How can a city reduce driving by 45%? Sustained effort over decades

Paris has significantly reduced traffic since 1990 but this was not an easy or quick task. This article suggests sustained effort from the city’s mayors was critical:

  • Jacques Chirac, Paris’ famously conservative (and public fund-embezzling) mayor from 1977 to 1995, helped encourage pedestrianism by increasing the number of bollards to prevent illegal sidewalk parking, Héran writes. Chirac also rehabilitated the Champs-Elysees into a true public promenade, with widened sidewalks, street parking eliminations, and refreshed green spaces.
  • Chirac’s chosen successor, Jean Tibéri, came under fire for not cracking down hard enough on Paris’ air quality problems (and was accused of election fraud!), but he does get credit for banning cars in the Place de la Concorde. In an effort to reduce traffic, he also introduced the city’s first bike plan in 1996, which established paths along the city’s main arteries and lower-speed neighborhood zones, Héran notes.
  • Elected Paris’ first openly gay mayor in 2001, the socialist Bertrand Delanoë “vowed that automobile interests would no longer dominate the city and he would focus on improving public spaces,” wrote Stephane Kirkland for the Project for Public Spaces in 2014. Delanoë made good on those promises during his 13-year tenure (while largely avoiding scandal): A number of streets were reconfigured to accommodate dedicated bus lanes. Some 400 miles of bicycle lanes were created. The banks of the Seine began to close to traffic in the summertime to make way for public “beaches.”And in 2007, the city introduced its bikeshare program, Vélib, now arguably the largest and most used such system in the West.
  • Delanoë’s protégé and current Mayor Anne Hidalgo is an outspoken environmentalist responsible for “some of the most systematically anti-car policies of any major world city,” CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan wrote last year. Hidalgo has implemented a ban on older cars on roads during weekdays, and has pedestrianized the lower quays of the Seine. “Car space is being slashed in many major squares, while car-free days have been introduced annually as a form of publicity campaign for a future without automobiles,” O’Sullivan wrote. (Furthermore, recent trip data from city hall do not support the claim by some motorists that Mayor Hidalgo’s car-free policies have made congestion worse. There’s been a sharp decline in the kilometers-traveled within the city, but only a small dip in kilometers-per-hour.)
  • Paris’ commitment to public transport far surpasses that of any city in the U.S., where it has been more than 30 decades since any new system opened. RATP, the public transport operator for the Île-de-France region, has increased its reach with new bus rapid-transit lines and a steadily growing suburban tram network whose first line opened in the early 1990s. New routes have been accompanied by sidewalk improvements, bike paths, and a variety of traffic calming measures. The lines are frequent and fast. Some are even driven autonomously.

Three quick thoughts regarding this brief history of Paris:

  1. Sustained effort across mayors and local government officials is not easy to do. This article covers 25+ years where different actors from different perspectives contributed to a desirable outcome. The amount of emphasis on reducing traffic probably differed quite a bit across administrations yet the small and big steps added up over time. Significant social change in large cities does not often happen quickly.
  2. The reasons for pursuing less car traffic are varied. Some might decry the environmental issues. Others might want more space for bicycling. More public space might motivate others. I wonder if any of these one reasons would have been enough to motivate these actions and push forward big changes. But, put together multiple reasons and people with different interests might be more likely to come together and promote fewer cars.
  3. How much easier is it to pursue such plans in a European city versus an American city? Additionally, this is Paris, a tourist hot-spot where people want to walk around and experience charming sights and neighborhoods. American cities may also desire less traffic – who wants to be delayed? – yet this is difficult to reconcile with American desires for individual transportation. At the same time, a chart in the article suggests London and Berlin are more like New York City in terms of driving.

What if car-free central Paris catches on?

