Americans as a whole have not traditionally looked to France as a country of innovation. But transport has been an exception to this rule, with the TGV high speed train and the Paris metro, long seen as models in their industries, as well as the Smart Car, the squat ultra-compact that debuted in France and can now be seen on American streets.
But now in France, where traffic is a national headache and transport and taxi strikes seem to hit as regularly as the seasons, people have taken innovation into their own hands. As a result, there is no country in the world where there are more unorthodox ways of getting around than in France, and in particular, Paris. And now cities around the world, including New York and Washington DC, are beginning to take notice. Both cities are looking into adopting a number of measures that are now being tried in France.
Just last summer, the city of Paris debuted a new self-service bicycle transit system called Velib’. The name is a combination of the French slang word for bicycle (“velo”) and “liberte”. As the name suggests, Velib’ gives people in Paris more freedom to help themselves get around the city.
The Velib project in Paris recently won the city the 2008 Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Vélib’ was the brainchild of Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist and longtime green campaigner who pledged to double the number of cycle lanes in the French capital by the end of this year and reduce car traffic by 40 percent by 2020.
For inspiration, Delanoë’s team looked to Lyon, where a similar, smaller bicycle rental program was started two years ago with great success.
Parisians and visitors alike can now pick up and drop off comfortable, well-maintained bicycles throughout the city. In Paris a 10,648 bikes were made available at 750 locations at the operation’s inception. By the end of 2007, Velib’ stations dotted Paris approximately every 900 feet for a total of 1,451 locations and 20,600 bikes.
To access the bikes, riders select a one-day card for 1 euro, a weekly card for 5 euros or an annual card for 29 euros. After the purchase of an access card, riding for the first half-hour is free and a supplement of 1 euro is charged for an additional half-hour, 2 euros for another 30-minutes and 4 euros for every addition half-hour after that. For example, a 25 minute trip is free, a 50 minute trip costs 1 euro, and an hour and 15-minute ride would cost 3 euros.
With over 371 km (230 miles) of cycling lanes, Paris is a great place to bike. And Velib’ is a great way to help solve Paris’ traffic problems, get where you are going faster and stay in shape all at the same time. So far, the program has been popular and has been adopted as a way of life by many Parisians.
Each Velib’ parking station is equipped with muni-meters to purchase one and 7-day passes and to pay any additional charges once the bike is dropped off. Velib’ meters also provide information on other station locations. Application forms for the annual card are available at Paris District City Halls, metro stations and even pastry shops throughout the city. For more information visit: Velib Paris (French language only).
Of course, not all of Paris is bike-friendly. The Paris police department has so far refused to grant a permit for a cycle path along the Champs-Élysées, fearing that this would hopelessly congest the city’s main traffic artery.
But all the other paths have made cycling in Paris noticeably safer. The statistics speak for themselves: While the number of bikes on the streets has increased by 50 percent over the last six years, the number of cycling accidents has not risen at all, said Jean-Luc Dumesnil, head of cycling policy at City Hall. Dumesnil said that the new cycling paths had helped, simply by their prevalence. “The more bikes there are on the streets, the more car drivers get used to them.”
Another two-wheeled solution to the commuting problem, a strange-looking scooter called C1 manufactured by BMW is also an unusual feature of Parisian streets. It was sold in Europe only between 2000 and 2003 but one still sees many in Paris. Businessmen and women like it because it looks and drives like a scooter but does not require drivers to wear a helmet, because of its protective roof. BMW’s intention in marketing the C1 was to appeal to car drivers in crowded city streets, which is why Parisians adopted it so wholeheartedly. The vehicle offers the convenience of a scooter or motorbike but without many of the associated dangers or hassles. The scooter’s most innovative design feature is its emphasis on safety. BMW tried to added car-like crash testing to the scooter, claiming that in a head-on collision, the C1 offered a standard of accident protection comparable to a European compact car. France agreed, and allows the use of C1 without a helmet, making it more appealing to scooter drivers and car drivers alike who want to be able to bypass traffic-congested streets and highways known as “bouchons” or corks, France’s equivalent of the bottleneck.
Another new and unusual way of getting around Paris is the pedicab. This bike-powered taxi has long been a feature of Asian cities but is new in France. There are a number of pedicab services cropping up in France, but with a difference. In keeping with Parisian chic, Urban Car’s sleek bubble-like cabs look like something out of the Pompidou Center. And in keeping with France’s green policies, the Urban Car promotes their service declaring that the main purpose is not to ferry around lazy tourists, but to limit gas emissions, noise and to aid in traffic congestion. And one need not feel guilty sitting behind a panting cyclist, as Urban Car cabs are electrically assisted, which makes the cab capable of attaining speeds of 24 km per hour even with two passengers. The drivers are multi-lingual and equipped with GPS, making the cab not only a good alternative for Parisians who can’t find a taxi, but for tourists in France visiting Paris as well. Rides are reasonable: 1€50 per person plus 1€50 per kilometer for up to two passengers, adding one extra euro on Sundays. As of now the company has a fleet of 17. Urban Car plans to expand to 35 by summer 2008, and projects more than 100 by the end of 2008.
Lastly, there is the most basic form of transportation and recreation, ones own feet—using roller skates. Here, too, Paris has led the way in making a child’s toy and mainstream means of transport. Pari Roller organizes a free weekly Friday night skating tour around the city of Paris to encourage roller skating as a leisure activity, as a sport or as a means of transportation. The group is non-profit and started as a grass-root movement, meeting for “unauthorized” skating parties. Now it partners is the Paris police department, which helps ensures the security of the participants, spectators and motorists. The group claims that the weekly event gathers the largest number of skaters in the world and is responsible for the resurgence of skating as a legitimate way of getting around the city.
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