Under-funded and under-appreciated, EuroVelo 8 is nevertheless a beacon that shines in the darkness of the climate crisis. It could promote sustainable tourism and encourage people to get out of their cars.

Cycle tourism – a key aim of EuroVelo 8 in Provence

Sustainable Mobility

Cycling offers a huge potential to those who want to back a sustainable and flexible form of mobility, and this is well known in cities and towns around the world. The arguments are clear. Only an unnecessary car-addiction prevents politicians from solving urbanitys transport problems.

But out in the countryside, the barriers to cycling are enormous. With little or no reliable public transport, and minimal cycling infrastructure, a culture of car dependency dominates. One such area is the Provence verte in south eastern France. Here, cycling is largely limited to “Tour de France-style” sports cycling or mountain biking (VTT). But even committed sports cyclists still use the car to get to work, school, do the shopping or indeed take their sports bikes to a cycling “location”.

Utility Cyclists Rare in Southern France

And that is the core problem: In Southern France you rarely meet utility cyclists. The majority of cyclists are either (mostly male) racing cyclists or (mostly young male) mountain bikers. This is hardly surprising, given the paucity of dedicated cycling infrastructure that is known to encourage utility cyclists. These are the people who happen to use their bikes as an everyday mode of transport. They form the great majority of bicycle users in cycle-friendly countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany. They also form the majority of cycle tourists. 

Until now, only the hardy few have ventured to south east France. The first obstacle for cyclists from the North are French trains: it is still extremely difficult to come down to South East France on a train with bikes. The double-decker TGVs that run from the north to Marseille, Toulon and Nice rarely take any bicycles. Governments, SNCF and the EU are all being urged by cycling groups to change this state of affairs. But change is slow. 

But even if cycling tourists manage to overcome the TGV problem – by using local trains in France – the lack of infrastructure in the region forms the second obstacle. 

And that is why owners of hotels, restaurants, chambres d’hôtes, also villages with local markets, small shops and many others are barely aware of the majority of cycling tourists from northern Europe – though these cyclists love to spend their holidays on their bikes touring around their own country sides. Provence’s “acteurs du tourisme” rarely see these families, couples or groups on bikes, and most of these “acteurs” have little idea what attracts those tourists and what they need to feel welcome and comfortable.

A new chance: EuroVelo 8 – La Méditerranée en Vélo

So what happens when a decision is taken to build a cycle route right through the area? EuroVelo 8 (EV8), will run from Cádiz in south west Spain to Athens in Greece and beyond to Turkey and Cyprus. In Provence Verte, it runs from the village of Meyrargues and its railway station in the west to Nice and the Côte d’Azur in the east.

The idea comes from the European Cyclists’ Federation in Brussels (ECF):

 EuroVelo is a network of 17 long distance cycle routes connecting and uniting the whole European continent. The routes can be used by cycle tourists as well as by local people making daily journeys. EuroVelo currently comprises of 17 routes totalling over 90,000km of cycling itineraries.“ 

In total the EV8 will be 5,888 km long and pass through 11 countries. (see: Convention de partenariat et de financement du comité de la Méditerrannée à vélo, Phase 2, 2019 – 2021)  The line through France will be 850 km from the Spanish to the Italian border, from Le Perthus to Menton. 

Just tourism? Or maybe also for local people?

The main driver for the EV8 in Provence Verte is “sustainable tourism”, but behind the construction of EuroVelo routes there is another objective – to encourage local people to use the bicycle more regularly as a means of transport by offering them a new kind of infrastructure that connects all the villages that lie on or near the cycleway. What makes it especially attractive is that in this partly very hilly area, thanks to the 19th century builders of the original railway, you can cycle without having to climb any hills. Gradients are limited to what was possible by train. Moreover, the connections are direct, and often much shorter than the route via the road.

Camille Perretta, who was in charge of the organisation Vélo Loisir  Provence describes it like this:

They are intended for tourist use, but also for utility trips, on dedicated cycleways or on quiet roads selected to be pleasant and to avoid excessive gradients. Voies vertes are reserved for non-motorized traffic – cyclists, pedestrians, people with reduced mobility, rollerbladers.

Tiny budget, reliant on local enthusiasts in the council

Conceived around the turn of the century, and on a tiny budget largely reliant on the spare work time of local or departmental authority employees, it seems to be taking decades to be built. “The development and operation of the EuroVelo routes is carried out by national, regional and local governments, commercial service providers and NGOs.” Also see: Pro Eurovelo where ECF claims its important role in the process. 

In reality here in Var a few dedicated local officials and politicians are trying to see the project realised with little or no financial support from the EU (despite its “European” status) and limited financial support from France‘s national government. However things are changing, as a group of 23 (today 26) partner regions in France (départements, communities of communes, metropolitan regions) have agreed to put €600,000 into the project until 2021 and aim to complete it by 2025. The lead partner and organiser is now the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) region, which includes the departments of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Var and Vaucluse.

But progress is still slow, as are efforts to combat climate change. And the 23 (26) partners are only prepared to invest €86,400 of the €600,000 promised for infrastructure, but there are clearly other sources of funding. Here and there, the old railway line followed by the route is being cleared and resurfaced, and signage is being put in place along the route. Yet the end of the project (by 2025?) is not in sight. Many bridges still need to be rebuilt, many sections are still unusable, many cyclists are thrown onto the high-speed roads, and many quiet lanes still allow any car to use them, including the narrow rail tunnels. 

Given all this: Will EuroVelo 8 in Provence verte succeed in achieving the twin aims of attracting cycling tourists and local people? We hope it will. But like climate change, financial support from the EU and Paris needs to be substantially higher, and the timescale needs to be rapidly accelerated. 

Some useful links: