I swipe my card into a metallic kiosk, silently unlocking one of a dozen bicycles stationed alongside it. This vélo libre (free bike)--"Vélib" for short--will be my personal metro. I can drop it off at any of more than a thousand kiosks around the city core.It talks joyously about the experiences of the author and others in newly-pedestrianized urban centers from Paris to Bogotá, and how exchanging cars for buses, bikes, and feet leads not only to more efficient movement, but to happier lives.
I toss my briefcase into the front basket, then commit what would once have been a suicidal act: I roll out into the Paris traffic. Taxis bounce past me along Rue de Rivoli like go-karts. Delivery trucks and motorbikes jostle frenetically. Bus engines suck at the warm air. I have steeled myself for the pathological aggression of Paris' drivers. But I soon realize that there are other cyclists in this stream, dozens of us, in fact. Our collective mass has a calming effect on the traffic. I feel intensely awake but not in danger. In this chaos, we are all looking to each other for clues. We make eye contact.
This is just one example of the alchemy occurring on Paris' streets, explains sociologist Bruno Marzloff when I meet him in the 8e arrondissement. "We are learning a new way of sharing the city," Marzloff tells me as we wander the back streets. Sockless in loafers, he moves through the throngs with studied precision. "Look at what happens on a crowded sidewalk; everyone must be aware or we smash into each other. We must choreograph our movements. The result is a kind of dance."
This choreography is now spilling over into Paris' traffic lanes, says Marzloff. With cars and bikes and buses mixed together, nobody can be sure what will be on the road ahead of them. Everyone is becoming more awake to the rhythm of asymmetrical flow. The clincher? Making the road seem more dangerous by injecting thousands of bikes into traffic may actually be making it safer. Bike accident statistics have flatlined, even as the number of cyclists has jumped in Paris by nearly 50 percent in the last six years.
Marzloff and I encounter four empty Vélib stations in half an hour. "We're just at the beginning," Marzloff tells me. "What will happen when we have 200,000 people using Vélib every day?"
Parisians are indeed moving differently, but this new dance is only one symptom of a more fundamental transformation. Changing the way we use city streets may make us happier.
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