Now that I've been initiated into the bicycle velolution through the Velib' bike sharing program in Paris, I can confidently predict further such successes in the United States.
With $5-a-gallon gas and global climate change mandates on the visible horizon, these programs come not a moment too soon.
Washington DC signed on this spring as the first US city to start such a program, where sturdy "comfort" (upright with plush seats) bikes are made available at automated racks. Swipe a credit card and get the bike at low costs for anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. In Paris its like one Euro, or a $1.60, though I have yet to get my credit card bill. After that initial period costs go up more.
In Paris last week I tried to navigate the push buttons on the Velib' payment machine unsuccessfully at first, until an enlightened ex-pat told me you need to have a credit card with a chip inside of it like French cards have.
My American Express card had a chip, so with her help we made it work.
And so my wife and I both got our bikes. The 10,000 Velib' bikes at 750 stations in Paris are provided by the French advertising firm JCDecaux. They are distinctive upright handle-bar style beasts that have thick bodies, baskets, locks, and easily visible headlights and tail-lights that operate through pedal power.
We both found the bikes to be easy to operate, with three gears and hand brakes. Diana liked the way the bikes were stable on bumps (this was the first time she has been able to ride a bike since breaking a vertebrae in January, so this was a huge factor for her, a casual bike user). And I was just happy to join the thousands of people we saw riding them throughout the City of Light.
And ride we did. From our Left-Bank hotel, we rode past the Louvre and toured the sculptures of the Jardin de Tulieries, until the guards suggested that we walk our steeds. Before doing so, we even rode through a 1983 Richard Serra sculpture.
Other sights we accessed by bike included the Garden of Luxembourg, and the Catacombs, as well as countless cafes, restaurants and friends' apartments. Night riding was especially cool because of the wild Parisian street sites, reduced traffic and our nice running lights.
The great things about the Velib' bikes is that when you reach your destination, you just deposit the bike in an open rental slot, stopping the rental clock and making it available for others to ride. You then have the option of jumping on the ubiquitous Metro if you wish.
One complaint--the bike rental racks get full at night and you sometimes need to hunt for others so you get off the clock. There's a way to tell the machine you couldn't find an empty slot, but I couldn't figure out how to do it. Also we had no helmets, and couldn't get any. Though we saw no one wearing helmets anywhere we rode in Europe, a testament to either good city planning, dangerous living, or both.
Many other cities have similar programs in Europe such as Brussels, Seville, Oslo and Vienna, and ridership is varied in terms of age ( we saw riders or passengers 2 to 90 years old), ability, race and social-economic background.
There are 100,000 people a day safely using Velib' in the massive urban center that is Paris, with no road rage, accidents or even near-accidents that we witnessed. I think it's time we either dispel the notion that bikes are unsafe in US traffic or change traffic so that bikes can be a significant part of the mobility mix.
Paris also had great walking directional signs for pedestrians, something I've only seen in Philadelphia. That's something else we should consider on this side of the pond, as many times I've noticed street signs are made for cars only to see--even in such eco-groovy places as San Francisco near its City Hall (at Franklin and Hayes, for instance)