Start Today #2: Paris on Two Wheels
One of the first things I did after moving to Paris was to acquire a bike—a vintage Motobecane, golden-hued and beautiful, that was later, sadly, crushed by a delivery van . . . though fortunately I wasn’t on it at the time! I consider myself lucky. I have always lived in cities where owning a car—or even holding a driving licence—is not a necessity, where my daily commutes to school or work have been by foot or bicycle.
I’ll never forget my first rides in Paris. Cycling became my way of befriending the new city, learning its topography and avoiding its crowded metros. It gave me a feeling of autonomy, as well as a sense of belonging to the city I was trying to make my own (I even mastered the art of biking, mostly gracefully and carefree, while wearing high heels and flowing dresses, like a true Parisienne). I had that feeling of inner liberty that comes with navigating a space on one’s own terms. Still, I was surrounded by Paris’s famously aggressive drivers . . .
Of the car traffic here, approximately ninety percent are vehicles with only one person (the driver) taking a short trip in the city center. This creates packed roads and terrible air pollution. Our current mayor, Anne Hidalgo, wants to change this; she wants to improve and extend bike routes and to make Paris the capital of cycling culture where—to the annoyance of some drivers and certain grumpy taxi and bus operators—cyclists are not only welcomed but prioritized.
The REVe project (which stands for Réseau Express Vélo, and is a pretty pun as rêve in French means dream) was launched by City Hall in 2015 with the aim of creating 200 kilometers of new bike lanes by 2020, thereby allowing cyclists to cross Paris from north to south, east to west, safely and smoothly. Since then, 150 million euros have been invested, including to construct lanes wide enough for bike traffic to move in both directions and to build more bicycle parking along the streets. One of the new lanes, connecting the eastern and western neighbourhoods of Paris, recently opened on Quai de Montebello, the busy street between the bookshop and the Seine. I’m curious to see what effect it will have on the cycling culture of our quartier. The process of changing Parisians’ commuting habits will be long and likely painful, but increased cycling will make for a greener, healthier city—and, in this era of accelerating climate change, there is no alternative.
Like reading books, biking can also be an act of resistance. It allows people to exist with real freedom, and in a sustainable way, something which is especially important now when so many of our daily actions and choices (from food and clothes to the number of steps we take each day) are being capitalized on by big corporations.
Every day, on my ride to the bookshop, as I cross the bridge connecting Île Saint-Louis to Île de la Cité—with the river Seine sparkling in the morning sun and the bruised-but-recovering Notre-Dame cathedral rising up in front of me—I’m reminded how cycling can be pure poetry, too.