Cycling away from the bike roads
When we hear people talking about cycling infrastructure, the conversation usually focuses on large cities. For example, FUB (French cycling federation) surveys mainly focus on the problems of urban areas. Larger cities have bigger budgets to create cycle networks. Bike lanes are rapidly multiplying in French cities such as Bordeaux, Paris, Strasbourg or Montpellier. In some tourist regions, dedicated bike lanes facilitate travel and ease traffic. For longer trips, there are bicycle paths that work very well: e.g., the EuroVélo 1 (Atlantic Bike Route), the Alsace Wine Route or the Loire by Bike. These offer safe and well maintained paths. But in France, riding in suburban and rural cycling networks helps to paint a very different picture.
Cycle routes among cities or small towns are almost non-existent. The car remains king. During my trip, I often found myself on roads with speed limits of 80-90 km/h without any shoulder lane and most certainly no bike lane. But even when bike lanes were to be found, they were not properly maintained, which in my case meant that I often had to negotiate dangerous obstacles. These included wet manhole covers, stones, oil stains, potholes, brambles, glass shards and then some. Just as frequently I was forced to veer off the bike path onto the road, taking my chances, riding side-by-side with cars.
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Cars, pedestrians, and cyclists: an impossible coexistence?
As it turns out, not all motorists in France are sensitive to the needs of cyclists and this is particularly true in more rural parts of the country where bike riding as a form of transportation is seen as more exotic. Overtaking my bike a little too fast and a little too close, turning suddenly without warning, sharing the real estate of bike lanes with scooters or dodging cars and delivery trucks parked on them, all of these are part and parcel of a lack of awareness of the presence of cyclists that those who ride in cities have started to take for granted.
I was confronted with all of this during my tour of France, putting me in a dangerous and uncomfortable situation. Of course, it’s not all the fault of motorists; poor city planning also helps to worsen the issue. And then, in areas of uncertain jurisdiction, it is hard to say exactly who is responsible for the poor design of cycling infrastructure. I came across cycle paths that ended abruptly in the middle of nowhere and poor visibility at some intersections.
Cyclists are also not exempt from blame. In places like Paris, where cycling has exploded, non-compliance with traffic rules is a real problem. This relates to how pedestrians and cyclists share paths and walkways. Simple solutions can be put in place to differentiate the bike lane from the pedestrian space, such as coloring the bike lane surface, using physical dividers, installing rumble strips on the bike lane – solutions that I rarely saw during my tour.
I think it would be useful to have more education programs on “how to ride a bike”; and include a module for drivers’ permits on sharing the road with cyclists, however, this is unlikely to happen any time soon outside of the big cities. This does evoke the challenging question of inter-modality in France.. can different forms of modality co-exist?
Stay tuned to find out what our author Antoine Podvin’s experience was in Part 2 on ‘Reflections on how France can become more cycle friendly.’