It is a day for pedestrians in Paris:

“Parisians will be able to take back their daily living space and experience the city in a different way,” said Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who would have liked to make the entire city off-limits to vehicles on Sunday.The closure is unprecedented for the French capital and opens the entire city center to pedestrians only for one day, expanding on popular areas already off-limits to Sunday traffic like the fashionable Marais, the cobblestoned Montmartre and the hip neighborhood along Canal Saint-Martin.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic that normally clogs the city’s boulevards will be replaced by street parties, yoga classes, markets with fresh produce and — this being Paris — food tastings with top chefs…

Paris’ motor-free day is by no means a world’s first. Brussels, the traffic congestion capital of Europe, launched its first car-free Sunday 15 years ago, an example followed by Montreal, Jakarta and other cities.

The rest of the article emphasizes the pollution cars regularly bring to Paris and an upcoming climate change conference. These are important matters to address but there are also quality of life issues at well. Like many older cities, Paris has been retrofitted to accommodate cars and vehicles but what can be done is limited. Central Paris is a place for pedestrians, even after Haussmann’s changes, for both locals and tourists. The congestion tax in central London is an adaptation to a similar setting.

All together, I’m interested in what happens after this car-free day happens: do people find that they like this more than they thought? Why not regular car-free Sundays and then perhaps additional days as well? Yes, this could help bring down pollution levels but it could also make the central city a more pleasant place. Given the spread of such days in major cities throughout the world, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more such days in Paris.

Paris planning to add millions in the suburbs to its boundaries

Plans for metropolitanization in Paris are well underway:

The new Métropole du Grand Paris, or Metropolis of Greater Paris, will include nearly seven million people, more than triple the population now living in the central city. It will swallow rich suburbs to the west. But it should also provide better access to jobs and to business hubs and, if it really works, a greater sense of belonging for millions of immigrant families who live in poverty and isolation on the city’s southern, northern and eastern fringes. Resources would be redistributed, in particular those dealing with housing. The complexion of Paris would change…

As much as any struggling suburb, this one shows how urban development across decades, even centuries, has failed millions of immigrant families and contributed to what France’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, recently denounced as “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid.” His remark provoked a lot of hand-wringing in France. But, as all sorts of French planners, architects, historians and political scientists point out, a legacy of belonging and exclusion, center and periphery, inside and outside, is baked into the very layout of Paris and of places like Grigny, which has nice old houses and woods but is a de facto warehouse for tens of thousands of mostly poor, disenfranchised Muslims.

In essence, Paris Métropole promises a new regional council to coordinate housing, urban planning and transit for a greater Paris. The idea evolved from a proposal by Nicolas Sarkozy, who as president imagined business hubs and a high-speed train linking them to the city’s airports. That morphed into a more complex rail system serving poorer suburbs.

Pierre Mansat has spent years helping to put the plan together. He said the other morning that taxes on businesses, and, France hopes, billions more from Europe, will pay for Paris Métropole. Who knows whether right-wing and left-wing politicians from suburbs and city neighborhoods will actually cooperate, but Mr. Mansat stressed that “it’s above all about creating a new image of Paris as more inclusive, integrated, fluid.”

This sounds like an interesting confluence of factors. On one hand is inequality in the French suburbs which has been surfacing for quite a while. Urban images are important, if at the least for France’s international reputation and Paris’ thriving tourism, as are aiming to give all residents opportunities for a better life. On the other hand are the practicalities of comprehensively tackling urban issues – like housing and transportation – that require the cooperation of a range of communities. Cities can do a lot on their own but many of their needs are tied to the fate of nearby communities that can either join cities in pursuing common goals or pursue their own.

Of course, the article suggests it isn’t clear how successful the metropolitanization attempt might be. This is a long-term project and it will be interesting to see how other major cities learn from this process.

The “Pont Neuf” helped make Paris

A new book about the history of Paris suggests one bridge played a critical role:

The construction of a new bridge over the Seine was initiated by Henri IV’s predecessor, the last king of the Valois dynasty, Henri III, who laid the first stone in May 1578. Some early projects conceived of a very different bridge, most notably, with shops and houses lining each side. In 1587, construction was just becoming visible above the water line when life in Paris was upended by religious violence. With the city in chaos, work on the bridge ceased for more than a decade.

