How to: Biking in France

This article is part of a two-post series on Vélib bike sharing and biking in France. This post in particular is specific to biking in France. If you want to learn about the Vélib bike sharing program in Paris, then check out the other post here.

Growing up in Canada, biking was a hobby. It was something you did with family on a sunny afternoon, or as a way to stay in shape and keep active. Biking was not seen as a true mode of transportation. Canada is quite big. We have cars for that sort of thing.

France on the other hand, is not so big. Paris in particular is actually quite space-efficient. Prices for a closet of an apartment are right up there with Manhattan or London. Big cars require big parking lots and big space is just not what Paris can offer. The alternative then (aside from taking the often dirty and smelly subway) is to bike.

Biking in Paris, like in other major European cities, is wildly popular. I didn’t want to spend my travelling stuck underground sitting beside people I’d rather not sit next too and looking out windows that had no views. Plus, in the winter, the subway stations become taken over by many citizens as a “homeless shelter” and a way to stay out of the cold. With this in mind, I decided to master the art of biking in the city of Paris.

Bike lanes in Paris

There are many designated bike lanes in Paris and other major cities in France. They are marked on the road by a symbol of a person on a bike. Sometimes the symbol is white, green, or white on a green background. Every bus or taxi lane that I have encountered had also been a bike lane. Separated bike lanes on the road usually have a median between them and the rest of the traffic. Be careful of any cars crossing into these lanes to make a turn at the next intersection. Other road bike lanes are simply two foot wide additions to the road, with no median separating the regular traffic.

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Sidewalk bike lanes are often added to Paris’ exceptionally wide boardwalks. They are usually marked as a two foot wide strip running in the middle of the boardwalk with lines denoting where the lane is. Do make sure there aren’t any oblivious people walking along the bike lanes. This happens all the time and many people, particularly tourists, have no idea that they are actually in a bike lane, and not on a sidewalk.

At stop lights

When the light is red, while on your bike you can use your discretion. I continue biking right through if I am at a T-intersection, where I am going straight and not crossing any traffic. Of course, be careful to make sure there aren’t any cars doing anything stupid. There may be little triangular signs under the stop light that have a bike symbol on them. They tell you which directions are safe to travel on a red light, provided that you yield (usually at T-sections or one way streets).

You may also encounter stop lights specific for bikes. These are common on one way streets where the bike lanes go against traffic (which is extremely common). These bike-specific stop lights will have bike symbols on the lights instead of the usual circle lights. You can see an example of both a triangular sign and a bike-specific stop light below.

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This street light in particular is located at an intersection where two one way streets cross. The street I am on is a one way street going the other way, hence the bike-specific stop light – only bikes would be travelling the other way. You can also see from the no entry signs in the photo above that the street intersecting is a one way street from right to left, hence the triangle symbol. No traffic can come from the left hand side to the right, therefore bikes making right hand turns on a red are safe – theoretically.

Also, at a red light, take a tip from the scooters and motorcycles – if you can, and you know the light will not change in the next few seconds, head between the cars to the front of the line. This makes it certain that all cars stopped will see you and not hit you.

Hand signals

These are extremely important for the cars following behind you. It is a serious crime in France to hit someone on a bike, including opening a door on a cyclist while pulled over or parked. Therefore motorists need to know what you are doing.

Left turn: put your left arm straight out horizontally. I also point with my index and middle fingers just to make my intentions super clear.

Right turn: There are two options for this. If you are right-handed and too concerned to take your right hand off your bike, you can use your left arm. Make the left turn signal, then bend your elbow so that your hand is pointing up to the sky. If you are okay removing your right hand from your bike, just do the same for a left turn, but with your right hand – arm straight out and pointing to the right.

Stop: Make the left hand symbol, then point your elbow down so that your hand is pointing towards the ground. Instead of pointing my fingers, here I keep my hand in a “stop” sign just to further emphasize my intentions. In my experience, this is the hand signal that not every motorist understands. Therefore, if you can, just slow down really gradually and they will get the hint.

Last minute tips

  1. Biking in Paris is really simple once you get the hang of it. Just be smart the first few times you try it, and only bike when it is sunny, dry and on low traffic streets until you get the hang of it.
  2. Roundabouts still freak me out, so if it’s a big one with lots of traffic, I usually to hop off the bike and walk it alongside the pedestrians.
  3. You must walk your bike, not ride it, inside most of the city’s parks, including big ones like Luxembourg Gardens.
  4. If you aren’t sure what to do at times, you can always look around for another person on a bike for cues at intersections, etc.
  5. Do not let the cars bully you. Drivers in Paris are really aggressive, but remember that you always have the right of way over them. One way streets are the worst place for bully drivers because the bike lane goes against the regular traffic. You will find that if you let them, the cars will push you right off the road. Obviously, don’t get hit by a car, but I have found that I get much more respect on the road (and much more room to bike) if I am more aggressive myself and don’t let the cars bully me around.
  6. Bells – use them. Simply put, people can be pretty stupid. Again this is usually regarding the one way streets, where pedestrians will just willy-nilly run step onto the road after only looking one way, assuming that because it is a one way street, no one will be coming the other direction. I have had many occasions where I had to come to a sudden stop and yell out “Qu’est-ce que tu pense que tu fait?!” at many startled pedestrians, locals and tourists alike, in order to prevent hitting someone. (By the way, that phrase literally means “What do you think you’re doing?” but has an air of “Watch out, you idiot!”.)
  7. Be careful about heavy traffic, if only just for the sake of breathing in so much exhaust. The worst times are obviously the daily rush hours. Before I got used to biking so much, I did get laryngitis once due to the car exhaust irritating my pollution-sensitive, country-raised, not-big-city-acclimatized throat. Now I am sure to take less congested roads, which are safer and more interesting anyways.

Biking is a beautiful way to see Paris, and I do recommend it if you are up for the challenge. 🙂

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