Over the past six years, Paris has done more than almost any city in the world to take the place back from cars. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has opened linear parks in old highways along the Seine, phased out diesel cars in the city, opened bus lanes, raised parking meter prices, and plowed bike lanes under hundreds of streets. When COVID hit, Paris removed cars from its major square, the Rue de Rivoli. Plans are afoot to walk the Champs-Elysées and plant thousands of trees to make the city green, clean and cool.
As Assistant Mayor for Transportation and Public Space, David Belliard is the key figure for many of these efforts. His latest projects include setting up car-free zones outside schools and implementing the capital’s new speed limit of 30 kmph – a notch down from 20 mph.
Earlier this month, I met him in his office to talk about Paris, COVID and cars. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Balliard: You want an overview?
Henry Graber: Sure
OK, quick: 20 . at the beginning ofth In the century, ’20s, ’30s, the car presented itself as a travel mode in urban centers that transformed. Paris is clearly an old city with an urban fabric with many centuries of history. Even though it was called by Hausmann 19. was changed toth century, it has an extremely dense urban fabric with very small streets and a configuration possibly Not auto friendly. When the car arrives, we transform what we might call a public space, and this public space becomes the automobile space, the logical system of the car imposing itself in Paris. And public space is completely consumed, consumed, and privatized in a certain way for a single, unique use.
Very quickly we see the limits of ‘total car’ in Paris, even in the ’60s and ’70s. We try to say, “How can we preserve this city?” Well, by driving the cars underground. So we build parking, even the entire highway, under Paris. But there is a street protest on the Seine. There were protests. When we parked under Notre Dame, there was a lot of protest, as they were going to graze down the crypt.
did he do that?
They did not, but the crypt was enclosed in a concrete case so that it could be set up with a parking lot.
Beginning in the 90s, negative externalities become more apparent in terms of road deaths and injuries, danger to children and older people, and air pollution. The right-wing mayor began building a bike path. But when I arrived in 2001, 2002, I immediately bought a bike, and that was war. It was really hard to ride in Paris, and I never felt safe. They built bike paths, and we called them “death paths.”
You mention that he was right wing to show that this was not a political project?
It was a normal movement. We chose the authorities to give less space to the cars on this offer. The reserved bus lane was a complete scam. Bike lanes actually started in 2015. We are in a situation where climate change is accelerating, manifested in heat waves of 107, 109 degrees and 122 degrees over 10 or 20 years. This means that if we do nothing we will not be able to live in Paris, because the city is very vulnerable right now.
The public space of Paris is rare, precious and very useful. It belongs to all and cannot be captured by a unique use, which is the automobile. Even today, 50 percent of the public space in Paris is devoted to cars, whether on the street or parked. This represents only 10 percent of visits.
I know this is a movement with a long history, but how has COVID changed your outlook? It has given you the opportunity to get projects done more quickly, perhaps, but at the same time, has it forced you to reconsider the idea that Paris can always be the central business district for a million people every day?
First, COVID allowed us to accelerate some things, especially with regards to cycling. We built a lot—in two years, since then [Hidalgo’s re-election in June 2020], more bike lanes than in the entire preceding period. There is a strong taste for biking that we have seen growing up over the years, but COVID was a kind of electroshock.
The question that has cropped up with COVID, climate, social pressures is this: What is a city? Can we still think of cities like we did a century ago? Can we still have large cities that occupy so many economic and cultural resources that require hundreds of thousands of people to work, consume, etc. from the periphery to the center?
You don’t think there is any element of social boycott? Paris is a small part of the metropolis, making it the most expensive place to live, so by limiting parking and access to private cars, you favor those who already live in Paris, while those who live in Banyley live they can get more access to Paris. Limited.
Who lives in Paris? Nothing against you, but you assumed that everyone in Paris is rich, which is not true. In Paris, like in many urban centers, you have huge social inequalities. 19. more than 20 percent ofth arrondissement [a large, outer district on the city’s eastern edge] Lives below poverty line. Who uses his car today? Generally, and especially when you do business, it’s rich. One in three Parisians has a car. 20. Inth, the level drops towards 15 percent. On the other hand, 16. Inth, a neighborhood that is very bourgeois, it is close to one per family. The same is true in the suburbs.
We always say “Madame Michaux, a nurse at the hospital Saint-Antoine, who lives on the edge of Paris, must take her car when she works at night, poor thing, it has to be parked!” First, parking is free at night. Madame Michaux, I know her, my mother was Madame Michaux. She takes public transport. Eighty percent of trips between Paris and the suburbs are by public transport. And for the other 20 percent, much is tied to small businesses.
The redistribution of public space is a policy of social redistribution. Fifty percent of the public space is occupied by private cars, used mostly by the richest people, and mostly by men, as it is mostly men who drive, and so overall, half the richest men. using a public place. So if we give space to walking, biking and public transport, you give back public space to those categories of people who are underprivileged today.
In the US, a lot of the opposition comes from small businesses, for projects that prioritize pedestrians. Have you tried to convince them that it is in their best interest?
It’s the reverse. Many of them believe that they are going to lose business because there will be less traffic. All figures show the opposite. Every time we experiment, we see that firstly, a large part of their customers do not use a car to get to their place, and then, those who bike and walk, they see people in cars. consume more than So really, what we are trying to do is not convincing, but argue it by proving that it works.
When I listen to debate, when I look at social media, I see right wing elected officials Talk about a Paris that doesn’t exist. I think everyone is living in the 80s, with their big jeeps, driving their kids to school, big trucks delivering sofas. The city I see parents using cargo bikes – that’s exploding – the post office that is powering most of its fleet, a parking lot near Notre Dame a warehouse for groceries and turned into a distribution center.
Anne Hidalgo is running for the presidency. Is there a national element to the achievements here, something for those who do not live in Paris?
I am from country I attended high school in Vessol—East of France with 18,000 residents, the biggest employer was Peugeot. It is a city marked by car. Forty kilometers away you have a big city, Besançon. It’s a beautiful city, I invite you to visit, it’s great.
These two cities were bound by a railroad, which disappeared in the 1930s. Who changed? From a road which has substantially increased to four lanes. The mayor of Besançon is Green, we were saying, “Can we keep doing this? Big highways through countryside? “The question we ask about car space in urban centers can be asked everywhere, and especially in rural areas. Obviously you’re not going to do a bike path between Vesol and Besançon, but clearly, can’t we just put the money we put into the route to a railroad line to make it a public service? This is a question that can be asked everywhere. France has an incredible rail network in terms of density, and we’ve closed dozens, hundreds of lines. In the presidential campaign, it must be a challenge – to reshape those lines.
Are you suggesting that there is something to these anti-car politics that might be appealing to anyone who supports Gillettes Jaunes, the yellow-vest protesters who occupied French cities two years ago?
What is Gillette’s Jones? People are saying, ‘We have enough gas prices going up.’ To be honest, they are right. When I was in Wessol I was required to have a car, the car was not an object of liberation, but of slavery. I couldn’t do anything without my car. So obviously, we’re asking them to pay more for something they need to use. The question of choices is a fundamental question.