Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Paris is planning a pretty major overhaul of its main avenue by 2025.
Does the most beautiful avenue in the world really need a makeover? The Champs Elysées in Paris may be cited to the point of cliché as the world’s grandest, most alluring urban street, but according to the city the famous promenade could do with some serious polishing.
It’s been 20 years since the avenue’s last renovation and the place is definitely looking a little tired. Packed with eight lanes of cars whose noise reverberates off high walls, the contemporary avenue’s major chains and tour group-congested sidewalks make it arguably more big box than boutique. Tourists still can’t resist the place—it still photographs wonderfully, after all—but nowadays many locals make a point of pride of avoiding it whenever they can. If Parisians are going to fall in love with their own main street again, something needs to be done.
That something comes in the form of a new plan to transform the street by 2025. First to go will be most of the cars. Within nine years, the current eight lanes for motor vehicles will be cut to a narrower central band (it’s unclear as yet exactly how many lanes will go), making space for cycle paths, a tram, and electric buses. Sidewalks will be widened, while buildings will be adorned with roof gardens which the Paris Urbanism Studio describes as being “like in Manhattan.” Businesses on the avenue will undergo some strict aesthetic policing, so that sidewalks and café terraces maintain a harmonious impression. A side street that runs parallel to the avenue, the Rue de Ponthieu, will also be semi-pedestrianized.
These changes aren’t just about cutting pollution and sprucing up the place. They’re about acknowledging and adapting to the main reasons people now come to the avenue. According to Jean-Noel Reinhardt, president of local business association Comité des Champs Elysées: “Three quarters of people who come to the Champs Elysées do so to walk, have a drink or go to the cinema. … Only 25 percent go shopping.”
Maybe in the future, a popular meeting place will have to be more than a showcase for goods that are now available online, anywhere. Acknowledging this shift, Paris wants to lure locals back not with fancier shopping but with places to see plays and films, or cafés. In the future, meeting a friend to watch the world sweep by on a newly expanded pedestrian runway will be recognized as no less vital to the avenue’s vitality than the big business of buying stuff.
Paris is getting an early taste of some of these changes within just two weeks. From November 15 through January 15, the avenue will be a test site for a new brand of tram-bus hybrid.
Called Bluetram, the vehicle requires a fixed route but needs neither a rail nor an overhead wire to operate. Instead it tops up its batteries at each stop, recharging via a protruding electric “perch” that connects up to its roof. Forty seconds is all the recharging time the 10 Bluetram models being demonstrated will need to make it to the next stop, and with passengers taking time to get on and off anyway, there shouldn’t be any noticeable break in service.
The trial is being rolled out to coincide with the Cop 21 world climate conference starting on November 30. But this is the kind of model that Paris may well be looking at to reduce private car traffic on the avenue. Within a decade, the sight of a Champs Elysées packed from edge to edge with cars may be no more than a memory preserved in photos.