Move Over, iPhone, the French iBike is the New Black

“I’ve got a bike, You can ride it if you like, It’s got a basket, A bell that rings” – Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk had a vision of Paris. But did they know about it? Probably not.

Just as every season fashionistas strut down to Harvey Nicks to discover the new black, so pop culture aficionados scour the scene to discover the new rock ’n’ roll. One year it was stand-up comedy; another it was poetry. This time around another cultural institution has found itself pushed to the fore, dragged into the limelight of trend-setting.

There’s no doubting Paris’ credentials as one of the world’s capitals of culture and style. From handbags to glad rags, from nouvelle cuisine to Nouvelle Vague, the French touch brings a sense of panache to our daily lives – when the City of Light sneezes, the world catches a Gallic shrug. Nonchalance the true sign of class. For anyone keeping abreast of international news it should come as no surprise then, that this season’s new rock ’n’ roll is public transport. Or to put it into context: les transports en commun sont la nouvelle chanson française.

The foundations of this new development were laid before summer. Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, celebrates the rallying of the French people against a corrupt and unscrupulous monarchy. The subsequent period of revolution proved to be a difficult labour, but the resultant birth was that of the modern French state. This year, as if to mark its 218th anniversary, the city of Paris launched its most audacious campaign to date. As Parisians awoke on the morning of 15th July with their retinas still questioning the worth of the previous night’s fireworks, they folded back their volets to discover a brand new dawn.

For some weeks previously, strange docking stations had been appearing across the city resembling rows of futuristic chrome-designed bonsai. Finally their purpose was revealed. Thousands of bicycles now populated the city, offering themselves to the inhabitants like willing beasts of burden, only with a handy basket welded to the front. And so Vélib’, the public bicycle hire scheme, came to Paris.

Vélib’ chic photo from

Vélib’ is a shortening of vélo en libre-service, self-service bike, and is a system that had already been up and pedalling in the French towns of Rennes and Lyon before it made its way to the capital. You may be wondering what’s so new about this; we have, after all, been able to hire bikes for decades. The main difference here is the scale and, therefore, its relative low cost. With a bicycle rank every 500 yards and over 10,000 bikes available, subscription rates go from 1 euro (about $1.50) for a day to 29 euro for the year. The first 30 minutes of your journey are free, but every subsequent half hour carries a charge. But do not fear, to make life really easy you can pay by credit card at the bicycle rank itself. And behold the bicycle thus becomes a linchpin of Paris’s public transport network.

As in all major cities of the world, the obvious plan seems to be to reduce the number of cars on the road. No doubt a sign of the times – from the creation of new parks to the widening of the city’s bus routes — Paris’s Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, has a very green vision for the capital. The launch of Vélib’, coupled with the proliferation of bicycle lanes, has definitely changed the face of Paris. It is difficult to say if there are fewer cars on the road, but as any motorist will tell you, there are definitely more amateur cyclists. Except that they’re not only on the roads but on the pavements as well, interlopers in the world of pedestrians.

This is not just the fault of the anarchic rider who, once they have saddled up, believes that their bicycle comes with its own protective force field that will deflect all motorised vehicles as they cycle the wrong way down a one-way street, or, indeed, those who are fully aware of the limited protection the open air offers and therefore prefer the slightly more calculated risk of running into a pedestrian. Just like a life-size version of Atari’s Paperboy arcade game.

No, the fault also lies on the drawing boards of those town planners who believe that anyone not travelling encased in a metal sheath can be clumped together with people who travel on foot. As in some double dialectical homage to the minimalist aesthetic of Kraftwerk, the Paris bicycle lanes are often simple manifestations within widened pavements — sometimes with only a painted line to help you imagine their materialisation. Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, the founder members of Kraftwerk, are keen cyclists. Has the country of Le Tour de France finally become the vision of their 2003 soundtrack?

Shortly after the 1983 release of the Le Tour de France 12-inch of the same name Ralf Hutter had an almost fatal bike accident. The irony goes beyond that of the simple living by the sword / dying by the sword coincidence, because every attempt to cross the road in Paris – already a foolhardy venture – comes with the added fear of having to cross the bicycle lane. Imbued with the notion that they have been blessed with a great task, any solidarity the pedalling enthusiast may have had with the Brethren of the Shank’s Pony disappears with the realisation that they have been ordained by the Mayor of Paris himself to save the planet. The pedestrian stands no chance against the contagion of self-propelled wheeled apparatus: the eco-cyclists, micro-scooters, roller-bladers, and Segways (there’s always one show off exec).

Beyond the global shift towards all things environmentally friendly, however, there is one cultural change that seems to have gone by unnoticed. This is no minor adjustment and its implications are massive. By January, the number of Vélib’ bicycles in Paris will have doubled. Each bike weighs about 22 kilos, comes with an adjustable saddle, a basket, gears, a light and the all essential go-faster reflector strips.

