By Geert De Clercq
PARIS (Reuters) - France plans to boost cycling with better bike lanes, financial incentives for bicycle commuters and measures against bike theft, the government said.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who will formally announce the plan later on Friday in the Atlantic coast city of Nantes, told local daily Le Courrier de l'Ouest the state will invest about 350 million euros (312.4 million pounds) over seven years in cycling infrastructure.
"The idea is that the state will help local authorities finance a number of infrastructures that will help reduce discontinuities between bike lanes and to facilitate dangerous crossings," Philippe was quoted as saying.
Unlike most other transport policy issues, bike lane construction is not a national but a municipal responsibility, which means that most French bike lanes only run for a short stretch and rarely connect to other cities' bike facilities.
Cycling organisations have long asked for more continuity in bike lanes because interruptions make people afraid to cycle to work.
Olivier Schneider, head of French Bike Users Federation FUB, said the 350 million euro cycling fund falls well short of French President Emmanuel Macron's election promise of 200 million euros per year, but he said he hoped it would spur municipalities into planning new bike facilities.
"Fifty million euros per year will not turn France into the Netherlands, but it is a start," Schneider said.
In the Netherlands, cycling accounts for nearly 30 percent of all trips. That compares with just 3 percent in France, despite the fact that nearly half of all trips are less than 5 kilometres, according to Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne.
The French government also plans to widen financial incentives for bike commuting. Philippe said that from 2020, civil servants will get a 200 euros ($233) per year tax-free premium for cycling to work, while private companies will have the option to pay their employees up to 400 euros per year.
The bike premiums will be free of tax and social security contributions, but Philippe said it would not be possible to combine them with tax incentives for public transport use.
Cycling organisations say it is crucial to combine cycling and public transport for long-term commuting.
The government also plans to put in place a mandatory identification engraving system for new bikes in order to prevent bike theft, will allow more two-way bike traffic on one-way streets, and will introduce cycling lessons in schools.
(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; editing by John Irish and Louise Heavens)