In April 1598, Henri IV signed the Edict of Nantes: the Wars of Religion were officially over. A month earlier, the new king had already registered documents announcing his intention to complete the bridge. Henri III had offered no justification for the project; his successor, characteristically, laid out clear goals for it. He presented the bridge as a “convenience” for the inhabitants of Paris. He also characterized it as a necessary modernization of the city’s infrastructure—Paris’ most recent bridge, the Notre-Dame bridge, was by then badly outdated and far “too narrow,” as the king remarked, to deal with traffic over the Seine, which Henri IV described as rapidly expanding because new kinds of vehicles were now sharing the bridge with those who crossed on horseback and on foot. The new bridge would be financed in a previously untested manner: The king levied a tax on every cask of wine brought into Paris. Thus, as city historian Henri Sauval, writing in the 1660s, phrased it, “the rich and drunkards” paid for this urban work.

No prior bridge had had to deal with anything like the load the New Bridge was intended to bear—most significantly, a kind of weight that in 1600 was just becoming a serious consideration: vehicular transport. Earlier cities had only had to contend with transport that was relatively small and light: carts and wagons. In the final decades of the sixteenth century, personal carriages were just beginning to be seen in cities such as London and Paris. Nevertheless, with great foresight, each of Henri IV’s documents on the Pont Neuf adds new kinds of vehicles to the list of those to be accommodated. He was thus the first ruler to struggle with what would become a perennial concern for modern urban planning: the necessity of maintaining an infrastructure capable of handling an ever greater mass of vehicles.

The New Bridge became the first celebrity monument in the history of the modern city because it was so strikingly different from earlier bridges. It was built not of wood, but of stone; it was fireproof and meant to endure—it is now in fact the oldest bridge in Paris. The Pont Neuf was the first bridge to cross the Seine in a single span. It was, moreover, most unusually long—160 toises or nearly 1,000 feet—and most unusually wide—12 toises or nearly 75 feet—far wider than any known city street.

This seems appropriate given how the word bridge is often used: it isn’t just “a structure carrying a road, path, railroad, or canal across a river, ravine, road, railroad, or other obstacle” but is often used as a verb to generally refer to connecting things. I’m thinking of the term “bridging ties” in the social networks literature referring to building relationships across networks or groups that is contrasted with “bonding ties” that tend to build up in-group connections. In this case, a bridge helped bring Paris together.

This is also a good example of the enduring effect infrastructure can have. Done well, something like a bridge can help people travel, encourage commerce, and become a landmark and gathering place. Done poorly, the project may snarl traffic, repel rather than attract people, and fall apart or be demolished to try again.

Paris bans half of its cars from the streets in attempt to reduce smog

Certain places like Chinese cities or Los Angeles might have reputations for smog but Paris had to take drastic measures this week to try to reduce smog levels:

Paris on Monday banned all cars with even number plates for the first time in nearly 20 years to fight sky-high pollution but opted not to extend the measure after an improvement in air quality.

About 700 police officers were deployed to man 60 checkpoints around the French capital to ensure only cars with plates where numbers end with an odd digit were out on the streets, infuriating motorist organisations.

Public transport has been free since Friday to persuade Parisians to leave their cars at home, and at rush hour on Monday morning, authorities noted there were half the usual number of traffic jams as drivers grudgingly conformed to the ruling…

The government decided to implement the ban on Saturday after pollution particulates in the air exceeded safe levels for five straight days in Paris and neighbouring areas, enveloping the Eiffel Tower in a murky haze.

As the article goes on to note, this is likely a longer-term issue. Just how many cars and factories and other sources of air pollution can a large modern city handle before smog is inevitable? With over 12 million residents in the metro area, Paris has a lot of potential car owners.

