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.
In an effort to connect the historic city to its politically fragmented suburbs, Greater Paris is pushing an epic program of highway removal and transit revamps. But drivers fear that trying to fix one planning disaster could lead to another one.
The suburbs of Paris, home to over 10 million people, are not as universally loved as the central city they surround. The city’s Boulevard Périphérique beltway is a big reason why.
Walk towards the orbital road from the Porte de La Chapelle at rush hour and you feel like you’re a witness to a city engaging in an architectural and infrastructural race to the bottom. Elegant Haussmann-era buildings along the roadside give way abruptly to modernist boxes. Then the beltway’s tangle of lanes appears, an Amazon of asphalt, exhaust fug, and slow-moving metal. For pedestrians, the route north seems impenetrable, and the patchy provision of sidewalks and noise might rob anyone of the desire to forge on.
Such a scene is common in the suburban transition zones of cities in the U.S. and Europe. But in Paris, it comes as a particularly cruel shock to witness the harmonious city end so abruptly. It’s no wonder that visitors driven into the city from Charles de Gaulle Airport often sigh with relief at the sight of their first corner café, their first wrought-iron balcony.
The Périphérique, the frontier of Paris Intramuros (or “behind the walls”), has had a vexed role in story of this city since it was completed in 1973. The traffic-choked 35-kilometer ring is one of the busiest in Europe, carrying more than a million vehicles a day. It serves as an essential artery for urban Parisians—and a formidable physical and cultural barrier cleaving those 2.2 million residents from the sprawl beyond.
The division is somewhat misleading: There are many architectural and demographic similarities between neighborhoods on either side of the central city’s limit. It’s the planning of the metro area around the beltway’s axle that effaces these connections and leads to a fragmentation both of transit and of residents’ identity.
This is the new battleground on which Greater Paris needs to combat its domination by cars—both by transforming the beltway and expanding the public transit network beyond. As the first part of this series explored, the French capital is engaged in an ambitious effort to tame car traffic and bar heavily polluting vehicles in the inner city. Led by charismatic Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has pledged to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, Paris’s battle to go car-free has captured much international attention. But as bold as these moves have been, they are also very limited in scope and comparatively easy to implement, given the inner city’s small size and single-authority control.
The real war on cars will be waged in the banlieues, the sprawling and surprisingly diverse suburbs of Greater Paris. Plans to transform the Boulevard Périphérique and expand mass transit deep into these politically fragmented areas require sign-off from more political bodies and demand a coordinated approach to the entire region’s mobility needs. If they work, they could help correct a planning mistake that has led to social segregation and a sense of disconnect between different communities in the city that is unparalleled elsewhere in Europe.
If they fail? Expect worse traffic, more angry suburban drivers, and continued political fragmentation.
The Myths of the Banlieue
Before we discuss the changes Greater Paris is trying to make to its transit networks, it’s important to realize the kind of place they’re dealing with.
Many cities have troubled relationships between urban core and suburb, but Paris’ extreme polarization is in a class of its own. The city’s official boundaries have not enlarged since 1860, meaning that anything beyond Paris’s 19th-century fortifications—the ring upon which the modern beltway was built—does not count as Paris proper.
One result of this is an ongoing dismissal of the wider city by certain sections of the Parisian elite. Discuss the banlieue with the snobbier sort of Inner Parisian and it comes across as a cultureless wasteland, one whose provinciality is made only more glaring by its proximity to that unmatched pinnacle of human sophistication, Paris itself. Look at international portrayals—and such films as the cult gang flick La Haine—and you might imagine it as a hellscape of burnt-out cars, housing projects full of menacing immigrants, and unchecked gang rule. Even in gentler takes, the suburbs can seem exotically distant. When the eponymous heroine of Amélie leaves Montmartre to visit her father in the suburb of Enghien, it’s presented as being a world away. It’s actually just a 35-minute bus ride.
These cultural tropes are very much alive in the everyday attitudes from Parisians. “White Parisians might assume that northern and eastern suburbs are super-dangerous and have racial anxieties about living with mixed ethnicities, assuming they’ll be a minority in the area,” says Naima Abed, a film producer who grew up in the Northwestern suburb of Gennevilliers. “Anti-suburban snobbery isn’t just about race or poverty, however, as inner-city Parisians can also snub the idea of being the typical established family living in the richer western suburbs, with 2.2 kids, a car, and a 1970s apartment.”
The popular image isn’t based on nothing, of course. Like most cities of its size, Greater Paris has its fair share of anonymous-looking districts of single-family homes (though it’s generally far denser than outer London or the suburbs of U.S. cities). It also has great tracts of public housing projects, mainly built from the 1950s through the ‘70s. The huge building program broke up communities and exported urban poverty to a periphery, where it could be more easily disregarded by power.
But it’s wildly inaccurate to characterize Paris’s outer rings with one single image. It contains seven very diverse regions. In this set of four maps, the physical, demographic, and economic diversity of this area is clear: Some regions have high foreign-born populations and lower income; others boast pockets of great affluence.
