200518 Paris
File photo: People sit on the Champs de Mars at sunset in front of the Eiffel Tower, in Paris. Image Credit: AFP

I used to consider the people who biked around this city to be members of a fearless warrior tribe. Mostly men, they dressed for battle in helmets, chain locks and reflective gear. The city’s few cycling lanes were shared with swerving buses or sandwiched between rows of pitiless drivers and were known as “les couloirs de la mort” — corridors of death.

I’m risk averse, and I have three kids. For the first 16 years I lived here, I never got on a bike. But something changed recently, and it’s not just because I fear catching the coronavirus on the Metro. In a feat of urban chutzpah, Paris — though not yet a cyclists’ paradise — is becoming a cycling town.

Of course, cities like Brussels and Berlin have been improving too. And Paris is still far behind Europe’s true cycling capitals, like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which have been building their bike infrastructures since the 1970s.

But Paris is notable for the speed of its makeover. When visitors kept away by the pandemic finally come back, they’ll see that cordoned-off bike routes now criss-cross the capital and connect it to nearby suburbs. Rue de Rivoli, the wide street that runs past the Louvre, has been entirely closed to private cars. Parisian drivers now expect to see bikes, and some even try not to hit them.

What happened? How did Paris go from a place where biking felt suicidal to one where even neurotics like me pedal around town?

Much credit goes to Anne Hidalgo, who became the city’s mayor in 2014. Shortly after her election, the city government passed the five-year Plan Velo (Bike Plan) to carve out cycling-only lanes, separated from traffic.

Soon, major boulevards became construction sites for months. Police warned that the project was pas possible. A growing pro-bike lobby complained that the plan was far behind schedule, while car advocates warned of a coming “Tour de France, in Paris, every day.”

And yet it kept advancing. “It’s easy to draw up a plan to put bicycles everywhere,” said Jean-Sebastien Catier, head of the bike association Paris en Selle (Paris in the Saddle). “But it doesn’t get done unless the political power says, ‘Yes, OK, I understand, but we’re going to do it anyway.’”

A key moment came in December 2019, when a national transit-workers strike shut down many buses and trains for months. The Plan Velo was far from done, but enough routes were ready that record numbers of commuters pedalled to work instead. Soon the city unveiled cobblestones cycling routes along the Champs-Élysées.

Then came the coronavirus and a national lockdown. With practically no traffic, even non-urbanists like me suddenly realised how much space we’d given over to cars, and we envisioned these same streets as quieter, cleaner public spaces that could contain something else.

We also saw how tiny and mostly flat Paris is. The city proper is equivalent to 7 per cent of London and 13 per cent of New York City. Even the suburbs aren’t that far away, especially with electric bikes in the mix. While citizens like me were having urban epiphanies, city officials were facing an epidemiological fact: When Parisians emerged from lockdown, they couldn’t just crowd back into buses and Metros again.

Over weekly video meetings with activists and technical teams, they mapped out bike paths tracing three of the city’s busiest Metro lines, so that residents could quickly grasp the routes. The regional government announced it would partly fund a suburban plan catchily named “RER V” (for “Velo”), after the RER commuter railroad lines.

During the first lockdown and soon afterward, workers laid nearly 100 miles of temporary “coronapiste” bike lanes in Paris and its surroundings, using just paint and thigh-high yellow markers that screw into the street. Suddenly there were bike-only lanes branching west to the La Defense business district and north to Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in France.

Activists who’d spent years pressing for their plans to be enacted suddenly saw lanes appearing before their eyes. “It was like in a dream,” said Stein van Oosteren, spokesman for the Greater-Paris Bicycle Collective. “In a matter of 10 days, I think we did more than we would have done for maybe 10 years.”

When Parisians emerged from confinement in May, fear of the virus and the new safer routes prompted a psychological shift. The number of female cyclists jumped. During rush hour, some streets had more cyclists than cars. Electric bikes made longer commutes viable, so the new paths weren’t just for urban hipsters.

Even I bought a bike and soon discovered that cycling wasn’t just practical; I liked the exercise, the screen-free time and my new closeness to Paris’s “terroir.” After 16 years in cars and underground, or walking, I discovered that pedalling across the Seine on a sunny day is a peak experience.

It’s not all poetry here. Many bike routes remain treacherous or incomplete. I still won’t let my kids ride alone. But I expect it to keep improving. Reaching a critical mass of bike routes is arduous, but after that “it’s a snowball effect,” Mr. van Oosteren said. “Once you have those voters on bicycles, you’re more inclined as a politician to create more bicycle lanes, and that’s what happening now in Paris. Now it’s going all over the place.”

Mayor Hidalgo has made the city’s “coronapistes” permanent and vows to make Paris “100 per cent bikeable” before it hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics, with the Olympic Village in Seine-Saint-Denis.

I look forward to pedalling over to have a look.

Pamela Druckerman is an American-French writer and journalist living in Paris.