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Ah, Paris on Two Wheels!

by Jay Walljasper - March 28, 2008

Paris has long been pointed to as the ideal city, a place where urban living shines with vitality, sophistication and charm. Yet a few recent visits have convinced me that reality no longer matches the Parisian myth.

Don't get me wrong. It's still a great city full of wonders unrivaled anywhere else. But strolling the city these days, I can't help but wish that I had seen Paris in its heyday before automobiles overran the boulevards.

Throughout the 1980s, the City of Light was retrofitted to accommodate large volumes of cars. The result has been torrents of traffic that now seem to define the city just as much as art museums or cafes. Indeed, a croissant and café au lait at a sidewalk table is simply not the same with noisy, smelly vehicles roaring past.

But proud Parisians are now fighting this degradation of their beloved city. Mayor Bertrand Delanoe wants to put people on equal footing with cars and trucks with aggressive sustainable transportation policies modeled on Rome and Madrid--cities once notorious for maddening traffic but now winning accolades from residents and tourists alike for cleaner air and safer streets.

Bicycles also play a key role in Paris's plans. Borrowing a bright idea from Lyon, France, the city is developing what amounts to a two-wheeled version of the metro. You can pick up a bike at one of 1500 Velib (roughly, "free bike") stations around the city and ride it where you need to go for free or a nominal fee. Since last summer 15,000 bikes have been put on the streets, with another 5,000 to be added by the end of the year. The next step is adding more bike lanes and other improvements that make it easier and more fun to cycle around Paris.

This system combines the personal convenience of taking your car with the ease and environmental benefits of using transit, says Eric Britton, an American living in Paris who's been exploring green transportation options for decades.

"Think of them as tiny transit vehicles you can pick up where you want, when you want, go to exactly where you want and leave them there," he writes in Making Places, the newsletter of Project for Public Spaces. "They offer the same convenience of the car but without all the problems--from parking to traffic jams to pollution to sprawl. They are truly a form of personal rapid transit."

The system will be a marvel of efficiency, reports the Washington Post. You check out the durable, specially-designed bikes complete using a credit card or prepaid annual deposit. The first half-hour is free, with a small charge for each half-hour after that. You then return it to a station at your destination. The system is operated by a private company in return for exclusive use of city-owned billboards. All revenues go to the city.

In Lyon, the city bike program has logged 10 million miles since being launched three years ago. The 3,000 bikes on the streets are credited with keeping 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and reducing auto traffic in the city by 4 percent.

City bike programs are up and running in Barcelona, Berlin, Rome, Brussels and Vienna, while a number of North American cities are looking at the idea, including Vancouver, Chicago, Montreal, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

For more tips on urban bicycling see "Shifting Gears" and if you're looking for a new bike, see "Easy Riding."