This article is part of an FT Globetrotter guide to Paris and a new cycling series rolling out this summer
I spent my first 18 years in Paris going everywhere by Métro. My 12-minute commute to my office on the bike I bought for €200 has become a pleasure. On my route, along the new protected cycle paths of the Boulevard Voltaire, bikes often outnumber cars. I have been rediscovering Paris, stumbling upon countless new beauty spots and realising how small a town it is. I can cross the centre from Bastille to the Champs-Elysées in 20 minutes, overtaking cars stuck in traffic jams.
Paris was made to be a cycling city long before it became one. Inside the Périphérique ring road, it is compact (about 10km east to west), densely populated, vulnerable to pollution, fairly flat (except Montmartre and Belleville) and was built for approximately bike-sized horses. Yet the authorities spent the second half of last century trying to cram in cars and trucks. Many Parisians were raised on the belief that cycling was for holidays or the Tour de France, and impractical in cold weather — even though they do walk in winter, notes Stein van Oosteren, a Dutch immigrant and author of a French pro-bike manifesto.
The change began suddenly, in December 2019, with a six-week transport strike, the longest disruption to metro and buses in 33 years. That winter, I was just one of many Parisians to buy a bike. Almost immediately afterwards came the pandemic: lockdowns interspersed with cautious reopenings. How could people move around the city in a socially distanced way without clogging it up with cars? Anne Hidalgo, the city’s mayor, largely abandoned the usual endless consultation processes and simply laid down about 50km of “coronapistes”, provisional bike lanes often separated from vehicles by ugly yellow cones. After getting re-elected in June 2020 on a pro-cycling platform, she declared them permanent and began adding more. She promises to prettify them. Cyclists share these lanes (generally amicably) with scooters (the kind that children ride); motorbikes, thankfully, are away from us, in with the cars.
New bike paths have just kept popping up. French bike sales jumped 117 per cent during May-June 2020. By last September, the number of bike journeys in Paris had jumped 66 per cent in a year, even with many people still waiting for the bikes they had ordered amid the global Covid-era shortage.
Cycling has also spiked in Paris’s historically car-bound suburbs, which gained nearly 120km of coronapistes of their own in about six months, says van Oosteren. Crossing-places from the suburbs into Paris continue to proliferate. That changes the nature of the metropolitan region. The original sin of postwar Paris was the construction of the moat-like Périphérique, which cut off the city from the suburbs. When you cross the frontier — more and more bits of the Périph are now covered — it can still feel a little like traversing the Iron Curtain from West to East Berlin.
To erase the divide, France is pouring an estimated €42bn into the Grand Paris Express, a project to build 68 new Métro stations in the suburbs. The GPE will start opening in 2024. Bike paths could achieve many of its objectives almost instantly, at a fraction of the cost. It might even be cheaper to give every commuter an electric bike than to build all the new lines. The new generation of e-bikes, which start at about €750 and can easily do 20km an hour, will allow many suburbanites to get to work faster than by train.
It all sounds glorious. The daily reality of cycling here sometimes actually is glorious. But the social-media videos of happy Parisians rolling along the car-free Rue de Rivoli or the banks of the Seine are misleading, like Soviet paintings of peasants enjoying a banquet in nature. These places do exist, but they are precious exceptions.
In most of Paris, even with protected bike lanes, cyclists confront cars at every intersection. This also means confronting certain ancient local-motorist traditions:
Delivery trucks tend to treat cycle paths as loading bays. The city — much as it talks a good game about cycling — hardly ever fines them.
This anti-system more or less works: almost all road users break the rules, anticipating that the others will do so too. You might see a bus, a bike and a pedestrian on a zebra crossing simultaneously, going in different directions, some of them against the lights. Cyclists will often sail through red into hordes of crossing pedestrians while checking their phones. Connoisseurs of Parisian shouting matches will savour the increasing number of showdowns.
In 2020, the number of injuries and deaths in bike accidents in Paris increased by 36 per cent to 919, including eight cyclists killed. But that’s still only a little over half the percentage increase in cycling, meaning that the activity has become safer. You even see a few cycling children nowadays, though I still don’t dare let mine ride on the road.
Motorists grumble about upstart cyclists. But with Hidalgo in power until 2026, and the city’s other main parties backing the bike, cars have lost the battle for Paris. The mayor has promised to make every street in the city bikeable by 2024, to reduce parking spaces for cars and to create more for bikes. One scenario foreseen by some urbanists is an eventual ban on private-car ownership in the city.
Cycling has brightened Paris. Even if things are opening up (for now, at least), the thought of returning to the Métro feels ghastly: being jostled by strangers, listening to their videos, inhaling their germs and spending dead time underground without natural light at somebody else’s pace. Here are my favourite bike routes through Europe’s prettiest capital — and some local cycling tips.
