Vive la velorution

Agnès Poirier
Thursday August 2, 2007
The Guardian

Le Tour is dead, long live le vélo! The French vélorution began the day after Bastille day, or day one of the vélib – short for vélo-liberté. With it, millions of Parisians have been able to forget the shame of the Tour de France and make the road theirs, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.You can’t miss them: the vélib are everywhere – brand-new bikes with grey 25kg frames and a basket on the front. The people riding them look like criminals on the run: elated, eyes shining, sweat pearling on their brows, unable to quite believe their luck. Freedom, freedom! They ride alone or with friends, against traffic, over pavements, frightening poodles and old ladies.

To become one of them you simply dash to the nearest electronic bike station, dock in, and the bike is yours. There are already 700 stations in Paris. By the end of the year there will be an astronomical 1,451 (compared to 298 tube stations) – that’s one at every street corner, offering a total of 20,000 bikes, all available to the public for free. Free for the first 30 minutes, that is. After that costs begin at €1, rising to €29 for one year’s access. Should you fall in love with one particular heavenly machine and fail to return it to a docking station, you’ll be fined €150, half the price of a new bike.So far, none have been nicked. Each bicycle has been used an astonishing 30 times a day, on average. Only three have been graffitied, in a dodgy corner of quartier Goutte d’Or. The bike station on top of Montmartre, meanwhile, was constantly empty, while the bikes at the bottom of the hill gathered dust in the sun, unused. So three people were hired to ferry the bikes from the bottom to the top of the hill, from dawn to dusk, enabling tourists to descend in gleeful, guilt-free rapture.

One bike was found 30 miles away, in a rough estate, another near Monet’s house in Giverny. The first was probably ridden by an athletic delinquent escaping the police; the second, by an American tourist lost in the Normandy countryside.

In less than three weeks the vélib scheme has crowned Paris the capital of freedom cycling. The experiment has been tried elsewhere, of course, but never so successfully and never on this scale. The Dutch attempted it in 1964. At the time of free love, free cycling seemed a logical development. Almost all of the bikes were quickly stolen or burnt and the utopian idea died, probably in a mist of marijuana, as quickly as it had appeared. In 1998, in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, a variant on that experiment was launched for the first time. JC Decaux, the French outdoor advertising company, was competing for the right to control all of Rennes’ public advertising space. At the last minute a rival pocketed the contract, after it offered to finance a programme of “vélos gratuits” for the city. JC Decaux learned its lesson, and so did its main competitor, the American company Clear Channel.

Since then a war for the domination of the vélo world has raged, as each company tries to outdo the other in city halls around the world, offering bicycles to the people in return for the right to manage their cities’ outdoor advertising. Clear Channel has managed to woo Oslo, Barcelona and Berlin, but JC Decaux is wearing the yellow jersey in the race. After a breakthrough in Lyon two years ago, the company has gone on to provide free cycling services to Seville, Cordoba, Giron, Brussels and Vienna, soon to be joined by Marseilles, Mulhouse and Besançon.

What the philosopher Roland Barthes described as the true epic dimension of cycling can now be experienced by millions of ordinary citizens living in the same city. Setting a different pace of living, these riders create a new harmony, smoothing the rough edges of modernity, taming the flow of the polluting cars around them. So the question is: when will Britain’s cities follow?

Interviewed on the radio recently, London mayor Ken Livingstone explained that he couldn’t ride a bicycle because his parents had been too poor to buy him one. With vélo-liberté, l’ami Ken and millions of Londoners can leave their homes and estates and make the capital theirs once more. Ken and Boris Johnson could even race one another to City Hall, while David Cameron follows with his driver right behind him and insists on a dope test at the finish.

· Agnès Poirier’s book Touché, a French Woman’s Take on the English, is out in paperback

One comment

  • Here and there we do see one example after another of what I would call market breach. Practices develop that simply push though or cast aside the market as not useful. In Vancouver we we see the articulated buses taking on passengers at all sets of doors, which means they now rely on the pattern that most people who use them will have bought passes, but they do not really care because the main thing is to move more people faster. The internet is the great horn of plenty for information since you can find out a great deal about whatever you want at zero or a trivial cost. The cost of production of the technology is beating the hell out of maintaining a market. And political life is changing amazingly with the rapid fire spread of blogs and the ferocious development of speciality blog groups (Talking Points Memo, Volokh Conspiracy, Science Blogs, Real Cimate) Would it not be really remarkable if it eventuates the angry old German with boils on his bum turned out to be right about the “integument bursting asunder” (ultimate collision between the means of production and private property). Just wondering, you know, but can anyone tell me when we get to bring up the guillotine carts. For the rich, you know. All of them.

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