After roadwork chaos, will cycling in Paris finally take off?

Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP | Not your average cyclist: A BMX rider performs in front of the Luxor Obelisk in Paris on June 23, 2019.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo is routinely mocked for saying she wants Paris to rank among the world’s “cycling capitals”. But for the first time in years, cycling buffs say the congested and polluted capital is finally on the right track.


If you’ve never been stuck in a traffic jam in Paris, chances are you’ve at least heard someone complain about the gridlock that invariably paralyses the French capital come rush hour (and not only) – complete with horns blaring, sirens screeching, exhaust fumes billowing, drivers yelling and a general breakdown in civility.

As the early summer temperatures reached record peaks in recent weeks, so did the discomfort and exasperation caused by the many roadworks – the dreaded travaux – that typically mushroom around town at this time of year, compounding the traffic chaos.

But it’s all for a good cause, says the city’s Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, part of efforts to turn this congested and polluted city of cars into a far more liveable city of bikes.

“Our aim is to turn Paris into a global cycling capital,” Hidalgo said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, reaffirming a pledge made at the start of her mandate.

“This necessarily means roadworks. Some Parisians will be irritated by this, but they know why we’re doing it,” she added. “The worse thing would be to do nothing.”

Adapting to climate change

Inevitably, Hidalgo’s bold objective was met with scorn on social media. As journalist Olivier Razemon, who covers transport issues for French daily Le Monde, writes on his blog, “to place ‘Paris’, ‘bicycle’ and especially ‘world capital’ all in one sentence, is guaranteed to attract an army of trolls.”

Contrary to what Hidalgo’s detractors stated, the mayor never claimed to make Paris “the” capital of cycling, but rather “a” capital, joining an elite club of mostly Nordic cities that have long been regarded as bicycle utopias.

According to an authoritative ranking of the world’s most bikeable cities, drawn up by theCopenhagenize Design Company, Paris has made considerable progress since the start of Hidalgo’s six-year term in 2014, climbing nine places into 8th. Its aggregate score of 61.8% has helped it close the gap on local rivals Bordeaux (68.8%) and Strasbourg (70.5%) – though it is still a long way off the standards set by the perennial podium cities of Copenhagen (90.2%), Amsterdam (89.3%) and Utrecht (88.4%).

“After years of relying on bus+bike lanes to make up a significant part of their network, Paris is finally getting into gear and building out dedicated cycle tracks – including protected facilities on the Champs-Élysées,” wrote the Copenhaganize Index 2019, praising city officials for standing firm amid “fierce opposition”.

First unveiled in 2015, Hidalgo’s ambitious plan to boost bicycle use in Paris – dubbed the Plan vélo (Bicycle Plan) – has angered many motorists, who accuse the mayor of seeking to impose a foreign model on a city ill-suited to bikes. Others have argued that the French capital did have a bicycle culture once, but that bikes were gradually squeezed out by the boom in the auto industry.

Bicycle taxis on the Champs-Élysées in 1942, when Paris was a city of bikes.
Bicycle taxis on the Champs-Élysées in 1942, when Paris was a city of bikes. Photo credit: ww2gallery/FlickR

Sticking to the status quo is not an option, argues Hidalgo, for whom boosting bicycle use is a key part of efforts to reduce pollution by taking motor vehicles off the streets of Paris.

“Everyone knows it is imperative to transform the city in order to adapt it to climate change,” she told the Journal du Dimanche in her interview.

“Those who switch to cycling realise their quality of life improves, provided their route is safe,” the mayor argued. “It is also faster to get around town by bicycle than by car,” she added, suggesting that the average bicycle journey was slightly quicker (at 15km/hour) than travelling by car (14km/hour).

Quality over quantity

The plan’s original aim was to double the length of cycle lanes (from 700 kilometres, including unprotected lanes) and create 10,000 new parking places for bikes by 2020. While the latter target has been surpassed, Paris officials have lowered the targeted mileage, opting to build fewer but better lanes.

“Paris will have 1,000 kilometres of cycle paths by 2020, a 50% increase from the start of this mandate,” Hidalgo told the Sunday newspaper, explaining that her team had “opted for quality over quantity”.

