Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The city has waged a remarkably successful effort to get cars off its streets and reclaim walkable space. But it didn’t happen overnight.
Wrap your head around this: in terms of mode share, driving within Paris city limits has dropped about 45 percent since 1990, according to a recent paper in the French journal Les Cahiers Scientifiques du Transport. Meanwhile, the share of cyclists has increased tenfold over the same timeframe. Transit’s mode share has risen by 30 percent.
For comparison’s sake, the share of trips made by car in New York City has shrunk since the 1990s, too. But about twice as many trips still take place inside a car. Check out the graph below, from the New York City Department of Transportation, to see how the cities’ mode share shifts stack up over time.
Paris’ remarkable shift did not occur on its own, and it didn’t happen overnight. Car traffic increased steadily for most of the 20th century until the 1990s, writes Fréderic Héran, the University of Lille transportation economist who authored the paper. On top of from rising global fuel prices, the factors contributing to what Héran calls the “reconquest of public space” are manifold. The city’s recent leaders have gone above and beyond their predecessors in pedestrianizing the city—but earlier mayors laid key foundations for their work, Héran writes.
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 years 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.
It’s also worth noting that Paris has also seen a significant decline in traffic fatalities—roughly a 40 percent drop since 2010, according to data provided to CityLab by the Association Prévention Routière. Outside of Paris, the situation is quite different: Like the U.S., France has seen an uptick in traffic fatalities in recent years, thanks to an increase in car travel and distracted driving. The national government recently responded by announcing speed limit reductions on two-way highways.
Paris still has its work cut out when it comes to its infamous smog. The French capital drew international attention at the end of 2016 when it surpassed Delhi and Beijing as having the worst air quality among major global cities. The main culprit is pollution from the diesel vehicles that proliferate in France; until recently, the French government subsidized diesel fuel. Now the national goal is to ban the sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040.
Right now, in the absence of much federal support in the U.S., it can feel like the mayors of American cities are attempting taking it upon themselves to save the planet. If there is a lesson that Paris can teach the rest of the urban world, it may be that major shifts can happen—but they take time. A dramatic mode shift towards walking, biking, and transit “does not depend on injunctions from authorities,” writes Héran (my translation) in a related paper. “It increases when transport policies are logical and holistic, combining traffic calming techniques with the implementation of credible alternatives.”
Translation of that translation: One leader probably can’t do it alone. It takes years of thoughtful, comprehensive planning.