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Covid-19: Transmission fears spark bicycle frenzy in post-lockdown Paris

Cyclists ride on the rue de Rivoli in Paris on May 16, 2020, as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cyclists ride on the rue de Rivoli in Paris on May 16, 2020, as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. © François Guillot, AFP

While Paris has long yearned to become the world’s No. 1 biking capital, it wasn’t until the coronavirus prompted widespread fears of transmission on public transport that Parisians really started to pedal. Since France began to lift its lockdown measures on May 11, the number of cyclists has exploded – and both vendors and repair shops are struggling to keep up with demand.   

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It’s not even 8:30am and already the Place de la Bastille, a busy junction in central Paris, is seeing more bicycles than it is buses and cars. Although workers from the Vélib bike-sharing programme have refilled the nearby bike racks overnight, the stations are already starting to empty by nine o’clock. The city, with 50 kilometres of recently added "coronapistes" (corona bike lanes) and thousands of newly converted cyclists, is no longer dominated by cars – and it is mainly due to the coronavirus.  

Cyclists turn onto Rue Saint-Antoine, which merges with Rue de Rivoli and which has become one Paris’s new “corona bike paths”. On June 16, 2020.
Cyclists turn onto Rue Saint-Antoine, which merges with Rue de Rivoli and which has become one Paris’s new “corona bike paths”. On June 16, 2020. © FRANCE 24/ Louise NORDSTROM

“Demand has completely shot through the roof,” Stein van Oosteren, spokesman for the bicycle association Vélo Île-de-France in the Paris region, tells FRANCE 24. “Shock events have always paved the way for the ‘bicyclisation’ of many countries – in Denmark, for example, it was the economic crisis in the 1980s that made bigger infrastructure projects too expensive, and in the Netherlands it was the oil crisis of the 1970s. And today, the coronavirus is having exactly the same effect.” 

According to the national bicycle group Vélo et Territoire, the number of French cyclists increased by 28 percent in May compared to the same period a year ago.

In less than an hour, this Vélib bike rack was almost emptied of bicyles, on June 16, 2020.
In less than an hour, this Vélib bike rack was almost emptied of bicyles, on June 16, 2020. © FRANCE 24/ Louise NORDSTROM

New Amsterdam?

While sporting chain Intersport has reported daily sales of 4,000 bikes per day – two-and-a-half times its normal sales figure – the online bike repair service network Cyclofix says demand has increased more than 10-fold since lockdown measures were first eased after nearly two months. 

“It’s just enormous at the moment; we’ve doubled our network of independent repairmen during this period, but to meet a demand that is more than 10 times what it usually is, is tough,” says Stéphane Folliet, co-founder and director of the service.

“People are turning to biking because they want to avoid public transport at all costs.”

“Paris isn’t yet the new Amsterdam when it comes to cyclists, but I think it might be on its way to becoming one,” he says, noting that the government-sponsored “corona subsidy” of €50 for bike repairs has also help fuel demand.

‘My friend, my companion, my boyfriend’

Mina, a 41-year-old marketing specialist, is one of the Parisians who is trading in her monthly Métro pass for a bicycle because of the coronavirus.

“I’ve always biked a lot, so it’s not as if it’s new to me. But since I moved to Paris from the countryside 20 years ago I haven’t felt safe because of the heavy traffic and the cars, so I used buses and the Métro instead. But after the lockdown I couldn’t see myself doing that again, so I’ve bought myself an electric bike.”

Mina, who is still waiting for her bike to be delivered after placing her order a week ago, says the fact that the government is offering up to €500 in subsidies to those who buy an electric bike weighed into her decision. She also noted that Paris is planning to keep the vast majority of its “corona bike lanes” open for the foreseeable future.   

But despite all this, she says, "90 percent of my decision absolutely had to do with my concern over the coronavirus". 

Mina says her bicycle purchase is a long-term commitment. Aside from using it to get to work, she plans to bring it with her pretty much everywhere she goes. “My bike is going to be an extension of myself. It’s going to be my friend, my companion, my boyfriend,” she laughs. 

For Van Oosteren, whose association has spent years fighting for more bike lanes to be made available, the new trend is more than welcome.

“Before, we used to have to negotiate for centuries to have a new bike lane added to the network. But with the coronavirus and the urgent need for more travel options, decisions are taken right away.”  

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