Lifestyle & Culture

Stephen Heiner in Paris: We have new bike infrastructure; now we need a new mindset

(Editor’s note: This is Pt. 2 of a two-part series on Paris’s transformation into a bike city. In Pt. 1 Stephen looked at how changes in policy under Mayor Anne Hidalgo funded new biking infrastructure including dedicated bike lanes. This post originally appeared on The American In Paris blog. It’s reposted here with the permission of the author.)

Mayor Anne Hidalgo instituted policies designed to make Paris 100-percent cyclable by 2026.

But having the infrastructure in place is only one part of the problem. The second part is getting Parisians to realize they are now living in a bike city and to make the changes in their behavior necessary.

Mindset Shift

In my early years of living in Europe I often said that the Netherlands was the only place in the world in which I was terrified of bikes. The “ding ding” I heard struck fear into my heart as I wondered if I was standing in the wrong place, completely oblivious to my pending death at the hands of some kind person mounted on one of the country’s 23 million bikes who would mutter “wat jammer” before moving my body to the side of the road and making a call to the relevant authorities to take care of my remains.

Often I was standing “in the wrong place” and quickly moved to avoid being mowed down.  Sometimes I wasn’t and it was someone else who was needing to be “dinged.” 

The reason I was “terrified of bikes” in the Netherlands was because I didn’t have the right mindset. 

After my first visit to what the French call the “low country,” I flicked on a mental orange switch every time I came to the country (more than half a dozen times since 2014) that I was in a place where bikes, not cars, ruled.  I even, like a new car driver, ventured into the bike lanes on a borrowed bicycle and realized just how different the bicycling experience was when it was treated as a legitimate source of transportation.

Now that 95 percent of my trips in the city are on a bicycle (which Anne Hidalgo and her team helped pay for) I’m very aware that there are many Parisians who continue to remain as I was on my first trip to the Netherlands and thus have failed to install that mental switch. This leads to near-misses with pedestrians including one time that I braked hard enough to simply gently bump into an instantly apologetic female pedestrian.

The lack of mindset shift is the same for Parisian bicyclists. Many of them, like me, are new and don’t even use the proper hand signals for turning, thinking that a left turn means just putting your left hand out the way you do with your right hand to indicate a right hand turn, or never thinking to signal for an unexpected stop.

This all leads to a sometimes dangerous mix of cars, pedestrians, and cyclists who are getting used to a new way of living with each other which leads to situations like the one well-captured in the tweet below at Bastille.

One of the reasons bicycling is so safe in the Netherlands is that every single car driver is a bicyclist as well. That leads to an awareness that is now normative in the entire country.

While I don’t expect the unbelievable growth in bicycles here in the capital to lead to changes everywhere in France, it’s clear to me that cities that protect bicycles necessarily change the mindsets of the pedestrians and the car drivers.  It only takes one near miss by a careless pedestrian in the bike lane to suddenly render visible to that pedestrian what was previously an “invisible” bike lane.

It’s clear that whatever will happen to her presidential ambitions, Hidalgo’s mayoral legacy is assured, if only for the transformation she has achieved for bicycles in the City of Light, a transformation that she persevered in against the noisy protests of car owners and their lobbyists, who seem to have forgotten that Paris and the rest of the world managed to exist, and exist quite well, thank you very much, without personal cars, for centuries. For her work on this issue, Hidalgo deserves every Parisian’s gratitude.

This change to our bike city will take time. In the meantime I’m enjoying all the benefits that come with riding a bicycle in Paris: a different perspective, speed of transportation (I regularly beat friends who take the Metro and leave at the same time I do for a shared destination), and thanks to the aforementioned Plans Velos, more protected infrastructure.

Ding ding.

About the author:

Singaporean-born American Stephen Heiner lived in Paris from 2013 to 2021 after living in Asia and the United States for most of his life. While he has an undergraduate degree in literature, he also has an MBA, and he’s very much the man who enjoys studying financial statements as much as he enjoys reading essays by G.K. Chesterton or James Howard Kunstler.

He visits his family in the U.S. and Singapore each year, but in the meantime enjoys his dream city, which he finally had a chance to move to after selling a company he built over a number of years. 

You can find him on twitter and instagram @stephenheiner.

You can also follow his immigration journey on www.theamericaninparis.com, where Stephen also offers consulting to those interested in relocating to, and/or making a life in, France.

See more of Stephen’s Dispatches posts here.

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