Pedaling across the Seine on a sunny day is a peak experience. How did the City of Light become a city of cycles.

PARIS : I used to consider the people who went around the city to be members of the fearless warrior tribe. Mostly men, they dressed for battle in helmets, chain locks and reflective gear.

The city's few cycling lanes were shared with swerving buses or sandwiched rows of pitiless drivers and were known as 'les couloirs de la mort'' - corridor of death. 

I'm risk averse, I have three kids. For the first 16 years I lived here, I never got on a bike. But something changed recently, and it's not just because I fear catching the coronavirus on the Metro. In a feat of urban chutzpah, Paris - thoughnot yet a cyclists paradise - is becoming a cycling town.

Of course, cities like Brussels and Berlin have been improving too. And Paris is still far behind Europe's true cycling capitals, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which have been building their bike infrastructures since the 1970s.

But Paris is notable for the speed of its makeover. When visitors kept away by the pandemic finally come back, they'll see the cordoned off bike routes nor crisscross the capital and connect it to nearby suburbs.

Rue de Rivoli, the wide street that runs past the Louvre, has been entirely closed to private cars. Parisian drivers now expect to see bikes, and some even try not to hit them.

What happened? How did Paris go from a place where biking felt suicidal to one where even neurotics like me pedal around town?

Much credit goes to Anne Hidalfo, who became the city's mayor in 2014. Shortly after her election, the city government passed the five-year Plen Velo [Bike Plan] to curve out cycling only lanes, separated from traffic.

Soon, major boulevards became construction sites for months. Police warned that that the project was pas possible. A growing pro-bike lobby complained that the plan was far behind schedule, while car advocates warned of a coming ''Tour de France, in Paris, every day.''

And yet it kept advancing. ''It's easy to draw up a plan to put bicycles everywhere,'' said Jean.Sebastien Catier, head of the bike association. Paris en Selle [Paris of the Saddle]

''But it doesn't get done unless the political power says,'' Tes, OK, I understand, but we're going to do it anyway.''

A key moment came in December 2019, when a national transit-workers strike shut down many buses and trains for months. The Plan Velo was far from done, but enough routes were ready that record number of commuters pedaled to work instead. Soon the city unveiled cobblestoned cycling routes along the Champs-Elysees.

Then came the coronavirus and a national lockdown. With practically no traffic, even non-urbanists like me suddenly realized how much space we'd given over to cars, and we envisioned these same streets as quieter, cleaner public spaces that could contain something else.

We also know how tiny and mostly flat Paris is. The city proper is equivalent to 7 percent of London and 13 percent of New York City. Even the suburbs aren't that far away, especially with electric bikes in the mix.

[In 2018 the city's bike sharing program called Velib, added electric bikes and opened suburban stations.]

The World Students Society thanks author Pamela Druckerman [Contributing Writer]


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