As bikers take to the streets, “it’s like Paris is in anarchy”

PARIS – One recent afternoon, the rue de Rivoli looked like this: cyclists blowing a red light in two directions. Delivery cyclists fixing their cell phones. Electric scooters cross the tracks. Jaywalkers and nervous pedestrians jostle each other like in a video game.

Sarah Famery, a resident of the Marais district for 20 years, has prepared for the tumult. She looked left, then right, then left and right again before venturing into a crosswalk, only to embark on a rant-laden sprint as two cyclists came a few inches from her .

“It’s chaos! exclaimed Ms Famery, clenching her fist against the swarm of bikes that have moved cars to Rue de Rivoli since it was turned into a multi-lane highway for cyclists last year. “Politicians want to make Paris a cycling city, but no one follows any rules,” she said. “It becomes risky to cross the street!”

The chaos of Rue de Rivoli – a major traffic artery stretching from the Bastille to the Louvre to Place de la Concorde – is unfolding in the streets of Paris as authorities pursue the ambitious goal of making the city a European cycling capital by 2024.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is campaigning for the French presidency, has polished her credentials as a socialist candidate with an ecological mind. She won admirers and enemies with a daring program to transform Greater Paris into the world’s first environmentally sustainable metropolis, reclaiming vast swathes of the city from cars to parks, pedestrians and a cycling revolution to the Copenhagen.

She made the highways along the Seine car-free and last year, during coronavirus closures, oversaw the creation of more than 100 miles of new cycle paths. It plans to limit cars in 2022 to the heart of the city, along half of the right bank and through Boulevard Saint Germain.

Parisians have answered the call: a million people in a metropolis of 10 million now pedal daily. And Paris now ranks among the top 10 cycling cities in the world.

But with success came major growing pains.

“It’s as if Paris is in anarchy,” said Jean-Conrad LeMaitre, a former banker who recently walked the rue de Rivoli. “We need to reduce pollution and improve the environment,” he said. “But everyone does what they want. There is no police, no fines, no training and no respect.

At the town hall, those responsible for the transformation recognized the need to find solutions to the outbreaks of tensions, to the accidents and even to the deaths which resulted from the general melee in the streets. Anger over reckless use of electric scooters in particular boiled over after a 31-year-old woman was killed in a hit and run along the Seine this summer.

“We are in a new era where bicycles and pedestrians are at the heart of a policy to fight against climate change”, declared David Belliard, assistant to the mayor of Paris in charge of transport and referent for metamorphosis. “But it’s only recently that people have started to use the bicycle extensively, and it will take time to adjust.

Mr Belliard is hoping that Parisians can be brought into compliance with the laws, in part by adding more police officers to fine a 135 euros ($ 158) on unruly cyclists and teaching school children to be safe on bicycles. Electric scooters have been restricted to a speed of 10 kilometers per hour (just over 6 mph) in crowded areas and could be banned by the end of 2022 if the dangerous use does not stop.

The city is also planning talks with delivery companies like Uber Eats, whose couriers are paid on delivery and are among the biggest offenders when it comes to breaking traffic rules. “Their business model is part of the problem,” said Mr. Belliard.

The biggest challenge, however, is probably that Paris does not yet have a deep-rooted cycling culture.

The constant French sense of “liberty” is displayed in the streets at all hours, where Parisians young and old alike take a stroll on almost every occasion. They seem to have carried this freewheeling spirit to their bikes.

“In Denmark, which has had a cycling culture for decades, the mentality is: ‘Don’t go if the light is red,’ said Christine Melchoir, a Danish woman who has lived in Paris for 30 years and travels daily. by bike. “But for a Parisian, the mentality is: ‘Do it!'”

City planners say better cycling infrastructure could help tame bad behavior.

Copenhagen – the model to which Paris aspires – has efficient layouts for cycle lanes that allow bicycles, pedestrians and cars to coexist in a hierarchy of space. Citizens learn from an early age to follow the rules of the road.

In Paris, parts of the 1,000-kilometer city-wide (approximately 620 mile) cycling network can cause cyclists to engage in dangerous interactions with cars, pedestrians and other cyclists. In the Bastille, once a huge roundabout partly used by cars, a tangle of cycle paths weaves its way through the traffic. Cyclists who obey the signals can take up to four minutes to cross.

“Paris has the right ideas and it is absolutely the main city to watch on the planet, because no one is near them for their general visions of urban transformation,” said Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urban designer based at Copenhagen, which advises cities on integrating cycling into urban transport.

“But the infrastructure is like spaghetti,” he continued. “It’s chaotic, it doesn’t connect and there is no coherent network. If you can get it right, it will take away a lot of confusion. “

Mr. Belliard, the deputy mayor, said Paris would soon unveil a plan to improve infrastructure. But for now, the uproar continues. One recent afternoon, eight cyclists en masse burned a red light on Boulevard de Sébastopol, a major north-south artery. The suspicious pedestrians curled up until one dared to try to cross, causing a near pile-up.

Back on rue de Rivoli, the cyclists swerved to prevent pedestrians from playing chicken with oncoming bikes. “Pay attention!” a cyclist wearing a red safety vest and goggles shouted at three women crossing at a red light when he almost crashed in the rain.

Cyclists say Paris has not done enough to secure bicycle travel. Bicycle accidents jumped 35% last year, compared to 2019. Paris en Selle, a cycling organization, organized protests calling for road safety after several cyclists were killed in collisions with motorists, including, recently, a 2 year old boy who was driving with his father who was killed near the Louvre when a truck turned on them.

A small but growing number of cyclists say they are too nervous to continue riding.

“I’m afraid of being crushed,” said Paul Michel Casabelle, 44, superintendent at Maison de Danemark, a Danish cultural institute.

On a recent Sunday, Ingrid Juratowitch had to speak safely to her daughter Saskia through bike paths near the Saint-Paul metro station while she held her two other young daughters a safe distance from the street.

“Be careful, there are bikes that come from left and right,” said Ms. Juratowitch, who has lived in Paris for 14 years. She is increasingly reluctant to let her children walk to school for fear of reckless riders. “There’s another one coming. OK, now you can go!

“From an environmental perspective, we don’t want the city to come back to cars,” Ms. Juratowitch said. “But it’s not sure. It is as if bicycles and pedestrians do not know how to coexist.

Saskia, 12, responded. “It’s not the bikes, it’s the bikers,” she said. “They think the rules apply to everyone except them.”

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