Giving Parisians back the space that cars have taken from them

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Chris and Melissa Bruntlett Aug 22, 2016 7:50 am

After spending five glorious weeks pedalling around five Dutch cities earlier this summer, and studying them from a mobility and livability perspective, we decided to tack on a few days in Paris, in an attempt to unwind with a little personal time.

But, because we can never truly “switch off” when exploring a new city (or in this case, one we had visited three times prior), we began comparing Paris with its Dutch counterparts, and seeing it in a whole new light. In stark contrast, Paris was incredibly loud, and clogged with cars, the air thick with diesel fumes. Most importantly, we didn’t feel at all comfortable cycling with the kids, something that limited our ability to get around, and even had us longing for Vancouver’s bikeways.

In fairness, it is a problem Mayor Anne Hidalgo is working tirelessly to address. A Socialist elected with 55% of the vote in 2014, and the first female Mayor of Paris, Hidalgo is in the midst of a radical, ten-year traffic reduction plan. Under it, Paris will ban all diesel engines by 2020, eliminate 55,000 parking spaces each and every year, and spend 150-million Euros to double the size of the city’s bicycle network.

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Paris Respire (literally “Paris Breathes”) is another brainchild of Hidalgo’s, where a number of streets are closed to motor vehicles on Sundays and public holidays. The program even closes the length of the famous Champs-Élysées on the first Sunday of every month, an act that instantly dropped the levels of nitrogen dioxide by a third.

It is an issue about which Hidalgo speaks matter-of-factly, telling the Toronto Star:

“I would like to give Parisians back the space that cars have taken from them. It is a matter of rehabilitation that must be thought of and implemented as a form of reparation. Reconquering the city involves reorienting our actions around nature and human beings. This fight is even more important because it involves crucial environmental and health issues that affect everyone, without the slightest exception.”

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Fortunately, Hidalgo inherited Vélib’, the trailblazing public bike share scheme, which – in the past nine years – has blossomed into the single largest system outside China. Three hundred thousand members take a fleet of 18,500 bicycles for an average of 108,000 trips per day, for a staggering total of over 292 million trips since launching in 2007.

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In 2014, after discovering most Parisians learn to ride a bike outside the city, she launched P’tit Vélib’, a bike share for kids. It offers 300 bikes in four different sizes for children 2 to 10 years old, at five green and pedestrianized spaces across Paris.

But after strolling along the Seine in late July, it was two placemaking projects – both started by Hidalgo’s predecessor Bertrand Delanoë – that caught our attention.

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The first, called Berges de la Seine, was a 2.3 kilometre, 4.5 hectare public park and promenade along the north bank of the river. A former expressway opened by Georges Pompidou in 1967 under the slogan “Paris must adapt to the car,” this corridor was designed as a direct route for suburban car commuters, without clogging the city centre. When Delanoë cut the ribbon on the Berges in 2013, he insisted the original curbs and road markings endure as a reminder of its former life, after fulfilling his promise to “give Parisians back their river,” “profoundly change” the city, and provide “an opportunity for happiness” for all residents.

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On the opposite side of the Seine, a similar story was evolving, albeit on a slightly longer timeline. Since 2006, the Mayor’s office has hosted Paris-Plages (“Paris Beaches”) a temporary artificial beach installed during July and August. Residents and tourists alike can be spotted walking, cycling, playing sports, sunbathing, drinking, and dining along the river, in a space that sees 30,000 cars per day during the remaining ten months of the year. However, 10 years of seasonal, summer closures have been enough to convince Parisians this stretch of motorway is also expendable, and Hidalgo recently announced it would shut permanently in 2018.

Parisian officials understand that the process of reparations for the post-war automobile era will take generations, and – to paraphrase our friend Tom Parr in Amsterdam – pilot projects are the Trojan Horses of increased urban livability.

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It’s a concept fully embraced by City of Vancouver planners and politicians, embodied in pilot projects in Jim Deva Plaza and Robson Square. Seasonal, summer road closures over the course of several years demonstrated their potential as plazas, and this year, it was announced that both of these thoroughfares would became permanent additions to the shared public realm of Downtown Vancouver.

We’re confident that leaders in both Paris and Vancouver are moving in the right direction. It’s just going to take some time – and some patience – to get there.

To view the full collection of photographs taken by the authors, please click here.


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Chris and Melissa Bruntlett
Chris and Melissa Bruntlett are the co-founders of Modacity: a communications and marketing firm focused on inspiring healthier, happier, simpler forms of urban mobility through words, photography, and film.

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