Indeed, immediately west of the central city, the Hauts-de Seine Département is one of the wealthiest parts in all Europe, housing La Défense, France’s skyscraper-filled main business district, as well as the metro area’s wealthiest residential areas, stacked up the hillsides of the River Seine’s western loops. North and east are ex-industrial heartlands substantially but not exclusively populated with postwar apartment projects threaded between older housing, some poorly designed, some excellent. In the south (whose neighborhoods present a patchwork of different income levels) and east, gentrification is creeping in around neighborhoods already connected to the metro.
The divide between city and suburb, both literal and mental, nonetheless persists.
Transforming a Beltway into a Green Boulevard
The Boulevard Périphérique may divide the city and its suburbs, but it’s also a unifier of sorts: The traffic congestion on the ring—and the haze of accompanying air pollution over both urban and the suburban neighborhoods flanking the road—has managed to create consensus across the political spectrum that something has to change. The sticking point is what.
This January, France’s right-leaning Republican Party—the largest party currently opposing Paris City Hall’s Socialist-led coalition government and Mayor Anne Hidalgo—proposed a fix that is pharaonic in scale. To reduce noise and pollution and reconnect both sides of the beltway, the Republicans would cover the Périphérique, burying its highway trench under a concrete cap. In a statement to the media, Paris’s Republican leader Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet highlighted the problem clearly:
There is a need to sew Paris back to its suburbs. In some places there is probably a means of making very large projects to cover the beltway, to create new urban spaces and public housing…. In other places, a lighter approach is possible [as well as] and turning the gates of the city [the junctions where the beltway connects with the city] back into new public squares for Paris.
As the statement’s mention of “other places” where covering isn’t an option acknowledges, the idea of covering the beltway has limitations. You can’t bury a road that’s at ground level. Some sections of the Périphérique run through a trench, but much of it runs on the surface or is just partly cut through raised embankments. To cover these sections would mean creating a huge tube, which would cut noise but do nothing to break down the barrier between inner and outer Paris.
The project would also be phenomenally expensive, even if the surface level areas of the beltway are covered cheaply with metal and plastic rather than masonry. The plan might recoup some expenses by freeing up land for development. In sections where it is possible to bury the road, new space above ground could be created, and strips of land along the road that are currently undevelopable due to noise and pollution could become newly attractive.
The plan could do something to lessen the sense of a ravine-like gap from city to suburbs. It still does little to the dominance of cars as a transit means in the wider metro area and has thus been damned by current Paris Transit Commissioner Christophe Najdovski as “sweeping the dust under the carpet.”
The Greens, minority partners in Paris’s current ruling coalition, have an alternative vision. Instead of covering the beltway, they want to turn it into an “urban boulevard”—a green belt instead of an asphalt one. “There would still be cars on the road, but also gardens, cycle lanes, and a tramway or bus line,” says Green representative David Belliard. “We work on the logic that car space would need to be reduced, but we aim to offer better alternatives for people who currently drive.”
This cleaner, calmer, greener Périphérique would also require a massive retooling of the way the Paris region’s transit works. Aware of this, the Greens are presenting their plan as a debate-provoking vision hopefully achievable by 2050, rather than something to be pushed through immediately. Discussing the project with CityLab, David Belliard draws parallels with the conversion of Vienna’s Ringstrasse, the grand urban boulevard that circles the Austrian capital’s heart. The comparison is revealing—Vienna’s ring is also a repurposed Medieval fortification, but its elegance feels radically different than the car-clogged Périphérique. Turning a 1970s beltway back into a 19th-century boulevard may be a trickier proposition.
That’s because the Périphérique is really the pivot on which Greater Paris currently turns. Julien Costatini of pro-driver advocacy group the French Association of Citizen Drivers (FFAC) suggests that if lanes were reduced on the road, existing arrangements wouldn’t be able to pick up the slack. “The Boulevard Périphérique is a much more vital artery for the Ile-de-France than Paris’s Voies sur Berges [the now-closed highways on the Seine’s lower quays] ever were,” he says. “The only current alternative to the Périphérique is the A86 motorway, which is already clogged to the point of the saturation, or the A104/N104, which is farther away and also clogged.”
Greater Paris has more than roads, of course. It also has public transit, with a degree of coverage that many suburban residents of North American cities would hanker for. Even with public transit arrangements, however, there is a lesser echo of the citywide divide created by the beltway. That’s because, without intending to, current public transit arrangements have served to create two separate networks, an urban and a suburban one. Poor connections between the two have helped to entrench greater Paris’s metropolitan divide. Plans to reduce car traffic on the beltway will create chaos unless these networks are expanded and better integrated. Thankfully, that’s a project that’s already underway.
Two Transit Networks, Divided by Riders
Paris’s urban/suburban divide persists on public transit, which runs two major systems that frequently overlap but don’t always interlock very well.
Inner Paris is well served by its Metro system, which boasts an impressive saturation of stations. Many of these lines cross the Périphérique into the suburbs, but they rarely do so for more than a few stations before reaching their termini. Most suburbanites therefore rely on an alternative network, the RER (Réseau Express Régional, or Regional Express Network) and to a lesser extent, a heavy rail commuter service called the Transilien.
