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Paris: from tyranny of taxis to city of bikes

A man rides his bicycle past a row of Velib bicycles in Paris, Saturday July 14, 2007.

Michel Spingler/AP

Three years after launching a widely copied bike rental scheme, Paris is stepping up efforts to turn itself into a bicycle-friendly capital on a par with cycling havens like Amsterdam and Berlin.

Hundreds of kilometres of new bike lanes are being rolled out on the streets of the City of Light, cyclists are winning new road rights and the public bicycle service launched by Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe in 2007 is expanding to encourage more Parisians to ditch their cars and pedal.

The aim is to double the number of bikes on the capital's boulevards within a decade.

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"We've entered a new era," said Cecile Chartier, a member of the cycling association Velo 15et7.

"Five years ago people were scandalised when bike lanes were introduced, as if they were nuclear power plants. They said they would never be used. Now they are accepted without question."

With the exception of the Tour de France, which ends each year with a symbolic roll down the Champs Elysees, bicycles used to be a rare sight on Paris streets.

Cyclists had few rights and pedalling through the capital was a high-risk adventure of hair-raising near-misses with the city's notoriously bad-tempered taxi drivers.

That began to change in late 1995 when crippling public transport strikes gripped Paris, forcing many of its inhabitants onto bikes.

Six years later Mr. Delanoe took power and began a campaign to reduce traffic and pollution in the city centre. He rolled out some of the first bike lanes and closed streets to car traffic at weekends as part of his "Paris Respire" - or "Paris Breathe" - campaign.

But the big shift came three years ago with the introduction of Velib', a self-service system that allows Parisians and tourists alike to jump on a bike parked in one of hundreds of docking stations around the capital and deposit it at another station across town.

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Velib' users can subscribe for a day, week or full year, with an annual membership costing just 29 euros. The first half hour of each journey is free of charge, with charges rising progressively after that.

"From the first day I ditched my own bicycle for the Velib'. I have a subscription and I love it," said Kate Dupont, a woman in her 30s who uses the service every day to travel between her apartment near Bastille and work adjacent to the Louvre museum.

London, Brussels follow suit

Launched in July 2007, the service has not been without its problems. The city was forced, at taxpayer expense, to replace its entire original fleet of 20,000 bikes within two years because so many were stolen or vandalised.

But by most measures Velib', set up and run by advertising giant JC Decaux in return for extra ad space on Paris streets, has been a resounding success.

Some 162,000 Parisians have signed up to long-term subscriptions and 80 million Velib' rides were registered in the first three years of the service. A new application for the Apple iPhone allows Velib' users to view how many bikes are parked at each of the 1,800 stations around the capital.

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Last month London unveiled a bike scheme modelled on the Paris system. Brussels introduced a new bike service, dubbed Villo!, last year.

Under new plans approved by the city council in June, Paris will increase the size of its bike path network to 700 km by 2014 from 440 km currently.

Cyclists have been given the right to ride in both directions on certain one-way streets and turn right at red lights.

The city has pledged to create 1,000 new bike parking stands per year and is setting up a "maison du velo" in the Bastille district that will provide rental, repair and other services to cyclists.

The plans are so extensive that some fear bicyclists could end up replacing taxis as the terror of Paris streets.

"Bike riders used to be polite and respectful," said Chartier. "Now we are seeing that many can be just as nasty as others who use the streets."

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