Yves Montand has a song called "À Bicyclette," a love song to a woman whose name ("Paulette") rhymes conveniently with the title means of transporation. It is what outsiders think of as "typically French," both the song and the sentiment. Except that the good old wire donkey is considered as antique in 21st-century France as Montand himself. There are exceptions -- like bicycles upgraded with high-tech equipment and refashioned as instruments of speeding athleticism. Sports riders in fluorescent sprinting outfits can be admired as they whirl around the horse-racing tracks of the Bois de Boulogne, for example. They usually travel in throngs, which is hardly in keeping with the French character.
But all that may change if Parisian Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and his deputy Denis Baupin of the Green Party -- the man charged with transportation issues in Paris -- have their way. They want to convert their fellow citizens to the healthy and ecologically sound transportation option of bike travel. On July 15 -- just after Bastille Day -- Paris will introduce a citywide system of public bike rentals called Vélib, intended to give pedal power to the people.
The high-tech idea is to let Parisians as well as tourists rent bikes from public stations with nothing but a chip card. No fewer than 750 self-service stations equipped with over 10,000 rentable bikes will go into service in July. The city's Socialist-Green administration has been promoting the idea that bicycles produce no emissions, remain mobile in traffic jams, and -- most importantly -- are easy to park. They want people in Paris to choose the bicycle over the car, the bus or the subway. Cycling isn't even slower than driving, since car drivers in Paris move through the avenues and boulevards at an average speed of just five kilometers an hour (3.1 mph).
The Vélib model of public bike rentals -- variations of which already exist in other cities such as Rennes, Strasbourg and Lyon (not to mention Berlin) -- is simple. Each station is equipped with 15 bicycles. Customers release one bike from the station by means of a chip card, which then lets them deposit the bike at any other station at the end of the journey. Payment occurs electronically. A customer has to load up the card by buying a subscription to the service, which can be purchased online, in town halls or at post offices. Using a metro ticket as a subscription will also be possible at some stations.
The bicycles -- "chic and cosmopolitan," according to Céline Lepault from the city administration; painted in "elegant gray" according to French daily Le Monde -- are genuinely sterling objects. They weigh 22 kilograms (49 pounds) and have a basket attached to the handlebars. They're also equipped with a light, a lock and an easily handled three-speed gear shift. They're not the sort of dapper racing bikes or fashionable mountain bikes that might tempt thieves, but sound means of transportation suited to the urban jungle and appropriate for short distances. The key to the Vélib model is that the bikes can change hands quickly and often: The price structure encourages users to ride them for short one-way stretches and deposit them again in the electronic stations -- rather than renting a bike for a whole day or week.
The advertising firm JCDecaux, which provides the bikes, has promised to double the number by the end of the year. Almost 2,100 bikes should be in circulation throughout Paris by the end of 2007, tended by 300 JCDecaux employees.
Like truckers in Citroëns
The Vélib debut comes after a number of private and government initiatives encouraging people to ride. Three hundred cities in France celebrated the "Festival of the Bicycle" in June, and only a week later bicylists took to the streets naked in an internationally-organized protest ride to promote clean transportation and underscore the vulnerability of cyclists in cities.
This vulnerability is something Baupin and Delanoe also want to address, because riding a bike through Paris still requires a measure of courage. Trapped between a solid wall of motor traffic and breakneck motorcyclists -- or kamikaze scooter drivers -- bicyclists in this city of two million need strong nerves as well as strong calves, all the more so because the average French cyclist tends to navigate the streets in a Jacobin spirit of revolt. Red lights aren't considered a stop signal; 71 percent told the newspaper Le Parisien that they just zip through the intersection. One-way streets are mainly symbolic. The French cyclist is assertive and reckless, like the Parisian motorist, who tends to behave like a truck driver even when he sits behind the wheel of a Citroën.
But the city has invested heavily in its bicycle infrastructure over the past three years. This measure is part of a larger strategy to spoil the fun for car drivers, a strategy that has earned Deputy Mayor Baupin the reputation of being a "dangerous madman," or even a "Khmer Vert."
The "man who declared war on cars" (as the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur calls him) can understand the anger of the drivers: "It's about more than a means of transportation, after all," says Baupin. "It's about their place in society." Still, the technocrat and advocate of metropolitan transit ("I drive in a car with a hundred seats: It's called the metro") is convinced that it is only by such means that problems like air pollution and congestion can be avoided.
Since 2001, Paris's network of bike paths has been expanded to a total length of 320 kilometers (199 miles). Many of the paths are separate traffic corridors, or else marked tracks along the streets, and outside Paris along the canals. That's certainly an improvement. But statisticians also count those 118 kilometers (73 miles) of chaussée routes that cyclists "share" with buses as bike paths. And even where the paths are exemplary, such as along the banks of the Seine, cyclists cannot ride undisturbed -- since motorcyclists race their machines along them during rush hour, leading to encounters that sometimes curdle the blood.
So Paris may remain dangerous territory for pedal-pushing commuters, but the bicycle is still a pleasant alternative for tourists. Associations like "Mieux se déplacer à bicyclette" (MDB, or "Better to Travel By Bike") or "Paris Rando Vélo" organize excursions and nightly rides. Meanwhile companies like "Paris à Vélo, C'est Sympa," "Paris Vélo Rent-a-bike" and "Paris Bike Tour" offer extravagant tours -- also in foreign languages. Bike rental agencies offer their own services, and those who fear the inclines on the city's hills -- as on the Butte Montmartre or the approach to the Champs Elysées -- can resort to the bikes rented by "Paris Charms Secrets," which are equipped with electric auxiliary engines.
Baupin and Delanoe hope a little government action can turn Paris back to a slightly simpler era. Perhaps the city of love will still allow for unexpected encounters of the romantic kind, of the kind Yves Montand sang about: à Bicyclette. Paulette, in any case, would be thrilled.