I was never really a bike commuter in Salt Lake City. Probably because the Salt Lake Valley is a stretch of 500-square-mile suburban sprawl with wide roads made for big cars and hills that make people of average fitness level break a sweat. Nancy, on the other hand, is a manageable 15-square-kilometers (roughly 9-square-miles to us Americans) of relatively flat land that makes getting around on a single speed bike pretty easy.
In Utah, I might have occasionally used my bike to get up and down campus, but never to do things like grocery shopping. I took my bike out for fun, but not actually to get me from place to place. With that in mind, I consider myself pretty new to the bike commuting scene. My brief experiences in Nancy have already taught me a lot and have definitely piqued a new interest in urban biking.
I’m not sure if I’ll be tackling urban biking in Salt Lake’s geography when I get back, but who knows? I’m always looking to learn new skills and find ways to lead a more sustainable life.
How It All Started:
Some people might ask, why and how does one with relatively little bike know-how get into bike commuting? For me the answers for both those questions are pretty simple. Economics and necessity.
Within the first week of getting to Nancy, I noticed that I was putting in at least 5 miles a day of walking to get myself to and from the places I needed to go. Getting to the grocery store, the library, my school, the city center etc. was quickly wearing out the soles of my shoes and crotch of my pants. Shout out to everyone who’s tired of wearing through perfectly good pants because their thighs touch!
I looked into the local bus system, but with a cost of 1,30 euro per ride or a monthly pass of about 20,50 euros a month I wasn’t jumping to utilize the public transportation. And when someone happened to post a listing for a used bike on our teaching assistants’ Facebook group I decided to just go for it. (See my bike Hermes above). I figured a bike would be a cheap and efficient way of getting around.
In retrospect I might have been a little hasty in purchasing a bike without any actual experience in commuting, especially in a foreign country, but I’ve been able to make it work. Actually going out and riding has been the quickest way for me to learn. Trial by fire sort of mentality. That’s not to say I haven’t had some scary almost accidents along the way. I remember my first ride home from the seller’s place on a Saturday afternoon being utterly terrifying, but thankfully we are past that now.
As I’m getting used to getting around by bike, I’ve started making mental lists of things I wish I had known, pros, cons, tips etc.
So here is some of my advice, albeit from a newbie perspective. Perhaps it might help another newbie considering picking up biking!
Let’s Start with the Cons:
ALL the One Ways
Maybe I’ve been spoiled living in a city with grid system for the last 9 years. Or maybe I’m just missing the point of living in an old city. Either way, one ways were immediately a problem for me when I first started biking around. They made it hard for me to get my bearings. I would see a landmark that I had passed and want to follow the same road, but I wouldn’t be able to because it was a one way.
Just when I thought I was getting familiar with surroundings, I would end up somewhere and I have to take a completely different way home because there are so many one ways. I guess I could always cheat and ride on the sidewalk, but technically you aren’t supposed to do that unless you are a child.
Not only are the one ways a problem on a bike, but they also mess with the bus routes too. There are many lines that have stops going one direction and then completely different stops for the opposite direction.
And just to make things even more complicated there are some streets that are only one way in a car, but are two way if you are on a bike. These streets are marked with signs that say “Interdit Sauf Velo,” which means “Forbidden Except Bikes.”
Oh, you should also be prepared to navigate plenty of funky intersections! See Exhibit B.
Different Street Signs
This brings me to my next point. Learning how to bike in Nancy is also like learning how to drive in Nancy. Because you are sharing the road, you should be aware of what all the different signs mean.
If you are from the US, be prepared for some weird looking signs. The street lights like red, green, and yellow lights are the same. Stop signs and yield signs are the same. But almost everything else is different. One ways are not marked as one ways, they are marked as “no entry” streets. Street names are in blue square signs adhered to the sides of buildings, not on sign posts at intersections.
Check out this blog post by PedalDancer.com for more on French street signs.
I find that I’m still discovering street signs and road markings that I don’t quite understand. This is probably pretty hazardous, but I don’t technically need a license to ride a bike so…yeah…
Beware of Stray Pedestrians
I’m not sure if this is just a thing in Nancy, or if it’s a thing in most cities in France, but I find that the pedestrians here take cross walk lights as more of a suggestion than a rule. They will go ahead and start crossing the road when they don’t see or hear any cars.
This is particularly perilous for me on my bike because my bike doesn’t make quite the same amount of noise as a car and mildly oblivious pedestrians are constantly crossing the street even if I have a green light and they have a red. I’ve noticed that this happens most frequently in the commercial center of the city where pedestrians are going from shop to shop or talking to their friends.
I’ve almost run into many a pedestrian this way. I’ve started perfecting a good whistle and should probably re-situate my bell to a more easily accessible spot.