But all these accoutrements aside, no one seems to have questioned the fact that all of these bicycles are women’s bikes. The website claims these bicycles were adapted to fit both male and female users. Yes, but how long did it take for someone to pipe up, “Let’s just go with the women’s model”? There was a time not so long ago when young lads could only get away without having that awkward middle bar, or ‘top tube’, by riding around on a Grifter. And even then, Grifters still had a middle bar, it was just a bit more laid back, thus providing room for a gear stick. After all it was the Harley Davidson of push bikes.

Of course, it is completely logical to choose the woman’s model, it is the most universal design and doesn’t discriminate against trouser, dress, skirt and the growing contingent of sarong wearers (okay, you can forget the last category). But unbeknownst to itself, the Vélib’ has become a great leveller. How can you be macho when there’s no need for athletic leg movements to mount the bike and when you can put your briefcase in that natty front-mounted basket? (I know I keep coming back to it but it is very practical and Syd Barrett would have loved it.) And trying to shift your weight to the front of the bike in a racing fashion immediately becomes a perilous exercise.

The real question remains: will these bicycles become objects of desire? Will they rival the iPhone on the design front? Is this the iBike? Recent political events on the French stage may have inadvertently helped the Vélib’ become an iconic symbol of freedom.

Autumn has always been highly-coveted by market forces, the advent period a particularly lucrative time of the year. It is also that moment when France returns to work and unions wake up to the summer’s political activities. The aim of last November’s national strikes by transport workers was to bring the country, and especially Paris, to a halt. The capital’s commuter belt is particularly impressive: the highly efficient suburban rail network coupled with the TGV high-speed train mean that you can commute to Paris from quite literally the other end of the country. But that only tells part of the story.

Even if Paris is small as capitals go, once within the city walls you still have to move around. With much of the bus and underground system at a stand still for a whole eight days, people had to find other means of getting into work. If this had been London, the media would have talked about ‘the Blitz mentality’; in France people came up with their own ‘Système D’ or DIY scheme. Driving into work wasn’t the most time-efficient option, no matter how much people car-pooled. The combination of traffic jams and road rage recalling images of Michael Douglas in Falling Down – enough to forewarn any rational being.

This was when Vélib’ truly came of age. Under these conditionsm the bicycles became everyone’s focus of attention: at what time should you get up to ensure you could get your hands on a bike? How early did you need to leave work?

There are a certain number of electronic safeguards in place to make sure that the Vélib’ are not monopolised for long periods of time. When you take a bike the docking station registers your credit card number and will withdraw 150 euros from your account should the bike be vandalised. Take one home with you and the risk is that it will be automatically declared stolen. But buy yourself the cheapest bicycle anti-theft device you can possibly imagine, or simply equip yourself with a piece of rope and a granny knot, and you have yourself the perfect untraceable Vélib’ reservation system. Système D, indeed.

A Vélib’/Pielib’ hybrid? Photo from Down Hill Nirvana

Nicolas Sarkozy may have promised to introduce a minimum service quota for public transport during strikes but with Vélib’+lock, you have your own public-transport-minimum-service vehicle all to yourself. This proved to be a real problem for users during the strikes but gave the Vélib’ a credibility well beyond its initial status.

This left many Parisians where they had started: no public or private transport. With the strikes costing something in the region of 150 million euro a day in Paris alone, there remained one solution for the working population, the greenest means of transport par excellence: Pielib’, or self-service feet.

It is well-known that whilst most urban dwellers can just about make it as far as the corner shop without mechanical help, they are, for all intents and purposes, unable to walk for any great length of time. Living more than ten minutes away from a métro stop makes you a social pariah and immediately devalues your property.

Thankfully, along came Sebastien Brochot, actor and creator of Pielib’, to remind us that Paris can and deserves to be travelled by foot. Hijacking empty Vélib’ docking stations by attaching different kinds of footwear to them, Pielib’ offers solutions to those who leave home wearing inappropriate shoes. Imagine arriving at your office in an elegant pair of spats only to realise that it’s dress down Friday. All you need do is head down to your nearest Pielib’ rank to hire a pair of flip flops. Or worse still, imagine that you head out in a pair of highly polished red patent shoes and then it hits you: the ’80s were a mistake. And let us not forget, Piélib’ also plays an important sociological role by dampening the embarrassment of those who never learnt to ride a bike.

Much like Vélib’, however, there are certain restrictions: keep the hire shoes for more than the allocated 30 minutes and Pielib’ goons may turn up out of nowhere and leave you barefoot in the gutter. Tourists beware.

Vélib may seem like one of those quaint European ideas. How eccentric do you have to be to see bicycles as the future of public transport? As eccentric as the inhabitants of Chicago perhaps? The third biggest town of the United States looks set to follow in Paris’s footsteps – its mayor, Richard M. Daley, signed a cooperation deal with Delanoë last September, the aim of which is to improve public transport policies. The environment has become an electoral sure thing when it comes to local governance if the opinion polls are to be believed. Delanoë and Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, are banking on green policies to win next year’s elections. Public transport definitely is the new black.

The real winner in all this, however, is not our planet or our health, but the French billboard company J.C. Decaux. Not only do they “showcase the world” with their advertising panels but they pretty much dominate the “street furniture” market in France. And they hold the Vélib’ contract. And they already own the bus shelters of the Windy City.