Paris on wheels

Paris, August 17:

No doubt the Tour de France helped, but when my rather substantial friend Jean, who has never knowingly walked more than 100m without the promise of a four-course meal at the end of it, began to trumpet the joys of cycling, I knew something profound was happening to the Parisian psyche.

One month after its launch, Paris’s Velib’, or “freedom bike” scheme, has turned the city

cycling mad.

You simply pick up a bike from one of the ubiquitous stands, ride it along for your short trip and drop it back at anyrandom stand at your destination.

The first half-hour’s pedal-time is free, with charges rising steeply afterwards. Day and night, tourists, commuters and returning party animals cruise by on the chic new machines.

People have joyfully discovered the cheap new way of exercising en route to work or getting home drunk after the metro closes, hence a rush of hires after 1am.

There’s a glut of bikes deposited at stands at the bottom of hills and none left at the top, as people freewheel down from the heights of Belleville and Montmartre.

So huge is the success of the V?lib’ that Paris is proclaiming a veritable “velorution”, reclaiming the streets for two wheelers.

This is not the first scheme to provide bikes for cheap short-hires - Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Oslo got there first, and Lyon was the pioneer in France — but Paris aims to be the biggest.

More than 1.6m hires have been registered in the first month from the 800 bike stands around the city. Currently 10,600 bikes are in circulation, but by the end of the year that will double.

The unisex bikes are provided by the poster advertising company JCDecaux to Paris city hall in return for ad space in the city, so at no cost to the taxpayer.

It’s a political triumph for Paris’s socialist mayor,Bertrand Delanoe.

The Green party has congratulated Parisians for leaping on a scheme that shows that protecting the environment “is not a punishment, but adelight”.

But for all the hype, has Velib’ actually stopped people using their cars?

Anecdotally, most people using the bikes are coming off public transport, seeking an alternative to bus, metro and expensive Paris taxis at night.

But the increase in people cycling does seem to be boosting bike awareness and challenging the car mentality.