Moving on to the Best Parts About Biking in Nancy:
Dedicated Bike Lanes
Minor inconveniences aside, I find Nancy to be a pretty bike-friendly city. Most large roads have bike lanes. Some of the dedicated bike lanes are shared with buses. That means that only buses and bikes can go in these lanes.
The picture above is a picture of a two-way bike lane leading onto a large express way. I haven’t experimented too much with riding my bike long distances, but the times that I have, I have noticed that crossing an express way is usually pretty safe on foot or bike because of these dedicated lanes.
For smaller streets in the city, there might not be bike lanes and you’ll just have to share the lane with cars. From my experience so far, it hasn’t been a problem. One of the weirder things for me is to see another biker going in the opposite direction of traffic in the bike lane. I’m pretty sure this is legal (I mentioned the “Interdit Sauf Vélo” sign earlier), but it just freaks me out for some reason.
Plenty of Bike Racks
Within the city of Nancy, there are plenty of bike racks. Storefronts, parks, public buildings, popular restaurant areas, they all have decent bike parking. This past weekend, I was able to meet up with a group of language assistants to do some sightseeing and each place we stopped at, I was able to easily find parking for my bike.
Affordable and Sustainable Transportation
I mentioned earlier that economics was one reason why I decided to give biking a shot. I decided to buy a bike instead of a bus pass because I figured it would be cheaper in the long run. After a month of being in France, I stand by my decision.
My bike has given me freedom of movement. I can come and go whenever I want and I’m not limited to planning my days based on the bus schedule. Because of where I live, I only have access to three bus lines and these lines don’t service all areas of Nancy I need to get to. They also stop running at about 9:30pm.
I did give in and buy a 10-ride bus pass because I had to make a large shopping trip out in the suburbs, but for most trips I find that my bike and backpack carry me and my possessions to exactly where I need to go at exactly when I want to get there.
Of course, there are also the health and environmental benefits of biking versus driving or taking the bus. Get yourself where you need to go, get some exercise while you’re doing it, and cut back on carbon emissions all in one trip.
One last con that I just thought of is the weather. It does rain every once in a while in Nancy, which makes it challenging to bike around, but unless it’s a complete downpour it’s nothing my waterproof jacket and a pair gloves can’t handle.
Like all things in life, biking has it’s pros and cons. But I guess if all else fails, I could always just give into the French trend of adult scooters as a perfectly acceptable means of transportation.
Other General Tips:
Picking A Bike
When I got here, I literally picked the first bike that I could get my hands on without thinking too much about how I was planning on using it. If I had given myself a bit more time to think about it, I would have more carefully considered these questions:
- How often are you planning on using the bike?
- What kind of weather are you willing to bike in?
- Do you plan on transporting things with your bike?
- Do you know how to do basic bike repairs? (Check tires, brakes, seat adjustments etc.)
As you might be able to tell in the picture, the bike I ended up with literally has no frills. It’s a single-speed with nothing attached (no baskets, water bottle holders, mounts etc.). I like it though. It’s inconspicuous, flies under the radar, and gets me quickly from place to place. I’ve never too worried about someone wanting to steal its parts, except for maybe the awesome red saddle.
Saturday Afternoon Traffic
One final thing that I’ve learned about biking in Nancy and traffic patterns in general is that Saturday afternoons are when everyone and their mom goes out to shop. Something I didn’t know about France is that most everything is closed on Sundays. Pharmacies, grocery stores, clothing stores, even many large chain stores are closed on Sundays. I guess to offset that, many people go shopping on Saturday afternoon.
I made the mistake of arranging to pick up my bike on a Saturday afternoon. Getting across town on a new (to me) bike during the most crowded time of week when I was still pretty unfamiliar with the roads was pretty much a disaster waiting to happen.
Luckily I made it home without an accident. I was able to take the bike out Sunday morning and familiarize myself with the streets. Sunday morning turned out to be the best time to experiment with biking because nobody else is out and about. I was free to make biking errors without fear of angry drivers or pedestrians.
All in all, I love my bike. I love discovering Nancy by bike. I believe you see a city differently from a bike. And I’ll be sad when the weather gets colder in the next couple of weeks and I’ll have to be more thoughtful about biking around town. In the meantime, here’s a pretty sweet picture from a recent roll along the canal.
Additional Bike Resources in Nancy
Dynamo, l’Atelier du Velo – Looking to buy a used bike or learn how to fix up a bike? Check out Nancy’s local bike collective.
Vélostan Boutic – Not sure you want to deal with taking care of your own bike? Rent a bike from the city for periods as short as half-a-day or as long as a full year.
Vélostan Lib – Perhaps you just want to give biking a try? Nancy has a bike sharing system that you can subscribe to as well.