Monday, 22 September 2008

Vélo = Liberté

Paris' public transport system, despite its frequent strikes and curious but easily identifiable odours, works. The Métro is frequent, stops near everything and costs half the price of London's. The buses, while rarer, run for miles and always have enough space. Late-night taxis are impossible, but that's because the system is so well-regulated that it has practically eliminated the illegal minicab element. Overground services are also well-run, timely and cheap by British standards. Best of all are the Vélibs. The name comes from a compression of vélo (bike) and liberté (freedom; the first bastion of French culture, from Liberté, égalité, fraternité) and is so simple that it's hard to understand why it's not been thought of or adopted more widely. The premise is that locked around town at certain points are thousands of bikes, and all you need do to borrow one is let them check if you have €150 in your bank, and pay a daily charge (the princely sum of one euro, or 60p) and then you're off, free to cycle at leisure wherever you want. The only catch is that you have to return the bike to get back your deposit, but this can be at any other Vélib point in the city. Its marvellous. Coupled with this iniative has been a brilliantly implemented and constantly circulating system of cycle lanes, running the length and breadth of Paris. While the bikes are not particularly pretty, they are practical (think Ford Fiesta, rather than Aston Martin) and well-designed. I borrowed one for an afternoon, and despite Paris' awful reputation for terrible driving, I survived. It all seemed rather bohemian cycling around with a plant tucked into the basket...and from a roadside vantage, people-watching was much more fun. Paris by bicycle is a definite must-do when in the city.

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