After years of ill-thought attempts to put bikes in bus lanes or on pavements, Paris officials have finally set about building a network of protected cycle paths that allow cyclists to zip across broad sections of town quickly and safely.

Flagship routes include a large two-way lane on the famed Rue de Rivoli, which runs along the Louvre museum and Tuileries Gardens, and a four-kilometre track between the western suburb of Boulogne and the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, a chance to soak in unrivalled views of theEiffel Tower while coasting along the River Seine, a few inches from the water.

Both meet the required standards of “Copenhagenisation”, with a continuous axis in both directions, plenty of room to overtake, and a separator to protect cyclists from motor vehicles.

The cycle path is ready, but where are the cyclists?
The cycle path is ready, but where are the cyclists? Ludovic Marin, AFP

More such cycling highways are due to be completed by the autumn, dramatically improving travel on the city’s under-developed north-south axis – and, eventually, resulting in a lull in the roadworks.

“2019 is an excellent year for bikes,” says Simon Labouret, spokesman for “Paris en selle” (Paris on the saddle), a pro-bike group that has been monitoring progress on the city’s much-touted Bicycle Plan.

When FRANCE 24 contacted the group in 2017, Paris en selle was scathing about the delays accumulated by the Bicycle Plan and the discrepancies and disconnect between cycle paths. At the time, it said, “the number of truly bikeable roads can be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

Two years on, Labouret is markedly more upbeat about the infrastructure being put in place by Hidalgo’s team.

“After an alarming initial phase, the Bicycle Plan has sped up significantly over the past year, setting the basis for a network that is safe, comfortable and enjoyable,” he says. “This will change the lives of many people and hopefully inspire many more to take up cycling.”

Bicycle politics

Despite the improvements, and the 150 million euros invested by city hall, bicycles still only account for some 5% of all Paris journeys – a lower share than in many other French cities.

As Razemon, the transport blogger, points out, the French capital’s density and relatively favourable topography, coupled with its efficient but saturated public transport network, should encourage commuters to switch to cycling in far larger numbers – and yet they are still reluctant to.

The botched revamp of the once hugely popular Velib’ bike sharing scheme, which saw its daily number of bike journeys plummet from well over 100,000 to less than 10,000 last year, certainly hasn’t helped.

Velib’ is still recovering from a mind-bogglingly dysfunctional change of operator that very nearly killed off the whole venture. To make up for the fiasco, Paris officials have allocated almost 10 million euros in incentives to encourage bicycle ownership, giving residents up to 400 euros to help with the purchase of an electric bike.

In her interview on Sunday, Hidalgo said Paris city hall would also be launching “three-wheel bikes for adults, including the elderly, who don’t feel comfortable cycling".

But many experts say real improvement will only come about once cars are taken off the streets of Paris.

“For decades, Paris saw itself as the world’s capital of cars,” writes Razemon. “To this day, the imperative for the Paris police prefecture [which wields considerable power on matters pertaining to road traffic] is to fluidify traffic – in other words, to have as many vehicles as possible travelling in a given place.”

Paris officials have blamed the local prefecture for delaying bicyle lanes, like this one on Rue de Rivoli.
Paris officials have blamed the local prefecture for delaying bicyle lanes, like this one on Rue de Rivoli. Ségolène Allemandou, FRANCE 24

Hidalgo’s team has blamed delays to the Bicycle Plan on moratoriums imposed by the local police prefect, who has expressed concern that cycle lanes may hinder the movement of police and other emergency vehicles.

Paris officials have also struggled to reach an understanding with several neighbouring municipalities, resulting in “cycle tracks that abruptly end as soon as you enter the suburbs", Labouret notes.

Achieving an integrated cycling network, that includes the banlieues and doesn’t bypass the right-leaning western neighbourhoods of Paris, where local officials are at loggerheads with Hidalgo, will require “more political will to forge ahead and overcome conservatisms", adds the Paris en selle spokesman.

With Hidalgo’s mandate coming up for renewal in municipal elections next year, bicycles are now eminently political. As Razemon writes, “Hidalgo has thrown the cat among the pigeons, and all other candidates will have tackled the bicycle issue too.”

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