By Stefan Simons in Paris
"A rental bike is the most convenient way to travel in Paris," says Marion. The 28-year-old, who works in marketing, lives in the smart 16th Arrondissement and uses a Velib cycle two or three times a week, undeterred by Paris' bustling city streets. "Motorists and cyclists are now used to one other. We respect each other," she explains. Valentine, 22, a trainee insurance clerk who moved to Paris a year ago, says the city's fleet of chunky bikes is "just cool!"
France has a long cycling history: People in brightly colored, tight-fitting jerseys, helmets and streamlined sunglasses speed along country roads. Water bottle within easy reach, they propel themselves up the winding mountain roads between the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. Emerging during the summer months, these pedal-pushing athletes are in the mould of their legendary "Tour de France" heroes.
But Velib has brought affection for two-wheeled travel into the country's capital city. The self-service network of 23,500 bikes parked at 1,400 stations across Paris has made mobility more flexible for city dwellers willing to pay an annual 29 ($36) membership fee. The first half hour on the bike's solid, heavy frame is free of charge. After that the hourly rental rate gets increasingly expensive, a price structure designed to push Velib as an alternative to car, bus and metro trips.
'Not Just A Weekend Hobby'
Some 130 million trips have been clocked up since the bike network's launch five years ago. The anniversary was marked on Sunday with a mass cycle ride down the Champs-Elysées. The success story has shifted attitudes to mobility in the French capital. A few years ago it was unimaginable that suited businessmen or elegantly dressed women would mount a bike.
Eric, a sociologist at the University of Seine-Saint-Denis, swears by the city's bikes which he uses "at least twice a day." The 48-year-old is faster on the saddle than in the subway: "The Velib station is just over the road from my front door," he says.
And the daily newspaper Le Parisien quoted a member of the Velorution cycling organization as saying, "The invention has proved that a bicycle can be a serious means of transportation, not just a weekend hobby."
"The image of the bicycle has changed," says Dominique Lebrun, Paris' inter-ministerial coordinator for bicycle use, referring to the 700,000 French workers who commute by bicycle.
The rental bikes have proved their worth, particularly for short trips. While cars grind through the boulevards at walking pace, speedy cyclists can cover about five kilometers (three miles) in 20 minutes, whizzing past the gridlock. The system's teething problems, such as where to find bikes and which stations have parking space, have largely been solved: More than a dozen free smart phone applications, including "Open Bike," "Cycle Hire" and "molib," direct Velib riders to the nearest parking space.
A Bike Renaissance
Some 110,000 Velib trips are made daily, half of them by people traveling to and from work, says Jean-Charles Decaux, chairman of the company that won the concession from the city to launch the bicycle rentals in 2007. The renaissance of the bike has been evident in the number of people using their own bike to dash around the city, a figure which has swelled to up to 200,000 trips every day in Paris. Compared with the overall number of journeys, bike trips account for just three percent of the total. But it is a fast-growing minority: Over the past five years, the number of cyclists in Paris has increased by 41 percent.
That jibes well with the city's goal. The French capital has spent years trying to lure people onto public transport, especially to greener forms of transport. Over the weekend, as part of an event called "Paris Respire" (Paris breathes), large parts of waterside roads, including the picturesque Canal Saint-Martin, were reserved for pedestrians and bicycles. Motorized traffic has fallen by a quarter over the past five years, partly due to Velib's success, according to Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe.
The innovation has sparked a trend. These days, 34 French cities have bike rental programs. With similar systems at work in Montreal and Melbourne, Mexico City and Milan, Le Parisien writes that the rental bike has become a "global phenomenon".
But despite the numbers of people shifting to two-wheel transportation, there is still a lack of bike paths in urban areas, especially in Paris. Since the start of the bike rental project, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) have been earmarked as bike lanes and many one-way streets can be used by bikes traveling in the opposite direction. But in reality many of these routes are simply bus lanes, meaning cyclists face a risky coexistence with other larger vehicles.
A Green Avenue from Paris to London
Adding to the cyclists' obstacle course, mopeds and motorcycles often illegally travel on bike paths when the traffic is dense. But Transport Ministry official Lebrun remains optimistic: "Over time there will be fewer accidents as car and motorcycle riders pay greater attention." Since a record 694 cyclists were injured in 2007, the total number of bike accidents has declined steadily each year in Paris.
Beyond the cities, France hosts a network of bike paths totalling approximately 8,000 kilometers. A further 10,000 kilometers are planned over the next 10 years. The first cross-country route is under construction between the Breton port of Roscoff and the Atlantic coast city Hendaye, called the "Velodysee".
And over the weekend French cyclists set off along the "Avenue Verte," or green avenue, a new path linking London and Paris. Depending on the route, the journey is between 408 and 474 kilometers long. On the French side, it uses sections of former railway lines between Paris and Dieppe and has no steep inclines. The new route was hailed by Le Monde as being a good step for "tourism, sport, culture and the environment," but cyclists are only given the exclusive right of way on a third of the trail. The rest is shared with cars.
"It's just a beginning," said Didier Marie, president of the Seine-Maritime region. "Bike paths will be added to gradually improve the route."
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