It is interesting to note that there are motorist organizations in Europe. Such groups were particularly influential in the United States in the first half of the 1900s by advocating for the construction of roads and highways. In an era before the federal government was involved much in highway construction, some local governments responded more to motorists groups.

Unrest in Paris suburbs highlights changes in suburbs around the world

Tensions ran high last week in a Paris suburb as immigrants reacted to their economic and social conditions:

Weekend violence outside Paris triggered by France’s controversial veil ban has highlighted how tensions with the Muslim community are adding to an already-volatile mix of poverty and alienation in the country’s blighted suburbs.

The unrest in the Paris suburb of Trappes erupted after a man was arrested for allegedly attacking a police officer who stopped his wife over wearing a full-face veil in public.

Feelings of anti-Muslim discrimination, coupled with unemployment and tensions with police are creating an “explosive” mix in the suburbs, said Veronique Le Goaziou, a sociologist and expert on urban violence in France…

A few kilometres (miles) from the Chateau de Versailles, Trappes is a poor city of 30,000 surrounded by wealthy neighbours. In 2010, half the households lived on less than 13,400 euros ($17,600) a year and unemployment was at 15 percent.

“This is a terrifyingly common situation,” said sociologist Michel Kokoreff. “We are in an area that has problem after problem, where people have a profound feeling of abandonment.”

This is a reminder that the monoculture view of suburbs, that they primarily consist of the middle- to upper-classes around the world living in isolated communities, is simply not the case in many places.  American suburbs are increasingly diverse (recent posts: more poor residents, more aging residents, more immigrants looking for opportunities) and suburbs outside of many European cities have been poorer from the beginning (though the increasing religious diversity is of more recent decades). All together, there are plenty of suburban problems for American and French suburbs to address. The actions taken (or not taken) have the potential to set the course individual suburbs but also suburbs as a whole for decades to come.

Paris’ transit authority has new campaign asking local residents to be less rude

The transit authority in Paris has a new campaign aimed at getting users to show more etiquette:

Likening Parisians to animals, it shows a variety of them horrifying onlookers with their selfish behaviour.

A hen is shown screaming into a mobile phone while sitting on a packed bus, a buffalo shoves his way on to a commuter train, and other shameless beasts are shown annoying people…

Sociologist Julien Damon, who helped carry out the RATP survey, said: ‘These types of bad behaviour have always existed, but what has changed is that we are less prepared to tolerate them.

‘Our behaviour is more and more geared towards cleanliness and hygiene, like spitting on the ground or smoking in a restaurant now both very frowned upon, and less about common courtesies like simply being polite and nice to each other.’…

The study comes two years after a separate survey of foreigners visiting Paris voted them the rudest people in Europe...

Cecile Ernst, French author of the sociological and etiquette essay ‘Bonjour Madame, Merci Monsieur’ argues that the shockingly loutish behaviour of France’s football team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when the players went on strike, was a symptom of a broader social trend.

Two quick thoughts:

1. This seems to be motivated in part by perceptions of tourists. Since Paris is one of the top tourist destinations in the world, this is no small matter.

2. I wonder how successful this campaign will be as it utilizes shame and guilt. The posters shown here basically suggest that some current riders are acting like animals. Could a more positive campaign be more effective or would it not attract people’s attention effectively? Imagine if ads like these went up in a major US city…

The world beneath Paris

A little more than a month ago, I commented on a story about exploring underground New York City. The latest issue of National Geographic has a similar story: underneath Paris is a complex system of tunnels, abandoned quarries, and catacombs.

Although I have not been to Paris, this article makes the catacomb tours sound fascinating. Perhaps other cities, like New York or Chicago, could put together underground tours to generate some extra income. While American cities wouldn’t have centuries of bodies beneath them, I would guess that there would be plenty of people interested in such a tour.

On the whole, this article about Paris makes the underground world seem whimsical and liberating. The article ends with the idea that people go underground to escape the restrictions and expectations of the above-ground world. Are there downsides to these places or the people who explore them? And does Paris have people living underground, like New York City and Las Vegas?