George Gershwin’s An American in Paris is one of my favourites, and more so than any other piece of music it evokes the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling city. Though it was written in the 1920s the chaos of the Parisian streets is probably just as intense 80 years on. It might be unfair to compare Paris with Manchester but it certainly should be compared with London and believe me, life as a city centre cyclist is far more pleasant and safe on the Gallic side of the Channel.
In the city centre everyone, or rather anyone, cycles. In London, cycling around the tourist traps would be left to hardcore Lycra Louts but not so over here. One of the first cyclists I spied on the Pont Neuf was carrying a dozen french loaves (and not a pannier in sight – ha ha ha!). So why do they fearlessly ride bikes in such a busy, chaotic city centre? A number of reasons came to my mind:
1 French drivers are considerate and polite!
Whoah surely that’s not true is it? Well having watched for a couple of hours I noticed that although Parisian drivers fight tooth and nail with each other for road space they do actually look out for more vunerable road users.
2 Cedez le passage
On turning, drivers often have to give way to pedestrians without, shock horror, a red light to tell them when exactly to stop. These pedestrian should themselves be crossing on a green man which I noticed appeared with a more generous frequency than a Brit might expect.
3 Big vehicles
Due to a very effective metro and rail service into the heart of the city there appear to be less buses running over-ground. There were very few lorries though there could be weekend restrictions that prevent the usual heavy flow.
4 Scooter culture
As well as scooters charging their way confidently through multi-lane boulevards, scooters, motorbikes and pedal bikes are tolerated in pedestrian areas and on pavements. Nobody even tuts, and although the 2 wheelers moved about too quickly for my liking when mixed with peds, I never saw any incidents and guess that their behaviour is not actually ‘interdit’.
5 One way streets
Although the Rue du Rivoli I walked along towards the Louvre was 5 lanes wide they were all going in the same direction. Imagine how much safer Deansgate would be for us if we had 3 or 4 lanes going in the same direction (ooh but with a cycle contra flow lane too!)
All in all the French laissez faire attitude to driving is the winner here. In Britain we are obsessed with the rules that cannot ever be enforced, unnecessary street furniture, helmets and the potential danger of cyclists mingling with peds. We know the French tend not to follow ‘the rules’ anyway so at least they have the sense not to try to apply and enforce pedantic traffic regulations, and on the flip side (and this is what I really yearn for) all road users apply a bit of ‘common sense’ (remember that phenomena?) to enable them to live together in harmony.
I was eager to give cycling in Paris a try ……..