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Originally published July 16, 2013 at 8:13 PM | Page modified July 17, 2013 at 9:16 AM

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Helmet-free, bike-crazy Paris lights way on bicycle sharing

Seattle’s bike-helmet law will kill the city’s planned bike-share program. Instead, let the people ride free and easy, as they do in Paris.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Paris is for lovers, it’s true. And it’s for the softest light, and dancing on river banks. It turns out it’s also for something I wasn’t expecting: bicyclists.

I just got back from a trip to Paris, and outside of Amsterdam or maybe a major Asian city, I have never seen so many bicyclists in my life.

Most pleasantly, they’re not the Lycra-wearing variety.

Bikes are as everywhere in Paris as croissants. Women ride in sun dresses and skirts. I saw men careening through rush-hour traffic in suits. Even the seniors ride, eddying along the paths and side streets, chatting, as if their bikes were rolling walkers.

“A few years ago it was unimaginable that suited businessmen or elegantly dressed women would mount a bike,” reports the magazine Spiegel, on Paris’ two-wheeled cultural sea change.

Apparently much of this is due to one of the world’s most popular bike-sharing programs, which Paris started in 2007. Today there are more than 20,000 public-use bikes scattered around the city of 2.2 million, at rental stations located every 400 yards.

You can check them out with a credit card and ride them anywhere, 24 hours a day, then return them to any station. Bicycling has exploded — more than 250,000 Parisians now subscribe to the bike-share, using it for 110,000 trips daily (which by comparison is more ridership than all of Sound Transit’s trains, light rail and buses combined.)

So Paris was like a vision of how Seattle might actualize its greener future self. Only with much better fashion.

Next year we’re set to debut our own bike-rental program, called Puget Sound Bike Share. It starts modestly — 500 bikes at 50 stations in a few neighborhoods, such as downtown, South Lake Union and the University District.

It’s a fine idea. But having ridden bikes now in Paris, I suspect there’s a flaw in Seattle’s pedals-for-the-people plans. One besides our rain and brutal hills.

It’s our nanny-state helmet law.

When we rented bikes in Paris, like good little Seattleites we wondered about helmets. No need, we were told. When I asked why no cyclists outside the Tour de France seemed to wear headgear, a bike-tour leader answered with a single French word: “Liberté!”

Even the bike-share program in Paris is called “Vélib,” for “vélo” and “liberté.” In other words: bike freedom.

It turns out that freedom — from schedules, regulations and niggling red tape — is crucial to getting people to hop on a bike. Cities that require helmets, such as Melbourne, found their bike-sharing programs weren’t much used.

While in Paris, where you can spontaneously grab a bike with your baguette and bottle of wine and cruise down to the Seine, your hair blowing in the sunset wind as women in billowing dresses pedal past — well, quelle surprise, bikes are très populaire!

Here in Seattle, though, you must wear a helmet or face a $103 fine. Quelle downer. Can you see toting a helmet around on the off chance you might grab a freedom bike for an impromptu ride? Or renting, from a solar-powered vending machine, a used helmet that (you hope) has been sanitized after it was turned in last?

Seattle’s bike-share program is setting up an epic clash of Seattle values. On one side: Green is good. On the other: safety first. One has to give.

Let it be the helmet law. Yes, bareheaded cycling makes the world a (slightly) riskier place. But as the French say: Il faut bien vivre. You gotta live.

Or as they’re saying lately: Vive la vélolution.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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