One of our members, Tony Read, recently visited Amiens. This is his cycle orientated account.
Amiens in a large city in northern France. It’s the capital of Picardy and just south of all the Somme battlefields that were so bitterly contested a hundred years ago. Population wise it’s somewhat smaller than Leeds and not so spread out; however like Leeds it has quite a large city centre. In spent a few days there in early December. I had a bike with me and it was interesting to compare cycling there and in Leeds.
I took a Brompton with me, largely to avoid the hassle of taking a full size bike on the Eurostar and because I could be sure of taking it inside the hotel. Changing onto a regional express or TER train at Calais, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of bike spaces available. This was the equivalent of one of our Transpennine trains. There was a whole area near one set of doors where you hang a total of six bikes, though I reckon you could also have stood that many on either side of the carriage without causing an obstruction.
For a city the size of Amiens there are surprisingly two bike hire schemes in operation. One is modelled on the Vélib’ of Paris and is called Vélam (that’s a contraction of Vélo + Amiens). The bikes don’t look that different from the Boris bikes in London and you can hire them via an annual subscription or by paying a daily or weekly access fee. One day’s access costs €1.00 and for the first half hour it’s free. That’s quite a bit cheaper than in London and in the time available I reckon you could get from one side of the city centre to the other fairly easily. There are apparently 313 bikes available and 26 docking stations.
For longer term hire, if you want to travel further and for longer periods, there is “Buscyclette”. These are more normal looking bikes that can be hired for any period from a day and a half, to a full year. As well as standard bikes, you can hire tandems, trailers, child-seats, folding bikes and electric bikes. There are reduced rates for people aged less than 26, for jobseekers and for employees of firms who have put in place an environmental travel plan. The scheme also provides secure cycle parking near the main station, a bike repair service and offers lessons in riding and bike maintenance.
But what about infrastructure? What about cycle lanes? My initial impression is that it’s patchy, like Leeds. There are various white lines marking out pistes cyclables, some on the wide pavements of boulevards and through traffic-calmed squares, but also on the narrower streets of the city centre. There are quite a few contraflows, but they are not protected and like in Leeds can take the cyclist into the car-door zone. Cyclists are officially allowed to cycle in the pedestrianised streets but must go slowly and give way to pedestrians if necessary. When I was there the main pedestrian shopping street was taken over by an enormous Christmas fair with loads of chalets and fairground attractions, so that particular cycling route was unusable (didn’t we have a similar problem in Leeds?) At rush hour on the major boulevards encircling the city centre, cycling did not look an attractive proposition at all, but I think regular cyclists have their own network of quieter routes across the centre, although generally these are shared with vehicles too. Where the speed limit is less than 30 km per hour, cyclists can, unless otherwise prohibited, legally cycle both ways on a one-way street (official information). The street shown in the picture almost certainly has a special lane because its speed limit is higher, probably 50 km/ph. Cyclists and quite often motorists can also turn right against a pedestrian green light, provided they give way to anyone who is crossing at the time. This can be quite unnerving for English pedestrians initially. Some of these rules I’ve looked up afterwards. Whilst there I actually spent more time walking than cycling in Amiens centre, but when I did cycle, I didn’t take any chances and tried to copy what local cyclists were doing. This included cycling some stretches on pavements and using pedestrian crossings at major junctions. In practice I had no problems and the motorists I did encounter seemed very polite and patient compared to what I am used to in Leeds - both as a pedestrian and a cyclist.
Amiens has an active cycling campaign group called Véloxygène (you guessed it: Vélo + Oxygen). I found out that they were planning a protest during the evening rush-hour outside the City Hall. Unfortunately that was the day I was cycling into the Somme countryside and by the time I got back to the city it was too late to attend. They were protesting about the removal of two cycle lanes along the rue de la République, a major north-south axis for cyclists, so as to make room for another lane of vehicle traffic. As part of this scheme contraflow cycling was banned and with-flow cycling officially discouraged; cyclists were simply advised to use a parallel road whose “facilities” the group judged rather dangerous. The protest was well advertised with an article in the local paper and various notices attached to lamp-posts and parked bikes. Francophones can see a brief news report here. Key to the protest was stressing how retrograde a step this scheme was in view of the current pollution problems in France’s major cities. The group is in fact bringing a legal case against the city authorities for “non-respect” of the so-called loi sur l’air – a law to regulate air quality. I believe it is this law that enables the authorities in Paris to take measures restricting vehicle traffic by alternating who can travel on different days of the week by reference to their registration numbers. This was happening while I was in France: I learnt afterwards that higher pollution levels had been recorded in London for the same time period, yet here no action was taken at all.
To end on a more pleasant note I must mention the chemin de halage or towpath along the river Somme. This provided a pleasant, traffic-free route into the countryside to the east of Amiens. Despite it being a very cold morning with ice on some of the waterways, I still encountered joggers, other cyclists and some dog-walkers, but the path was reasonably wide, the surfacing good, and there were no awkward bridges to navigate under (unlike the canal in Leeds, I hear you say). Admittedly the signage could have been better, but then again my map could have been more detailed. Passing cyclists and pedestrians were happy to help out. In the country lanes afterwards the little traffic I saw left me plenty of space when overtaking.
Those who wish to visit this area for historical purposes may wish to know there are signposted cycle-routes you can follow around all the major battlefield monuments.