Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Cycling advocates have proposed a network of bicycle paths connecting the suburbs and city center, comparing their plan to the region’s rapid transit system.
Paris may be developing a reputation as a bike-friendly city, but that friendliness still has its limitations.
Arguably chief among those limitations is the region’s inner beltway—the Boulevard Périphérique, the chronically clogged highway separating the historic city from its (very dense) “suburbs,” in which safe lanes are fewer and the distances are longer. Recently, however, Paris’s suburbs have been catching up, and a new proposal could make them radically easier to navigate by bicycle.
Cycling associations across Greater Paris are working on a plan for a cycle-track network that covers the metro area. Called “RER for bikes” or “RER V”—a reference to the city’s transformative suburban rapid-transit rail system—the network could make Greater Paris far more bike-accessible and galvanize a movement for suburban bike infrastructure. Most importantly, it could make longer-distance bike commuting for suburban Parisians not just feasible, but actually desirable.
The phrase RER V isn’t likely to set the average non-Parisian’s heart aflame, but it does resonate locally. Opened gradually from 1969 onward, the suburban rail network (“Réseau Express Régional”) revolutionized access to central Paris. Indeed, it made a lot of suburban expansion feasible in the first place by connecting outlying areas to a wider grid. The RER concept is thus a persuasive one for locals, conjuring up visions of a radical transit rethink that millions already know and, despite some frustrations with the RER service, benefit from. The region’s elected premier, Valerie Pécresse, has already declared herself in favor of the plan.
The cycling revolution that this long-distance path plan envisages is already somewhat underway. As host to many events at the 2024 Summer Olympics, the suburban département of Seine-Saint-Denis plans to put its best foot forward by pumping €150 million into building segregated bike lanes over the next five years. Supplying more than 250 kilometers of new lanes, this project is intended not just to make biking easier, but to improve the image and accessibility of a low-income area.
All around Greater Paris, meanwhile, there’s a determination to create infrastructure to allow residents to benefit from the region’s massive Metro system expansion, referred to as the Grand Paris Express. When these new lines are complete, everyone living in the Petite Couronne area (the dense, roughly 4.5 million-resident suburban belt immediately surrounding the historic city of Paris) should live within two kilometers of a metro or RER station.
This means residents would potentially be able to access public rail transit within an eight-minute bike ride; now the push is to ensure that bike lanes allow that commute to happen safely. Some of these lanes are already being built, notably along the route of new suburban streetcar links.
That’s great, but there’s still a major limitation. The Greater Paris metro area is fragmented into many different authorities that don’t always work in concert, a factor that has made the bike network disjointed.
“The problem with bike paths is that they often stop at municipal limits,” Charles Maguin, president of pro-bike activist group Paris en Selle, told Le Parisien. And even where bike paths exist, it can take a lot of local know-how to work out how they connect up, and how they might be used for traveling over long distances.
To remedy this, Maguin’s and other associations are proposing a set of broad, fully protected cycle tracks. They have also devised a tentative map, imagining them as a sort of metro map bisecting the entirety of the metropolis. The swerving lines featured in the image above might seem circuitous, but are well adapted for the Paris region’s moderately hilly topography. The pale blue line, for example, follows the course of the River Seine. If this route were served by a bike track, the results would thus not be scenic but also more or less completely flat.
It’s a matter of debate exactly how many Parisians would use these lanes regularly. Given the distances they span, will they be recreation trails for sporty Lycra-clad die-hards, or transportation paths used by casual cyclers pedaling along with their shopping in the front basket? And does it matter? Even if RER V is initially used more for fun than mobility, that shouldn’t be argument against investing in it: In a city that has, in many ways, led European cities in thinking big about greener, car-free mobility, such a network could help get more people on board with a different vision of the future metropolis. The Greater Paris it imagines is one where excellent subway, suburban rail, and streetcar networks connect seamlessly to last-mile travel by bike, and where it is possible for cyclists to cross the metro area without difficulty.
Piecing together a network on this scale will take time and money, but in a country whose government actively wants to encourage more bike commuting, it currently has political wind behind it. After all, as Charles Maguin puts it, “it’s not just [inner] Parisians who want to ride bikes.”