Two Wheels Better than Four in France

Paris officials are making 20,000 bikes available for rent across the city in a bid to reduce the number of cars. It's one of the most ambitious efforts anywhere but critics believe it won't appeal to many potential cyclists.

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And if you want to make a different kind of environmental statement, the first thing you would do is go to Paris. That city is taking a new step in its fight to reduce the number of cars in the city. Paris is going to make 20,000 bikes available for rent for just a few Euros per day.

Anita Elash reports.

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ANITA ELASH: Cyclists are still a minority in Paris, but the city hopes to change that. Starting this summer, it's going to put 20,000 bikes all over town. The free bicycle program will enable people to take a bike from any point in the city and leave it in a convenient spot. Jean-Luc Dumesnil is advising City Hall on the service.

Mr. JEAN-LUC DUMESNIL (Aide to Paris' Mayor): (French Spoken)

ELASH: He says that in the '60s and '70s the city was developed to favor cars and drivers. Now city hall wants to develop an alternative and thought this system would encourage people to try using bikes and then think about buying one for themselves.

The city authorities are putting a thousand automated bike stands all over Paris, on average just 200 yards apart. The bicycles are top of the line, brand new Dutch models with six speeds and a huge basket in front. To borrow one, you leave a deposit with your bank card.

When you're finished, you can park the bike at another stand anywhere in town. The first 30 minutes are free, then it's about $1.25 for each half-hour. Cecil Shartzyey(ph) is president of the cycling lobby group Velo Cansesette(ph).

Ms. CECIL SHARTZYEY (Bicycle Lobbyist): I think we can very enthusiastic about this plan because we know that a huge number of bicycles increases the safety of bicycles. At the same time, we are hoping that this project is not going to be an alibi from the authorities not to do anything else.

ELASH: Shartzyey wants dedicated bicycle lanes. Although the city has increased the number of bicycle paths, many of them are on the sidewalk. So on streets like the Boulevard de Magenta in the crowded 10th arrondissement, that means lots of conflict. Jean Clemyo(ph) is retired and walks on the sidewalk here every day.

Mr. JEAN CLEMYO (Parisian): (Through translator) It's dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. There have already been people knocked down. And cyclists have to keep yelling, look out, I'm coming. The path is marked, but most people don't pay attention. There's a man walking on the path now.

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ELASH: The bike program in Paris is modeled after a similar program that has been very successful in the French city of Leone. Every bike there is rented 10 to 15 times a day, but there's criticism that the Paris plan won't appeal to many potential cyclists.

Critics say the city should offer different sizes of bike and cycles with baby seats and helmets for the kids. And then there is the question of how to convince the chic and debonair residents of Paris that two wheels are better than four. Sareem Katayey(ph) is a lawyer and a cycling advocate. She says what works in the provinces might not work in the capital.

Ms. SAREEM KATAYEY (Parisian): (Through translator) It's true that Parisians are the spoiled children of France. I work at a law office and my colleagues are surprised to hear I ride a bike. They say, ooh la la, it's really dangerous, that must be tiring. It's still not part of our custom. In the end, it's a question is image.

ELASH: The city says it's got that one covered. It's planning an advertising campaign to convince Parisians that cyclists are sexy and stylish.

For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Paris.

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