There are many reasons to fall in love with the City of Light but Paris' progressive mayor Bertrand Delanoë has just added one more: free bicycles. The new program is called "Vélib'" - a neologism from "vélo," bicycle and "libre," free. This from the same man who launched Paris Plage, seasonal sandy "beaches" on the banks of the Seine for Parisians unable to get away to the seashore in summer.
There are bicycle stands all over the city now, even one on my street.
You can sign up for a year membership or just a day or a week, swipe your credit card for security deposit, and then check out a bicycle. The first half hour is free, but it goes up quickly from there. Two hours costs 7 Euros (a little more than $10). But the idea is to ride to where you need to go, park the bike at a stand near there (ending your borrowing time) and then check out another one when you need to move on. My neighborhood has a lovely system of bicycle lanes and there a tons of people bicycling around the city.
Even though the program just started, I would say about half the people I saw were using the new free bikes; the other half their own bikes.
I'm used to using ZipCar in New York, a private system of checking out cars by the hour which is not too different from the idea behind Velib' -- except that it is private and it is for cars. In principle, any Parisian willing to do some pedalwork and in possession of a credit or debit card to assure the security deposit can get around the city now absolutely free. And this in a city that boasts what may be the finest subway system in the world, the famous Métro.
The Vélib bicycles are stylishly retro, with little baskets at the handle bars so you can put the fruits and vegetables you picked up at the market and your baguette there as you ride home.
While I delighted in yet another public amenity in a city and a country that doesn't skimp on investing in the res publica, breaking news from America spoiled my carefree mood. First there was the horrible news of the steam pipe explosion near Grand Central. Then, not too long after, the even more horrible news of the Twin Cities' bridge collapse in Minnesota. The contrast was pretty stark: A country investing in public infrastructure specifically designed to relieve urban congestion, get cars off city streets and improve air quality (not to mention people's health - no need to pay for a health club if your biking to work every day!) versus a country whose 20th- or even 19th-century infrastructure is crumbling away because it doesn't directly pay anyone to keep it up.
Here is a bicycle lane near my Paris apartment, separated from the street by a line of parked cars, one-way. The other way is on the other side of a park built over a section of the Canal St. Martin.
Of course, plenty of people bicycle around my neighborhood in New York, but they do so at some risk to life and limb. There are special lanes for fire trucks in New York City that are used by regular traffic when no fire truck is present but few lanes for bicycles, aside from the parks along the Hudson and the East rivers. The lanes that do exist on city streets are on the traffic side of parked cars with no curb or other protective measure. The result is that taxis, delivery trucks, people making turns and other motor vehicles constantly use the bicycle lanes, especially to double park. This creates a real hazard for cyclists who must then swerve out into oncoming vehicular traffic to avoid the cars and trucks parked in their lane.
As far as I know, Michael Bloomberg's visionary clean air plan for New York City does not include a system of free bicycles for use by city residents and visitors, nor major investment in a network of safe bicycle lanes separated from vehicular traffic.
But hey, we'll always have Paris.