In May 2020, after Paris emerged from confinement, the road was closed to cars and trucks, and thrown open to bikes. By mid-June, 14,000 bicycles a day were passing the Hôtel de Ville, the town hall — about a sevenfold rise since autumn 2019. In September, Hidalgo declared the road’s cycling infrastructure permanent. Oddly, the Rue de Rivoli currently has not one but two two-way bike paths, besides a lane for buses and taxis. It’s probably the most relaxing cycling route in town. There’s so much space that I’ve seen motorised wheelchairs whizzing along among the bikes. Hidalgo pledges to find even more space.
It’s rapidly becoming almost a cycle-themed street, with a free public bike pump on Place Baudoyer, an electric sign outside the Hôtel de Ville showing how many cyclists have passed that day, the Je Suis à Vélo shop at 41 Rue de Rivoli for hip urban cycling clothes and the new Brompton Junction cycle store at No 85.
Paris’s main business district is west of the city, at La Défense, so the biggest flow of bikes is east-west in the mornings and the other way at night. They pass some of Paris’s main landmarks, both great and terrible: the Louvre, the Tuileries gardens, Le Meurice hotel (headquarters of the German commander of “Gross-Paris” during the second world war) and finally Place de la Concorde, where heads rolled after the Revolution. Just before Concorde, stop for refreshment at the specialist madeleine café Mado à Paris.
Start on the south side of the Pont de l’Archevêché. Cycle west along the Left Bank of the Seine on a bike lane protected from cars, breathing in the glories of Notre-Dame, Shakespeare & Co bookshop, the Pont des Arts, the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Musée d’Orsay, the Assemblée Nationale and the Musée du Quai Branly (for non-western art), after which you can turn left and then immediately right into Rue de l’Université to find yourself in a gorgeous little park almost underneath the Eiffel Tower — not bad for a 20-minute ride. On the way back, if it’s sunny, continue three minutes past Notre-Dame to cap it all with an ice cream at Berthillon on the Ile Saint Louis.
This route also takes you along the river, but on the north side, the Right Bank, on a path barred to cars and handed to bikes and pedestrians by Hidalgo. I sometimes take my cycling-mad son here on weekends, as a compensation for banning him from riding the streets of the city. This route is safe: you weave slowly among the flâneurs, while admiring the city above. The path is lined by outdoor cafés, and many people also come here with a bottle and friends — a development with which the city’s garbage collection hasn’t entirely caught up.
My son and I cycle on westwards through a tunnel to Concorde, then through another to the Champs-Elysées. We return along the Rue de Rivoli, which runs parallel to the Berges de Seine. In my fantasy version of his old age, he never forgets our bike rides. For those who prefer, there is also a parallel route beside the river on the Left Bank.
This is an ideal country outing. Paris’s oldest extant cycle route was conceived in 1974, the utopian dream of a residents’ group who had begun fighting a plan by President Georges Pompidou to build a highway on this route. Five years later, in a still almost bike-free Paris, the authorities unveiled a 1km cycle path after binning the highway idea. Today the Coulée Verte (roughly “green river”) runs 14km from Paris through the southern suburbs to Massy.
Starting in south-west Paris, you pass under a modest Neoclassical archway on to Rue Vercingétorix near Montparnasse, and within minutes find yourself in an almost pastoral landscape, the noise of the city gone. Most of the route passes through pretty parkland, and alongside the giant Parc de Sceaux. Along the way you can admire the good life in suburbs such as Malakoff, Fontenay-aux-Roses and Antony. On weekdays, the Coulée has become a busy commuter route. On nice weekends, bikes share the somewhat narrow paths with joggers and pedestrians.
The Paris-Massy stretch took me just over an hour, with a couple of strenuous slopes. I was nearly killed only once, when returning to the city on a slightly different route and encountering a car determined to turn on to the Périphérique coûte que coûte. The whole Coulée Verte itself is shielded from cars, but its extension relies on separation through some provisional yellow cones, a few of which have visibly withstood a vehicle ramming.
Another easy escape from Paris. A good starting-point is the McDonald’s at the corner of the Rue du Faubourg du Temple and the Quai de Jemmapes. Cycle north up the quay, along the Canal Saint-Martin, once an industrial trade route but now lined with coffee joints.
After the Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad, the Canal Saint-Martin turns into the Bassin de la Villette and then the Canal de l’Ourcq. Fifteen minutes after leaving McDo, you’ll be cruising through the Parc de la Villette with its Cité de la Musique and science museum, and hordes of sunbathers in the grass on nice days. For a while you’ll find the path full of pedestrians — I’ve seen ambitious racing bikers get very frustrated. Here, unusually, you’ll barely notice crossing the frontier from Paris into the suburbs: suddenly you’re cycling along the canal over the cobbles of Pantin, a sort of hipster docklands. You can stop for a drink at the Dock B café.
Keep heading north along the canal. From here on, the cars on the adjoining road are just a distant rumour. The flatlands are bucolic, albeit often windy. It took me less than 40 minutes from central Paris to the poorer suburbs of Bobigny and Noisy-le-Sec — whose inhabitants now have an efficient and life-affirming alternative to commuter trains or traffic jams. Here’s a vision of a better Paris.
Maps by Liz Faunce
What are your favourite Parisian bike routes? Tell us in the comments
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