This spring, the city of Paris will start work on the second phase of a project to complete 100 kilometers of bicycle paths that project supporters say will make every arrondissement biker-friendly.
Only Strasbourg and Nantes have similar projects in France. Supporters of the Paris project give the city credit for undertaking a much bigger program but say that while the bike paths will make city streets safer for cyclists, the project will do little to curb air pollution.
Last year the city built the first 50 kilometers of bike lanes, which now criss-cross Paris from east to west – from the Bois de Vincennes to the Bois de Boulogne – and from north to south – from the canal de l’Ourcq near Parc de la Villette to the Porte de Vanves.
In the second phase of the project, an extramunicipal commission for bicycles made up of bicycle associations, environmental groups, and city and transit officials, is drawing up the plans to build another 50 kilometers or more of bike lanes.
According to commission member Patrick Allouch, general secretary of the bike club Vélo de Ville, the plan calls for networks of bike paths to be built in each arrondissement. These small networks will connect to the newly built major network.
“We have 50 kilometers now; by the end of the year we will have 100 kilometers,” Allouch said. “It’s the beginning of bicycling in Paris.”
Bicycle groups credit Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi for taking bikes seriously and pushing through the plan. “We’re grateful for what the city is doing,” said Camille Lalande, general secretary of the Mouvement Défense de la Bicyclette, an organization that promotes bicycle use in Paris. “Up until Tiberi no one even considered bicycling as anything other than a weekend leisure activity.”
Many Parisians discovered that bicycles could be a good alternative form of transportation after two summers of record air pollution levels in 1994 and 1995. Those summers were followed by a massive public transit strike in December 1995 that forced thousands to take up bicycling.
“The main impetus for the bike plan was the pollution problem,” Lalande said. “Politicians thought the strike confirmed that Parisians were ready to use bicycles.”
The strike also forced the city to take a good look at bicycle safety. A study done after the strike showed bicycle accidents had increased steadily for 10 years. Significantly, of 536 bicycle accidents in 1995, 144 happened in December during the strike.
Moreover, a 1996 study added to concerns about the safety of breathing Paris air. It showed that more than 400 people die annually in Paris and Lyon from air pollution-related illnesses. And high air pollution levels this winter have forced the city to alert residents, especially children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems, to stay indoors.
Two new laws let the city take strong measures when air pollution peaks. Under one law, the city can fine motorists who leave their cars running while parked. The other allows the city to prohibit cars and trucks from entering on highly polluted days. Paris hasn’t used this law yet, but in January, Lyon banned all trucks for a day because of high pollution.
Eighty percent of the air pollution in Paris is caused by cars, trucks and buses. France’s love affair with the car rivals that of the United States. In fact, there are summer days in Paris when car emissions raise the ozone level so much that its air is worse than Los Angeles smog.
In Paris half of all automobile fuel sold is highly polluting diesel. The diesel car is popular in France for good reasons. Diesel fuel is taxed 30% less than gasoline and is 20% more efficient. France is the world’s leading manufacturer of diesel engines.
A majority of Parisians support the bike lane project because of concerns about air pollution, despite its potential price tag of 90 million Francs. Most arrondissements’ mayors also back the plan, but not all.
François Lebel, mayor of the 8th arrondissement, questions whether so much money should be laid out on a project that will benefit so few people. “The place of the bicycle is today extremely marginal,” Lebel said recently. He pointed out that 10,000 bicycles use Paris streets, compared with the 3 million cars and trucks that daily crowd the city’s 1,600 kilometers of pavement.
Moreover, Lebel says, not every arrondissement is suitable for bike lanes. “The 8th arrondissement is, in my opinion, one of the worst adapted for bicycles,” he said.
A committee of shopkeepers on the Champs-Elysées agreed with him and, citing concerns over aesthetics and safety, nixed Tiberi’s plans for a section of the east-west bike route to go up the ritzy avenue. That section remains one of the gaps in the network.
Supporters of the project concede that bike paths will not tempt many car junkies to trade their gas pedals for bike pedals. Most converts to bicycles come from public transportation not cars. So cleaning the air is going to require more difficult measures.
“If you want to change something you must leave your car and use public transportation,” said Marc de Stoppani, owner of the Bicloune bike shops in Paris’ Bastille district. “The bike is not the solution for everything.”
The final answer to air pollution might be a long way down the road, but 50 kilometers of bike paths is at least a start in the right direction.