Cycling in France

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Sport and transport are very different things. Think of cycling in France and maybe you ideas of the Tour de France or thoughts of a trip to the Alps. But for most people it’s a journey to work or a trip to the shops.

So time for a quick glance at regular cycling in France. And I’ll touch how this affects racing too.

But for most French citizens, cycling is not a sport but a means of transport.The French government has just presented its “cycling plan” and I learned that on average a French citizen rides 87km a year, compared to 800-1,000km for the Netherlands and Denmark, probably the most cycle-friendly places in the world, transport wise. Just 4.7% of the population uses a bike on a regular basis.

The major proposal of those drafting the plan is a tax rebate for cycling – a very French solution, you get tax rebates for everything in France, like a new boiler – but the ministère des transports has said “non“. Of the measures to get support, we’ll see support for improved bike parking facilities and storage at railway stations and workplaces and new-build apartment flats will have to have bike storage as part of the spec, no surprises there.

Go ahead

More practical for commuter, shopper and training athlete alike, cyclists should be allowed to turn right on a red light, to filter into the lane if it is safe. This has been trialled so far and it’s proving a success.

The most visible aspect of cycling as transport in France is the Vélib scheme in Paris, a bike rental programme where you’ll find racks of bikes all over the capital. Quick, cheap and easy, it’s a great way to get around. In fact the scheme isn’t Parisian, it was copied from France’s second city Lyon but much improved; and the Lyon scheme was itself a copy of other schemes around the world. Parisian traffic can daunt some but it’s relatively safe, for example there were no deaths in 2011. You can’t make a direct comparison but at least 16 Londoners died cycling last year.

What about sport?
The sport itself is growing. After years of gradual decline the main federation the Fédération Française De Cyclisme is growing its membership once more, although largely thanks to off-road membership. But the inexorable rise in road traffic means there’s very little cycle sport in and around Paris. Now this is normal for any large town I suppose but many traditional races have fallen off the calendar and Parisian cyclos have to travel further to get to a race at the weekend. There is also some grumbling over big races and the road closures they impose, people seem to accept the Tour de France but even races like Paris-Nice can get bad headlines and angry correspondence about closed roads.

The good news for the recreational cyclist and athlete alike is that France has a vast network of roads. Main arteries channel the bulk of the traffic and you are free to explore the rest. The quality of the road surface varies but this is more about whether the surface is granular or smooth as significant holes and cracks are rare.  Normally motorists are considerate to cyclists. There’s also a network of cycling paths allowing tourists to criss-cross the nation often away from traffic.

Summary
It might be the land of the Tour de France but high profile sport hasn’t inspired millions of French citizen to use their bikes for transport. New government plans have some good intentions but overcrowded commuter trains and bursting buses also get people cycling. But once away from crowded urban areas cycling is normally a pleasure.

Rick N January 28, 2012 at 1:55 pm

I was in Strasbourg last year for the first time and the traffic lights for cyclists concept blew me away. They were getting good use even for late March when the weather was a little spotty. It was very cycling friendly and highlighted the fact that cyclists are not just allowed but welcomed and part of the routine. It would be hard to make it more conducive to bikes – short of banning cars.

Larry T. January 28, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Things are similar here in Italy though awhile back Silvio Berlusconi’s regime came up with a special discount program on new bicycles and scooters to encourage more sales, though nothing much that I know if has been done to encourage USE. What amazes me is that down here in Siracusa where it’s pretty flat in the areas people live in, bicycle use is VERY low in the practical sense. I’ve discussed this with some local activists who can not explain it. I joked that down here, where the weather year-round is fine for cycling, there are few cyclists using bicycles for errands while up near Alessandria in Piedmont (the location of our Northern Italy HQ) where the weather is often cold and wet, we see lots more folks riding bikes in the center of the city. There are PLENTY of avid cyclists here riding around on bicycles for sport and recreation, but very few using a bike to replace an automobile or scooter. The island of Ortigia where we’re living would be perfect for “car-free Sundays” like they have in other areas of Italy but so far, nothing. Before we leave here in May I may pester some of the local authorities to do something like this – especially if we’re able to come back every winter. Gasoline at $10+ a gallon isn’t causing anyone to ditch the car so some other measures need to be undertaken.

Andrewalpen January 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm

I think that the town planning has a big effect on cycling in France. From my experience, a lot of the new green field housing developments are large, isolated, and serviced by industrial style hypermarkets. Using the bicycle as a part of life requires close access to employment, entertainment and shops. Of course, for those that live in cities, it is a different story, but in the developing suburbs, the trend towards the industrial shopping parks with super sized sized Carrefour, only encourages car ownership and use.
Of course, I accept that this trend is not specific to France.

Christian January 28, 2012 at 8:04 pm

The problem with cycling in France is that the city centers are often not at all made for anything but pedestrians. During certain hours of the day, those little streets are packed with people and cycling becomes very stressful, pointless or even dangerous for the people involved. But of course the city center is where most people work or do their shopping. In the city of Aix-en-Provence they had a system like the Vélib in Paris (I think it was called v’hello), but they cancelled it because it didn’t get much use

David N. Welton January 28, 2012 at 9:16 pm

I am curious about the correlation between the popularity of cycling, and the use of the bicycle as transportation. It seems to me, for instance, that the heyday of cycling in Italy was in the 50ies and 60ies in terms of its popularity with the general public. That’s when most families could afford a bicycle, but it was still a big-ticket item in some ways.

BTW, speaking of father-son duos, I don’t follow cross much, but ‘van der Poel’ jumped out at me.

Ervgopwr January 29, 2012 at 3:11 am

Inrng, will you now confirm that you live in France or are French? Long time reader, great blog, but I went through this with the Snob! At least he was local specific in the title.

By the way, terrific stat for the fatalities; wish we were that good in the US; SD, CA specifically.

Timb January 29, 2012 at 10:27 am

Well, I confirm that I live in France and work in a French company as the only Englishman in the office.

I’m also the only one who systematically cycles to work. Although I am one of the closest to the office (4.5km as opposed to the majority who lie in nearby Montpellier : about 9km away) there are others who could do it but choose not to.

The largest barrier to cycle commuting among my colleagues seems to be the cultural habit of focusing on one thing at a time. When French people do something, they do it almost exclusively and as well as possible. This is what explains the so-called “French paradox” of how a country of people working 35-hour weeks and taking 2-hour lunchbreaks can have such a high productivity : when they are at work, it’s heads down and work hard, when it’s time for lunch it’s “a table, bon app” and concentrate on the food. When it’s time to do sport it’s kit on and full speed ahead.

This last one is what renders cycle commuting unlikely. Cycling is firmly in the mental box labelled “sport”, and that box does not get opened in the context of getting to work. One thing at a time.

The velib schemes get around this by being clearly positioned as bumbly transportation only. No right-thinking Frenchman or woman is going to look at a sit-up-and-beg bike with a basket and associate it with sport.

I should note that this is my experience of southern French attitudes. My conclusions may not be valid for other parts of France – usually anyone making sweeping generalisation about “the French” or “how things are done in France” is only speaking from experience of a small part of the country and will be completely wrong for the rest of the place.

Al January 29, 2012 at 10:55 am

Timb has the French attitude nailed, from my experience.
I am here in Southern Germany for one year, with one more to go. I commute by bike when convenient and get out on my road bike whenever I can. In principle Germans seem very open to cyclists, and there is good provision for bikes at the stations, but Stuttgart is a car town and anywhere around the city you are not really welcome on the road on a bike.
Many sidewalks are built wide and designated for both pedestrians and bikes. Schwabians will tell you if they think you are doing something wrong (e.g. they will call out if you cross an empty road on a red crossing light) and once a month I get beeped and gestured at for being on the road instead of the sidewalk.
I was in NE France for one year before this, cycled the same way, and encountered nothing but courtesy.

benDE January 29, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Al, you nailed the Germany attitude! They have no problem telling you that you are doing something wrong, do they? They nicely call it giving a ‘tip’. You can yell a tip back next time though- Because cycling lanes are so dangerous for bikers and pedestrians a German court struck down the mandatory bike lane use policy last fall. That means until new rules are written (not yet happened) you are free to use all roads other than those posted as biking prohibited.

Larry T. January 29, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Forgot to add down here in Siracusa there’s a bike rental scheme, GO BIKE. Appears to be similar to the other big city bike rental programs except that since we got here in October, the bikes must have..well, GONE. There are none, just the stations sitting there empty. Perhaps when the better weather and tourists return so will the bikes? Meanwhile we get out to places too far to walk using a couple of rod-braked, single-speed “shopping bikes” we brought with us. They’re taking the brunt of being locked up outside on the seafront but cost far less than a car and are far more convenient for short errands off the island. When we do want a car we simply rent one as there are 3 or 4 offices for the big rental agencies withing 5 minutes walk from our apartment. Our “real” bikes are right here inside the apartment when we’re ready to enjoy some sporting rides..but we’re enjoying not paying for or worrying about a car these days, especially with Italian gasoline at around US $10 per gallon! We’ll be dealing with all that soon enough in May when our bike tour season begins.

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