This is a socially-conscious country. Maybe not as much as many, but more so than others. Without naming any names . . . (we all know who we are).
The most obvious sign is the bikes -- which as I arrived were just being debuted. I doubt it was for my benefit, but still it made for a fine (and as a reporter, inescapable) coincidence. So here goes . . .
Yes, they are bulky; oui, too, they are less than sightly. Grey contrivances they are. Ungainly, aussi; poor relations to the sleek, swift, aero-dynamicly contoured cousins that wend through the Pyrenees, cross country roads, and dash into the cobblestone streets of Paris. Driven by blood-doped riders, hot in pursuit of cash, glory and in the name of commercial sponsors.
The bikes I'm referring to serve another kind of economic purpose: a socio-economic one. And possibly even a moral end: to cut down on traffic, to reduce pollution; perhaps even improve fitness while providing a spot of convenience. Follow?
Well, how it is, is this: last week Paris introduced a docking system for rent-a-bicyclette. 10,000 bikes that can be accomodated by 750 docking stations dispersed across this great, though easily navigable city. The bikes cost a mere one Euro for a day-long access; the costs rise to 5 Euro for one week and then 29 euro for a year. A couple or three years like that and the rider has baseically purchased the machine. The rental practice has been primed by Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe's other complementary transportation policies. For instance, winnowing traffic on major boulevards like St. Michel from three lanes to two, then inserting a granite divider which serves to dedicate the spare lane for buses, taxis and . . . you guessed it . . . bikes. Now, as buses and two-wheelers whiz by stalled cars, drivers cursing their quagmired state might be tempted to contemplate switching to the socially-sensitive mode of transport. For instance: any of the alternatives passing their right shoulder.
We’ll see if people end up opting for that option. It is still not perfectly clear how the system ensures that a renter who has failed to return the bike can be tracked down and compelled to pay. Another problem is maintaining ecological balance. Not the kind involving the bio-sphere, as much as the one pertaining to the equal and just distribution of les bicyclettes around the city. After all, if you ride a bike to a particular docking area and it is full . . . then what? Ride to another drop-off point and walk all the way back to where your appointment or class or date is? Well, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose?
Come to think of it, I did see a trailer-truck carting about two bikes, presumably to help redress the imbalance. However, considering that the trailer was made to accommodate 8 or 9 bikes, shiring a couple to another end of the city sort of ends up adding to, rather than subtracting from the environmental problem.
Well, perhaps we ought to skip matters of logic. We are talking about progressive social policy here. Revolutionary consciousness, where before only the iron law of individuality ruled. Besides, rationality has its limits . . . there is also the aesthetic dimension to consider. For instance, these bikes make for excellent artsy photographs:
And they already seem to be a seamless part of the landscape.
Making them hard even to detect amidst the normal picaresque Parisian panoply.
If you've tried to navigate the street of Paris, then you may even come to believe that this bike gambit may have a fair chance of catching on. Just too many vehicles in too small a space. Of course, there is always the subway. Although there is less of the glorious scenery to sample, it is still a mode I prefer.
I know the metro is hot and smells of burned rubber. I understand that people can be abrupt and loud (a couple of drunk rappers serenaded the car I was in for about 13 minutes during my ride from Raspail to Cambronne late one night. And, whether the fifteen of us captive riders wished to have the honor conferred on us or not, for those six stops rap music was what we were treated to!). An impromptu concert I wouldn't have had the chance to enjoy on my rent-a-bike. Instead, thus be-biked, I would very quickly have peddled out of earshot. And ridden away from another life-enhancing experience.
Of course, above ground, there would have been other pleasures. A view from the Pont Royal, a boat tethered at the Quai d'Orsay, the mangled tree branch which has managed to insinuate its tentacles into the ironworks of the legislature, young men playing roller hockey . . .
Even a view of the metro from above!
So many precious scenes I might have missed had I remained below-ground.
So . . . yeah . . . come to think of it, this bike thing might have something to recommend it. Maybe next time. I'll keep the eco-cycle in mind for the next time I pass through Paris. So that I really take a full pass at Paris.