump. Stolid, totally reliable, lasts forever. Maybe owned by a German?
The “Sparta Pickup”:
Alright, wipe that smirk off your faces, wiseguys. This is the bike that that original Marathon runner – Pheidippides, I think his name was – would have died for if he hadn't died from running so hard. Note the super-duty front rack, the extra-heavy-duty chromed seat springs, the doubled top bar, the fully enclosed chain and the industrial-strength bifurcated kickstand. If you're going for practicality, dammit, go all the way. None of this plywood crap. Spartans – We brake for nobody.
The “Kolkhoff” - For Madmen Only
Okay, let's take the mystique of the Practical Black Bicycle one fucking step too far! Take your time as you scan this magnificent machine. Your eye is irresistibly drawn to the sex toy in the center, on which the cyclist sits and pilots his Mystery Ship. A passenger sits in the back, his feet on the bars (check your shoelaces!), wearing a little black bowler and reading his newspaper; a charmante mademoiselle perches elfinly (there is so such a word) on the seat welded to the front bar, her feet on the bars bolted to the fork and her silk scarf waving gaily in the breeze. It would be nice if she'd tear open her blouse and start waving a huge tricolor, but let's not go nuts. We're trying to get to work and deliver a gross of perfect croissants in the big plastic crate in front before the expresso passes its peak. And when we arrive, we will have a choice between the sturdy bifurcated kickstand or the standard kickstand – unless the latter is actually some kind of antenna that continually reports back to the Central Scrutinizer somewhere deep under Paris.
Velotaxi at Work:
Velotaxis are common wherever tourists might be found; they go fearlessly into traffic. They come in such varied design that I don't think I saw two alike. A fine thing I'm sure, but I wouldn't ride in one on a bet.
Velotaxi waiting for a fare:
I have no explanation for this. Perhaps the guy just got this job last week. Maybe he's filling in for his cousin. Maybe the round thing behind him is a grill full of sausages. That would get my business. But the colors! Sacre Bleu! (I picked up lots of French in a week. It's an piss-easy language.) Unfortunately this was typical of the place: filled with outstanding works of art, gorgeous women dressed in impeccable taste, and all kinds of monuments of great charm and dignity, and, with dismal regularity, things that are exactly the opposite. Ugly graffiti, ridiculous clothing on people other than tourists, establishments selling le cigarette electronique under the moniker Le Crapoteur. Truth. Will supply proof in my essay in preparation entitled Paris Street Scenes.
The Yellow Delivery:
Another very heavy-duty practical bike with impressive racks, but at least it's not black. Two big locks. We did not meet any of the legendary suave and debonair Parisian thieves, but I'm sure they still ply their trade with alacrity and diligence.
The Little Local Velovia:
Bakfiets for sale! I didn't actually see any of these orange wheelbarrows in use anywhere. All the ones I saw looked both more functional and more elegant. But somebody must be buying them. Pilgrims from Portland?
To Sum Up:
Ah, Paris. Elegant, oblivious women everywhere; small dogs lifting their legs over the bizarre shoes of store-window mannequins. Interesting bicycles on every block. And should you feel for some reason deprived of the refreshing sight of beautiful naked breasts (les beaux seins nus), simply raise your eyes and scan the majestic buildings for statues, and soon you'll find relief. Just don't stumble into a busy bike lane as you are gawking thusly; it would be terribly gauche.
Typical Parisian university students cramming for exams.