A Tale of Two Cities

My hands are up - some might accuse me of French bashing, but let me tell you a story before you jump to any conclusions. 

Yesterday, I took a stroll from the old city of Basel to the French frontier town of St Louis. A side road that coasts alongside the Novartis campus, which nestles on the edge of the old city, delivered me to a deserted custom’s post. A few steps later, with a noticeable lack of passport control, and I was ambling down a French residential road with a scattering of coiffures, boulangeries, and the now ever so popular Chinese restaurants. Other than the language switch (German to French), not much had changed, except the bikes.

Basel is a cyclist’s city. The roads are full of every kind of human propelled vehicle imaginable:   fixies, e-bikes, skateboards, scooters, cargo bikes, and solar assisted recumbents. Apart from our wheeled friends, the roads are occupied by trams, buses, and a few cars. Bikes are used to commute, to socialise, to deliver goods, in short, to live. Cycle lanes exist, but most roads accept the cyclist as yet another road user who takes their place proudly in the centre of the carriageway. This is a city that creates underground bike parks for commuters, where offices suffer bike jams during rush hour, and when you lock your bike, you do so to nothing but its own wheel. In a nutshell, it’s as close to bike heaven as I’ll get until I go to the big bike shop in the sky.

Remember those few metres that separated the city from its French neighbour? Well, something chilling happens over the course of those metres - the bikes disappear. I walked for two hours around St Louis and saw six bikes, no skateboards, no scooters, and no cargo bikes. There were no bike parks, no bikes left sporting a flimsy lock, and no bike induced gridlock. What did exist was a tidal wave of revving, belching diesel, and roaring engines. The town was full to the seams with cars and motorised transport. The difference between Basel and its smaller neighbour St Louis was profound.  The peace and quiet of Basel with its youth, elderly, commuters, and families whisking around on bikes and foot seemed a million miles from this urban onslaught that spat out dust, fumes, and noise.

So, why the change? I don’t know the answers, but I’ll offer my view, which may offend a few but, equally, why not? There are three key areas that I believe separate these neighbouring countries:

  1. The French have a thriving car industry and that industry is an integral part of its history. Imagine a France without the 2CV or the classic Citroen vans of yesteryear? You simply can’t, they’re as French as wine, croissants, or protesting farmers. It’s every French person’s duty to support their car industry.

    On the other hand, name a Swiss car manufacturer. Go on, really try. It’s tough, isn’t it? Switzerland does have a handful of niche brands, but nothing most of us have ever heard of and nothing that builds a history based on the automobile.

  2. The French are lazy. Yes, I did just say that. Now, don’t get me wrong, the French are avid cyclists and they love all things outdoors whether hiking, hunting or skiing. But, and the big but is, sporting activity is exactly that - an activity to be enjoyed in its own right. The idea of walking or cycling somewhere for a functional purpose is unpleasant, even grotesque, to the French. Why cycle when you have a perfectly good car? I’ve frequently seen French neighbours drive 50 metres to check their mailboxes or nip from shop to shop abandoning their cars in front of each shop in turn.

    The Swiss, on the other hand, embrace the power of the human-machine. Why? They’re definitely a green nation and are very aware of the damage that motorised transport does to health and the environment. Equally, health care is on a private insurance basis and most providers offer good incentives for people who are proactive in taking care of their health and wellbeing.

  3. Perhaps the one point that shadows the previous reasons is that of the values and beliefs of individuals within society. The French, thanks to the revolution, firmly believe that they have the same rights as any other citizen. If Pierre has X, then I am entitled to X as opposed to the British attitude of I should have two X’s. This is why the French can’t queue, for example. They have the same right to be seen, seated, or served as anyone else. If you don’t believe me, try boarding a flight in France. Before the announcement for first-class passengers has finished, every French person will be jostling to be first on that plane, regardless of seating priority. It’s this very right of equality that drives the French to their cars. Surely, if Henri can drive to his mailbox, I’m equally entitled to.

    The Swiss, on the other hand, strive for a society where people live in harmony (they hate confrontation) and where every action is deeply considered before being put into motion. Remember this is a country where people vote on almost every decision made at any level in society, so being informed is a key Swiss characteristic. They know the damage that cars do, and they know the benefits of cycling for the individual, society, and the planet. It’s for these very reasons that the Swiss would cycle or walk, even if they hated it, rather than upset the status quo of a harmonious, peaceful society.

So, there you have it: why the Swiss cycle and the French don’t. What about in your country? Do cyclist rule the roads or are they as rare as hen’s teeth? We’d love to hear your thoughts. So, don’t hesitate to pop a comment in the box below or join us on Facebook

Until next time, happy cycling.

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