Paris may be known as the City of Light, but if, like me, you find yourself there for a month as a “stagiaire” (intern) with a commute across town, you can find yourself plunging into their dark, rackety metro system twice a day, wondering what the city did to earn its flattering epithet.
Perhaps I’m overly timid, but I’ve never felt brave enough to pick up one of London’s Santander bikes, also known as Barclays bikes; actually known as Boris bikes. Apart from tourists in rickshaws, and gleeful cabbies who pretend to be frustrated at the traffic while charging you £1.20 a minute, I’m not sure who London’s streets were actually designed for – too slow for cars, too cramped for lorries, and with five hundred years of winding growth, too confusingly laid out for anybody without Google Maps implanted into their brain to navigate. Paris, on the other hand, has benefited from one of those frighteningly effective things that only historic dictatorships can make possible – total, tyrannical redesign and ‘modernisation’ of the city’s layout in the second half of the 19th Century at extreme expense by a man called Baron Haussmann, on commission from Napoleon III. Beautiful, narrow, winding medieval streets (a terrible anachronism in the eyes of any Napoleonic moderniser) were scrapped, and replaced with a logical, modern system of long, wide boulevards. Originally designed in turbulent times to allow the French army to swiftly enter Paris from all directions (later, this would famously backfire in the Second World War) these boulevards are also perfect for a speedy bicycle commuter.
In London, an underground system that smells significantly less suspicious, and the relative dearth of anything more appealing to see above ground, had meant I’d never strayed from making subterranean passages, but now, with the distinctively acrid smell of a Parisian metro still lingering uninvited in my nostrils, I found myself battling with a Vélib ticket machine.
“Vélib” is Paris’ public bike system, and – refreshingly for a city that has many stark social divisions – seems to be used by absolutely everyone, from the bobo (French slang short for bourgeois-bohemian, and a very useful word to describe most of Paris’ affluent inhabitants) to the banlieues (the infamous Parisian suburbs). With over 1200 stations and 14500 bikes, it’s pretty clear something’s being done right here. To put this in context, this beats London’s bike system on numbers, despite a city a tenth the size, with a quarter of the population. This must be in part down to the pricing. For the tourist, tickets are €1.70 for a day and €8 for a week, and with this you can take out and use any bike for up to 30 minutes. Exceed this, and you’ll pay €1 for the next half-hour, €2 for the next, etc. However, with a station never more than a street away, you quickly learn to swap your bike out for another before you exceed this time limit. The really impressive figures come when you buy a year’s pass. For just €29 or €39 (€19 for most students or those on benefits) you get the same plans, with the higher tier allowing you 45 minutes of free cycling before you need to swap out or get charged that extra euro. Over 261 working days a year, a 2-way daily bicycle commute on the €29 plan would be just over 5 cents each way! Not only that, but the Oyster card style system makes grabbing or docking one of these bikes even faster than unlocking your own cycle.
The bikes themselves – which I think I’ve now established, are given out pretty much free – are not particularly inspiring visually, finished in a sort of dull brownish grey which an artistically minded French graphic designer told me was called “gris souris” (mouse grey). They’re also cataclysmically heavy. However, on streets shared with angry scooters and angry taxis and angry pedestrians, their steely bulk suddenly becomes rather a welcome piece of psychological and actual armour.
Only once did I find myself stuck in a tight spot. On the final day of the Tour de France, the cyclists famously finish their race at the Champs Elysées. Running late to get there to catch a blurred yellow glimpse of Chris Froome, I naively grabbed a Vélib as usual and cycled over. Unfortunately, so had the rest of Paris. Every station was full, with a good handful of sharklike riders slowly circling, waiting for a free spot to open to park their bike. Riding a mile east, finding a space, parking, and sprinting back, I just made it in time to see the peloton streak past. They might have been flying over cobbles at close to 30mph, but I bet their bikes set them back a lot more than 10 cents a day!