Paris is for lovers, it’s true. And it’s for the softest light, and dancing on river banks. It turns out it’s also for something I wasn’t expecting: bicyclists.
I just got back from a trip to Paris, and outside of Amsterdam or maybe a major Asian city, I have never seen so many bicyclists in my life.
Most pleasantly, they’re not the Lycra-wearing variety.
Bikes are as everywhere in Paris as croissants. Women ride in sun dresses and skirts. I saw men careening through rush-hour traffic in suits. Even the seniors ride, eddying along the paths and side streets, chatting, as if their bikes were rolling walkers.
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“A few years ago it was unimaginable that suited businessmen or elegantly dressed women would mount a bike,” reports the magazine Spiegel, on Paris’ two-wheeled cultural sea change.
Apparently much of this is due to one of the world’s most popular bike-sharing programs, which Paris started in 2007. Today there are more than 20,000 public-use bikes scattered around the city of 2.2 million, at rental stations located every 400 yards.
You can check them out with a credit card and ride them anywhere, 24 hours a day, then return them to any station. Bicycling has exploded — more than 250,000 Parisians now subscribe to the bike-share, using it for 110,000 trips daily (which by comparison is more ridership than all of Sound Transit’s trains, light rail and buses combined.)
So Paris was like a vision of how Seattle might actualize its greener future self. Only with much better fashion.
Next year we’re set to debut our own bike-rental program, called Puget Sound Bike Share. It starts modestly — 500 bikes at 50 stations in a few neighborhoods, such as downtown, South Lake Union and the University District.
It’s a fine idea. But having ridden bikes now in Paris, I suspect there’s a flaw in Seattle’s pedals-for-the-people plans. One besides our rain and brutal hills.
It’s our nanny-state helmet law.
When we rented bikes in Paris, like good little Seattleites we wondered about helmets. No need, we were told. When I asked why no cyclists outside the Tour de France seemed to wear headgear, a bike-tour leader answered with a single French word: “Liberté!”
Even the bike-share program in Paris is called “Vélib,” for “vélo” and “liberté.” In other words: bike freedom.
It turns out that freedom — from schedules, regulations and niggling red tape — is crucial to getting people to hop on a bike. Cities that require helmets, such as Melbourne, found their bike-sharing programs weren’t much used.
While in Paris, where you can spontaneously grab a bike with your baguette and bottle of wine and cruise down to the Seine, your hair blowing in the sunset wind as women in billowing dresses pedal past — well, quelle surprise, bikes are très populaire!
Here in Seattle, though, you must wear a helmet or face a $103 fine. Quelle downer. Can you see toting a helmet around on the off chance you might grab a freedom bike for an impromptu ride? Or renting, from a solar-powered vending machine, a used helmet that (you hope) has been sanitized after it was turned in last?
Seattle’s bike-share program is setting up an epic clash of Seattle values. On one side: Green is good. On the other: safety first. One has to give.
Let it be the helmet law. Yes, bareheaded cycling makes the world a (slightly) riskier place. But as the French say: Il faut bien vivre. You gotta live.
Or as they’re saying lately: Vive la vélolution.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org