Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mass Bike Rides in Paris – Vive la différence

We were talking bikes a bit back with Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives in New York City (“Our mission is to reclaim New York City's streets from the automobile, and to advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit as the best transportation alternatives”) about a problem they face when an open conflict flares up occasionally between the organizers of the Critical Mass bike rides (who want to do it freely, i.e., when and where they want, i.e., their way) and the city authorities and the police (Oops!). Paul was asking,” Is there another way?”

Americans often think of the French as being individualists, hot tempered and unruly. Hey, that can happen, but at a time when you in New York are simmering in June, not only from the your local warming but also and far more permanently, consider the story of the mega bike rides in Paris. A bit of a cautionary tale.

If you come to Paris . . .

If you come to Paris with your bike or skates, you will be able to join a mass ride once or twice a week and make a grand swing of the city lasting a couple of hours, and all that in safety and harmony with the city, the police and the public (other than some drivers who can get a bit excited if they have the chance, but we have them under control). You will not be stopped, you will not be warned, you will not be arrested, and you will not be struck or manhandled. But if you are from New York City you may be a bit disoriented and surprised by the way it works here, police and all.

The Paris Friday Night Skate organized by is the big event, with up to fifty thousand on line skaters joining the ride, but this note will look at its little brother the mass bicycle rides in this beautiful city. They have a lot in common.

While there is also several weekly bicycle mass rides, the main one is a regular Friday night ride organized by a public group "Paris Rando Vélo". The ride starts at City Hall at 10:00 pm and takes about two and a half hours to cover 20-25 km. An average of 500, 600 cyclists participate in the summer, half that number in the winter months.

How it all started

The bike mass first took shape in 2000 after a major transport strike which had the effect of bringing a lot more cyclists onto the streets. An organizing group – which later formed an “Association” (a main form of organizing and registering community and public interests activities in France) took shape and their first step was to meet with the Prefect of Police to report on their intentions and to ensure that they were in full compliance with the law.

The police said OK, but you have to organize and police yourselves (having run into some problems and manpower requirements with the much bigger Friday night skating mass ride for which after a rough start beginning in 1995, eventually came to be have good police, emergency and city services support. But such support ties up resources so the Prefect insisted that the cyclists would have to do their own policing (We can do the skaters in another letter from Paris for you.)

So the event is entirely self-organized , with the Association providing a couple of dozen staff members as monitors, with a handful leading to way to stop traffic at all intersections and the rest simply keeping an eye on and herding and when needed lending a hand to anyone who may get into a bit of trouble. Paris Rando Vélo also organizes private rides, so if you come to Paris with a bunch of friend and want to do a bike tour of your own, you will find their full coordinate at the end of this short piece.

Both mass events are encouraged by City Hall and the elected officials, who see them as good for Paris and good for Parisians. The police are apparently having a second look about possibly providing further backup, but with or without it the Paris bike mass works.

Cycling in cities: It is, in fact, “One more Convenient Truth”.

Lessons for New York from the Paris experience over these last years? Hard to say what these might be Paul because the basic cultures are so different, but here are a few thoughts that come to mind:

1. Transportation professionalism. If you want to change something in the transport sector, you better be a pro. While French cyclists can be as self-centered and aggressive as anywhere in the world, their success has come through taking off the hard edge and coming in as a responsible community group that can perform -- they have found that it is more effective to organize, prepare, contact and negotiate than to engage in street warfare with the authorities.

2. Iron discipline: Given the complexity, the delicacy of the transportation metabolism of a city – even at 10:00 on Friday nights – there must be absolute discipline for both the route and the timing. Nobody likes surprises, including those who will have to carry the ball if you drop it.

3. Be there or be square: Numbers count and so does regularity. Everyone should be accustomed to you being out there when announced and start to see you and the event as part of the normal city landscape. And of course if you ever find yourselves at odds with the authorities it certainly helps to have fifty thousand voters smiling and riding right behind you. Numbers talk

4. Have your man in City Hall: It really helps to have your man in City Hall (In Paris it’s Denis Baupin, who is vice-mayor, a Green and a cyclist himself. And he is committed). And there is no doubt that a great key is to have the mayor on your side as well (which is the case with Mayor Delanoë here). If your guy is just there for the odd photo op, get rid of him and find yourself someone with real commitment, day after day after day.

5. Be your own good cop: The ability to do the monitoring and self-policing work yourselves is a big plus. Perform with discipline and the authorities come around. They may have to bite their lip, but they will become part of the solution

6. Communicate like a winner: Reaching out to the press and the media, and in the process getting your main message across. That being about winning, not about either fighting, losing or raw deals (even if that is also true for now).

A final thought from this side of the Atlantic has to do with self confidence and steadfast determination. (Am I starting to sound like your grandmother?) Cycling – and mass cycling events, well organized, without a chip on your shoulder and coordinated with the community as a whole – is a part of the process of solution to the pressing problems of transport, the economy and quality of life in all our cities, New York included. Cycling can show the way for the rest.

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More on Paris Rando Vélo

The website for Paris Rando Vélo, the organizers, is here, complete with photos and videos (and of course in French). If you click here you can follow along with a typical Friday night ride . You will not see a great deal of violence.

Here is the plan for next Friday's ride: 21 kilimoeters for a leisurely two hour ride with a water brreak in one of Paris's parks. Coming?

Paris Rando Vélo
09 rue Lavandiere St Opportune
Paris, 75001 France
Christophe Dupasquier, Secretary General
Tel. +336.

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