Cyclists have turned Paris into hell on earth

Cyclists ride along the flooded promenade on the bank of the Seine river close to the Eiffel tower
Cyclists ride along the flooded promenade on the bank of the Seine river close to the Eiffel tower

If only Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, spoke better English, she could apply for a job with the forthcoming Trump administration: the city she describes belongs to an alternate reality, entirely re-engineered with alternative facts.

Earlier this month, the mayor announced proudly, Paris had been named the best cycling city in France – the  first step towards her avowed aim of becoming the best cycling city in the world. (Hidalgo is both addicted to unearned kudos, and to staying in power thanks to a singularly toxic red-green coalition obsessed with de-growth.) You’d have to be the most despicable of naysayers (to use the Duchess of Sussex’s favourite epithet) to quibble that the ranking was in fact established by a bicycle shopping website, buycycle.com, hoping to develop its business in France.

What is true, however, is that the Paris policy of driving cars out of the city has produced, besides some 2,000 km of performative bicycle lanes costed at €120,000 a kilometre – many potholed and bordered by concrete railings, some zigzagging terrifyingly between buses and ordinary traffic, others replacing entire boulevards and avenues – traffic congestion, pollution, a great deal of frustration, as well as what may be the nastiest cycling culture this side of Hô Chi Minh-Ville.

The city may not have delivered a fit-for-purpose cycling plan, but it has given rise to a sense of smug entitlement among Parisian cyclists, or “vélotaffeurs”, as they call themselves. Convinced that they are worthier than anyone else, they run red lights, cycle against traffic up one way streets (all too often on electric bikes), scream at motorists and kick their cars, shout at pedestrians and jostle them, screech at lorries and risk being run over, and in general make Parisian street life hellish.

And that’s even before pedestrians get entangled in heaps of rental bikes on the pavements (rental scooters are now banned) blocking the way. To compound the crisis, public transport, which is not within the mayor’s ambit (it’s the Greater Paris Region) has been in a serious crisis since Covid, with fewer drivers, the cancellation and shortening of bus routes, and permanently packed metros at longer intervals.

Three years ago, the American writer Liz Alderman described mounting hysteria in the newly-closed to motorised traffic rue de Rivoli, previously one of Paris’s main East-West thoroughfares: “Cyclists blowing through red lights in two directions. Delivery bike riders fixating on their cellphones. Electric scooters careening across lanes. Jaywalkers and nervous pedestrians scrambling as if in a video game.” If anything, it’s got worse since.

The irony is that the mayor’s newspeak word of choice, whenever she imposes yet another crazy notion on exhausted Parisians – compost stations on Haussmannian pavements; solar-operated organic toilets where men’s urine is meant to fertilise anaemic plants in view of passers-by (nothing is planned for women); rows of rough granite stone benches, aligned coffin-like, around the historic Panthéon monument to block traffic – is “apaiser”, which doesn’t so much mean “appease” as “becalm”. This belongs up there with “We’re not at war with Oceania and never were”.

Such “becalming” has a way of becoming permanent. Que Choisir, the French answer to Which, reported last summer a constant rise in the number of fatalities either caused by or to cyclists: 90 per cent in a decade.

And not only to humans: City Hall’s all-cycling policies have rung the death knell of many Parisian businesses. Thirty have closed on rue de Rivoli alone, as shoppers and families, unable to carry packages or strollers, give up on the area, where neither taxis nor Ubers dare venture. It’s Mad Max out there: survival of the fittest, on their bikes, heady with their empty victory over everyone else.

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