Les Francais et le Velo: The French Go Cycling
The French and bicycles bring so many conflicting images to my mind. The iconic photo of the Frenchman riding a country road with the obligatory baguette sticking out of the basket, in stark contrast to Daniel Behrman‘s horror stories of 1960s Paris in his classic, The Man Who Loved Bicycles, of the scurrying bicycle mounted serfs scattering before the car-crazed on the Champs Elysees. Then I read of Paris, Paris!, putting in a massive Bike sharing program, following the lead of Lyon and then being joined by Nice, Toulouse, Rennes, La Rochelle, Orléans, Montpellier, Lille and Aix-en-Provence.
I was intrigued.
What is bicycling really like in France today.
I jumped at the chance to attend the 20th Congress of the Network of Cycling Cities and Territories in Nice, Cote d’Azur in May, 2013. (plus, who wouldn’t want to go to the French Riviera after a long, sodden Pacific Northwest winter?)
I was part of an international panel on cycling with the ex-mayor of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso where 26% of the people use bicycles daily (and 48% walk), as well as representatives from Latin America, Europe and me.
The Network had just completed a comprehensive survey of attitudes towards cycling in France and the results were amazingly parallel to US if they showed higher overall numbers. For example, about 5.3% of workers in France commute by bicycle, predominantly male and older with 4 out of 5 having a driver’s license. Most French know how to ride a bicycle, having learned as children, with 80% saying they are good riders. About 2/3 have access or own a bicycle.
The list of barriers and inducements are also similar: bad weather, fear of crashes (with cars) and length of trips are the major deterrents. In the cities where many French live in apartments, lack of convenient bicycle storage can also make it inconvenient. People do see the benefits of cycling, listing exercise (health), pleasure and saving money on transport as their top three reasons to consider riding.
This past fall, the vice-mayor in charge of transport in Toulouse, Philippe Goirand, visited us here in Portland and marveled at the number of cyclists given that there was so little traffic and parking is so cheap and abundant. In his hometown, people resort to bicycling as the only way to avoid time sucking traffic congestion and high parking costs. But what else might motivate people to take up cycling in France? Here’s what they said:
- More bicycle facilities
- More bicycle parking at transit stops and rail stations
- Convenient and secure bicycle parking in residential areas
I saw lots of recreational cyclists in the hills of Provence, where many professionals train (including a scary drive up to a medeval village on a narrow, winding mountain road head on into a bike race!) and a fair amount cycle use in the city of Nice, itself. There are good parts of the southern coastline with separated cycle paths and a well-used bike share program (VeloBleue) that now includes electric scooters and cars (AutoBleue). But cycling infrastructure is still spotty and “under construction” with most cyclists simply sharing the narrow roads with the slow moving traffic.