French youth pedal to a more sustainable future
France is not particularly well known for sustainability, but that may soon change. Since 1994, the government has published a sustainability report every four years. It takes a wide view of sustainability, its evolution, social pressures coming from businesses, and answers to the challenges that confront society. Youth have absorbed that knowledge and are leading the call for change.
Lise Tanfin, a student at Agro Toulouse, is doing just that. Tanfin works with Jeunes Reporters pour L’Environnement (Young Reporters for the Environment), and is trying to get people out of their cars and onto a bike instead. She and four of her classmates produced a video called “Le vélo, acteur du développement durable toulousain” (The bike, creator of sustainable development in Toulouse). They aimed to promote cycling in Toulouse by talking about the social, environmental and economic benefits of riding a bike. French speakers can watch three minutes of the video here.
To most people, a car seems like a necessity. It’s not uncommon for a family to have more cars than family members. Drivers often face hours of frustration when stuck in heavy traffic in cities like Toulouse in the Haute-Garonne region. But the price is higher than a few wasted hours. “There are 42,000 premature deaths per year because of air pollution,” Tanfin said in her video promoting bicycles as transportation.
In response to large amounts of air pollution, Toulouse and many other French cities have created low pollutant emission zones where vehicles are not allowed. This makes cycling more convenient, as it doesn’t emit any gases. Cycling is also ideal for short distances within a city, but two-thirds of journeys under three kilometers are made by car. Cyclists need more space to ride safely within cities.
Cycling can also provide support for finding a new job, exchanging knowledge and fostering friendship. Tanfin explained that a volunteer group organizes bike-building workshops in Toulouse. The principle is simple: individuals pay a membership fee and buy bike parts at extremely low prices. They use tools stored at the warehouse and benefit from the volunteers’ expert advice. It is a place full of warmth where members enjoy spending time. People express deep satisfaction after building or repairing their bikes.
Beside having fun, bikes are becoming more important in the business world. Entrepreneurs are creating home delivery businesses that use bikes. Small businesses use them too. Tanfin said a street coffee vendor’s bike makes him talk to people he sees on the street, creating new friendships. It also keeps his day interesting while he repeats his routine. Tanfin also met a full-time courier who said that delivering goods to one client at a time makes her happy.
But trying to show the world the benefits of biking isn’t always easy. Tanfin said that her group has faced challenges including a non-existent budget and time constraints due to their studies.
Still, they persevered for their cause.
“We want to put a spotlight on sustainability initiatives that exist in our city,” Tanfin said. “This project is equally important for Toulouse’s citizens because it shows the value of the city’s initiatives and the positive social, economic and environmental outcomes of using bicycles.”
Tanfin's project was undertaken as part of Young Reporters for the Environment, one of the programs developed by the French office of the Foundation for Environmental Education in Europe (of-FEEE), which is a subsidiary of the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE).
The willpower of a group of environmental experts allowed the organization to flourish in 1981. Thanks to its success, it has rapidly conquered an international dimension that goes beyond European borders. Today, the FEE brings together associations in more than 60 countries spread over five continents.
This non-profit association helps different French youth better understand the complexity of sustainable development and encourages them to actively engage themselves in order to spark change. The French subsidiary of the FEE — the of-FEEE — is responsible for many programs, such as Eco-Schools, Blue Flag, Green Key, Stockholm Junior Water Prize and International Forest Day. Since it is of public interest, the of-FEEE is eligible for a solidarity sponsorship scheme, a status rarely given in France.
JRE pushes youth to add onto their reporting with concrete action. Marion Nassif, the national coordinator for JRE, explained that creativity is welcome. To JRE, “action” can mean creating a hotel for insects, weighing food scraps at a cafeteria or organizing a photo exhibit illustrating the link between older citizens and young students.
“We want to show them that they can be actors of the change they want to see in society,” Nassif said, referring to global youth.
Some studies have shown that French citizens are cycling fans, but it is generally perceived as a sport and leisure activity, not as a means of transportation. In 2007, Paris’ city hall came up with a public bicycle sharing system called “Vélib’.” Many people were skeptical, but it encompasses around 16,000 bikes at about 1,250 stations.
An average of 100,000 bike trips are made every day in Paris thanks to Vélib’. In 2011, Paris also proposed “Autolib’,” an electric car sharing system working on similar principles. The trend continued in 2016, when the municipality proposed “Cityscoot,” an electric scooter sharing system that would also follow the same basic idea as Vélib’.
Parisian Mayor Anne Hidalgo seems to be in a constant effort to make the French capital secure and breathable. She was a key figure in road closures along the riverbank, which impacted thousands of drivers and forced many of them to use more sustainable transport modes.
France’s transportation sustainability lags behind Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, but it has spent the last decade trying to catch up. Paris is a pioneer known to innovate with green initiatives. When its innovations are successful, other cities follow its example.