As Bikers Throng the Streets, ‘It’s Like Paris Is in Anarchy’

An ecologically minded experiment to make Paris a cycling capital of Europe has led to a million people now pedaling daily

On a recent afternoon, the Rue de Rivoli looked like this: Cyclists blowing through red lights in two directions. Delivery bike riders fixating on their cellphones. Electric scooters careening across lanes. Jaywalkers and nervous pedestrians scrambling as if in a video game.

Sarah Famery, a 20-year resident of the Marais neighborhood, braced for the tumult. She looked left, then right, then left and right again before venturing into a crosswalk, only to break into a rant-laden sprint as two cyclists came within inches of grazing her.

“It’s chaos!” exclaimed Ms. Famery, shaking a fist at the swarm of bikes that have displaced cars on the Rue de Rivoli ever since it was remade into a multilane highway for cyclists last year. “Politicians want to make Paris a cycling city, but no one is following any rules,” she said. “It’s becoming risky just to cross the street!”

Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

The mayhem on Rue de Rivoli — a major traffic artery stretching from the Bastille past the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde — is playing out on streets across Paris as the authorities pursue an ambitious goal of making the city a European cycling capital by 2024.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is campaigning for the French presidency, has been burnishing her credentials as an ecologically minded Socialist candidate. She has earned admirers and enemies alike with a bold program to transform greater Paris into the world’s leading environmentally sustainable metropolis, reclaiming vast swaths of the city from cars for parks, pedestrians and a Copenhagen-style cycling revolution.

She has made highways along the Seine car-free and last year, during coronavirus lockdowns, oversaw the creation of over 100 miles of new bike paths. She plans to limit cars in 2022 in the heart of the city, along half of the Right Bank and through the Boulevard Saint Germain.

Parisians have heeded the call: A million people in a metropolis of 10 million are now pedaling daily. And Paris now ranks among the world’s top 10 cycling cities,

But with success has come major growing pains.

“It’s like Paris is in anarchy,” said Jean-Conrad LeMaitre, a former banker who was out for a stroll recently along the Rue de Rivoli. “We need to reduce pollution and improve the environment,” he said. “But everyone is just doing as they please. There are no police, no fines, no training and no respect.”

At City Hall, the people in charge of the transformation acknowledged the need for solutions to the flaring tensions, and to the accidents and even deaths that have resulted from the free-for-all on the streets. Anger over reckless electric scooter use in particular boiled over after a 31-year-old woman was killed this summer in a hit-and-run along the Seine.

“We are in the midst of a new era where bikes and pedestrians are at the heart of a policy to fight climate change,” said David Belliard, Paris’s deputy mayor for transportation and the point person overseeing the metamorphosis. “But it’s only recently that people started using bikes en masse, and it will take time to adapt.”

Mr. Belliard hopes Parisians can be coaxed into complying with laws, in part by adding more police to hand out 135 euro fines ($158) to unruly cyclists and by teaching school children about bike safety. Electric scooters have been restricted to a speed of 10 kilometers an hour (just over 6 m.p.h.) in crowded areas, and could be banned by the end of 2022 if dangerous use doesn’t stop.

The city also plans talks with delivery companies like Uber Eats, whose couriers are paid per delivery and are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to breaking traffic rules. “Their economic model is part of the problem,” Mr. Belliard said.

Probably the biggest challenge, though, is that Paris doesn’t yet have an ingrained cycling culture.

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