In these two maps, the scale and scope of the two networks can be compared.
The RER extends deep into the Parisian region, providing fast commuter transit across a long distance. But the level of coverage is still far from perfect. Many suburban areas lie far enough from an RER station to make driving tempting.
The RER and Metro also don’t always have the best interconnections. RER Stations within Paris Intramuros are relatively few. When they do offer connections to the Metro, the gaps between lines are considerable—the combined Metro and RER hub at Châtelet is notoriously sprawling. While these limited interconnections are hardly an impassable barrier for suburbanites, having the two systems still tends to reinforce the suburban/urban divide.
Indeed, as film producer Naima Abed outlines, the suburbs themselves are psychologically divided between those that have direct access to the Metro and those that don’t. “The area I grew up in had a Metro station, and that made a huge difference. When we rode into Paris, we went through all the usual small stops, which meant the city was very much open and accessible for us. The RER, by contrast, is really about getting people in and out of town as commuters, rather than providing a full network. More generally, people from the suburbs coming to inner Paris for reasons other than work are more likely to focus socially on key RER hubs, such as around Châtelet.”
This means that, even within Paris Intramuros, a form of social separation occurs. The shopping mall at Les Halles (right next to Châtelet) for example, has developed a reputation as a suburban hangout. Meanwhile in the suburbs, the RER functions well enough in shuttling people in and out of the city core, but does a poor job of connecting suburban neighborhoods with each other. To create a less car-dependent metro area, Greater Paris is going to have to do something about this.
To an extent, it has already started. Since the 1990s, STIF, the regional transit body, has been threading parts of the suburbs with new streetcar lines. Eight lines that link up suburban neighborhoods over a medium distance are already in operation, and two more are on the way. That’s already a huge improvement, but the streetcars still can’t provide the links that could join the suburbs seamlessly to the city. For that, Paris has another plan.
One Ring to Connect Them All
This mammoth transit project deserves its grandiose title: The Grand Paris Express is a massive extension of the Metro network—not the RER—across the whole region, linking suburbs not just to the city, but to each other.
By 2030, two existing Metro lines (11 and 14) will have been extended further out into Greater Paris, while four new lines will be constructed that lie entirely outside the boundaries of Paris Intramuros. These four lines should not just open up more areas to the Metro, but also create far more seamless connections with existing services. Here’s a more detailed map of the proposed lines and how they surround the existing Metro network.
Line 15, for example, is a planned ring line (albeit one with a little protruding tail) that creates a public transit beltway for the wider city. When completed in 2030, 15 of its 36 stations will have connections with other Metro lines, 16 will have connections with the RER, 11 with streetcar lines, and six with the Transilien regional network. The costs for the mammoth project are projected to be around €30 billion, though some figures connected to the Express are warning that the figure could rise further.
Will it be worth it? If Paris is going to fulfill its promise to significantly reduce the proportion of journeys its citizens take by car, the transit expansion should make a major difference. But pushing it through will be a challenge. In the city centre, Mayor Hidalgo and her Socialist-led coalition can act alone. In Greater Paris, it must act as just one of many regions, overseen by a general regional council whose governing majority and president, Valerie Pécresse, hails from the right-leaning Republican Party.
Note here that French Republicans are not exactly like American ones: It would be unfair to paint Pécresse and her colleagues as un-complicatedly pro-car and anti-public transit. The whole region has been pushing forward the Grand Paris Express project. Pécresse has been a vocal advocate of suburban gondolas to facilitate better final-mile transit for commuters from major RER and Metro hubs, something that could actually make at least some sense in Greater Paris, thanks to the barriers that its rolling topography, various rivers, and many highways create.
In other ways, however, the city/suburb political debate tracks the American version: The regional president lobbied hard against the closure of the Seine’s lower quays to cars, drumming up a list of 150 greater Parisian mayors last year to protest the city’s plan as hostile to the interests of suburban commuters. Pécresse has recently softened her rhetoric a little, suggesting such sweeteners as more park-and-ride parking lots at suburban transit hubs and more river ferries to ease traffic. She has also proposed that a lower quay reopened to cars could operate at a lower speed limit. Pécresse may not have much say over what happens within Paris’s city limits—but her interventions are a reminder that the dominance of Mayor Hidalgo doesn’t extend beyond the beltway.
Since last January, the metro area has had an overarching political body to help push these delicate collaborations along. Called the Métropole du Grand Paris (Greater Paris Metropole), this appointed body is supposed to coordinate projects in Greater Paris’s four innermost Départements, plus a few denser districts beyond this boundary. Initially billed as a game changer, the Metropole appears to already be in trouble, suffering from so low a budget that its finance officer warns it may die “while still in the egg.”
Still, it will be worth following whether the vast and fractious capital can pull this off. Taken together, Paris is pursuing some of the most enlightened and progressive transit policies of any megacity. When it comes to resolving the political fragmentation that simultaneously makes radical action relatively easy in the city’s heart and relatively difficult in the grand patchwork beyond, it may nonetheless still have a long way to go.