The husband and I returned not long ago from a most excellent European vacation that lasted nearly a month and crossed the borders of three countries. Although Mr. Spoked didn’t complain, I fear he was nearly driven to distraction by my daily questions: When are we going to ride bikes? Can we stop at that kiosk and ask where we can get some bikes? Hey, is that a bike rental place over there?
It’s not that we didn’t have plenty of opportunities. We got lost our first day in Madrid while trying to find a cycle touring company, only to accidentally walk past the storefront on our last night. In Seville we saw countless cyclists on shares, but we were visiting with non-riding friends and wanted to maximize our time together. Florence’s rattletrap bicycles rolled on the roads with scooters and buses, but we couldn’t find a place to rent them ourselves. By the end of the month I was fretting that we’d never ride this trip, despite my previous post to the contrary. Finally, in Rome, we stumbled upon a bike rental business and rode around the city’s largest park on our last day in Europe. But that will be the subject of a future post, because this one is about Avignon.
The last time the Spoked household visited France was in 2004 and, although there were plenty of bicycles on Avignon streets then, there was no bike share program. We rented bikes in other French cities that trip, but didn’t miss them in Avignon because the central city is compact and easy to walk around. It’s classified a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of the medieval ramparts containing the Palace of the Popes and other fine historic sites. This trip, as with the last, we stayed within the city walls and walked everywhere. One stroll took us outside the ramparts where we passed a bike share stall. At last we’d be able to ride, or so I thought.
Avignon’s bike share program is operated by Velopop, which offers similar programs in other European cities. It’s a pretty slick operation. The bikes are in very good condition and the directions for use appear easy and efficient. Unfortunately, we needed a pass card or a cell phone to call for a code. We had neither. You could buy passes at a couple of places around town, but it was a religious holiday so everything was closed, and we were leaving town the next morning. Foiled again.
So we used our feet around Avignon instead of bicycles. As we walked, I wondered how a bike share program–and cycling in general–could prosper in a European city while languishing in its American counterpart. For one thing, cars are a liability in Avignon’s city center where streets are very narrow and often one-way. You have to be a delivery driver or a misanthrope to want to drive in these cities because nothing moves quickly except bicycles and scooters. Sometimes even the pedestrians are faster than motorized vehicles. This kind of cycling is all about moving around your city to work, shop, visit.
Bicycles are much more practical than cars in these places. They’re incredibly cheap and easy to park where parking spaces are nearly nonexistent. When you’re living in an apartment (as many Europeans do), you have small refrigerators and must shop often. This increases the number of trips to the grocery store while decreasing the quantity of groceries per trip–perfect for bicycles. And because Europeans emphasize fresh in-season produce, they prefer to visit the local shops frequently for the newest and best fruits and vegetables. It all works to cycling’s advantage.
And what a sweet deal it is for everyone in these cities–less congestion, cleaner air, healthier people.