In Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels, feminists are campaigning to name more streets after women

A poster showing Simone Veil in Paris. Image: Selma Franssen.

In Paris this summer, you can’t miss Simone Veil. The city is filled with ‘Merci Simone’ posters, and recently, the ‘Europe’ metro stop has been renamed in her honour.

Meanwhile, at the entrance of the Panthéon, signs chronicling her life story have appeared. They tell of how she was deported to Auschwitz when she was 16, where she lost her parents and brother; how she survived and started an impressive career as a magistrate, minister, first female president of the European Parliament and an academic; and how in 1975, as minister of health, she succeeded – against the will of her own political camp – in decriminalising abortion in 1975.

Where are the women in Paris?

On 1 July, Veil’s accomplishments saw her Veil added to the list of those buried in the Panthéon, a monument in the Latin Quarter. She is an exception. The Panthéon was originally a church dedicated to Sainte-Geneviève – but now it’s mainly a mausoleum for famous French men.

As Céline Piques, spokesperson for the group Osez le Féminisme (Dare to be a Feminist), explains: “72 men are buried there, but only four famous women were admitted on the basis of their own merits.”

The other three are scientist Marie Curie, and two members of the French resistance, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion. The only other woman buried in the Panthéon is Sophie Berthelot – who shares a grave with her husband, the chemist and politician Marcellin Berthelot. “I am very happy that Simone Veil joins their ranks,” Piques adds. “There may be a plaque saying ‘grands hommes’ above the entrance of the Panthéon, but women also built France.”

Osez le Féminisme is committed to increasing the visibility of women in the Parisian streets. Only 2.6 per cent of street names in Paris are named after a woman, and these are often the wife or daughter of a well-known man. In all, 31 per cent of all streets are named after men.


A few years ago, Osez le Féminisme plastered 60 street signs on Paris’s Île de la Cité with the names of famous women, such as Pont Josephine Baker, Boulevard Emilie du Châtelet and Quai de Nina Simone. “Names of landmarks honor the contributions that people made to science, art and politics,” Piques says. “And there are hardly any landmarks named after women. This not only means a part of history is forgotten, it also influences the image we have of what women can achieve in life.

“That is why we want to rename existing streets that are not named after a person, in order to equalise the balance between men and women. If we have to wait for the construction of new streets, it will take years. “

In recent weeks, the organisation has been campaigning to name two new metro stations after women. Just four of the 303 metro stops on Paris’ sixteen lines were already named after female figures; and there is a Rosa Parks station on the RER rail network in northern Paris, named after the American civil rights activist.

But because the metro network is being expanded, two new stops will be added. Osez le Féminisme called its supporters to vote for women in an online election which presented six possible names, three men and three women. The campaign was successful: the stations will be named after the famous singer Barbara and Lucie Aubrac, a resistance fighter who died in 2007. “This means that a total of six metro stations will be named after women,” Piques says. “It’s a start.”

A first for Brussels

The city of Brussels also turned to online crowdsourcing when selecting new street names in recent weeks. Some 28 streets are being added to the city – and residents from all over Belgium could submit proposals that had a link with Belgian history. It was the first time that Brussels had given its citizens the opportunity to propose street names.

Vesna Jusup, who works for the European Greens in Brussels and is an expert on gender and urban planning, says only four out of 54 Brussels metro stations refer to a woman. “Those four consist of two queens, a princess and a saint. As far as street names are concerned, it’s not much better: about 3 per cent are named after a woman, 22 per cent after a man.”

Several organisations have called for voters to nominate women for the new street names. The city itself asked for ‘poetry’ and that’s what they got: Brussels will soon have streets named ‘Ceci n’est pas une rue’ and ‘Frietgang’ (“Fries passage”). But there will also be a Chantal Akermanstraat and Isala Van Dieststraat, named after the famous Brussels-born film director and the first Belgian female doctor and feminist respectively.

Last month, Brussels MP Fatouma Sidibé (DéFi) filed a draft resolution to name more streets in Brussels for women, too.

Beyoncé Boulevard in Amsterdam?

In recent weeks, the Dutch activist group De Bovengrondse followed suit in several cities in the Netherlands, including Amsterdam. Stickers with alternative street names were pasted below the original signs, to indicate what could have been. De Dam in Amsterdam was renamed Dame (“Lady”); Rokin became Beyoncé Boulevard. Only 12 per cent of Dutch streets are named after women, according to the activists – and so they published a list of 12 women who should be given their own street as soon as possible.

Research by De Correspondent shows that 88 per cent of the streets in Amsterdam which are named after a person refer to a man; and that names from the historic black presence in Amsterdam are notably by their absence. Meanwhile, research by political party D66 Rotterdam recently showed that, in Rotterdam, 92 per cent of the street names named after people refer to white men. This “shows a very one-sided picture of Rotterdam’s history,” says council member Nadia Arsieni.  “This is no longer acceptable in a diverse Rotterdam.” She therefore submitted a proposal to change the guidelines for the naming of streets in Rotterdam.

A symbolic discussion?

Merci Simone. Image: Selma Franssen.

Not everyone agrees more people should be able to recognise themselves in street names, however. In the Dutch province of Flevoland, the local party Hart voor Urk filed a motion calling for more representation of white people through street signs, including controversial historical figures such as the admiral Michiel de Ruyter and Dutch East India Company officer Jan Pieterszoon Coen. The motion was unanimously adopted by the Urk city council. The actions of Osez le Féminisme in Paris and De Bovengrondse in Amsterdam weren’t free from criticism, either. Some critics suggested that street harassment is a much more pressing problem for women in public space.

Vesna Jusup agrees that the naming of landmarks does not directly yield more rights for women. But “it does create more awareness: if we know that people of colour and women historically contributed to our communities  and still do, this will advance their image as people we need to protect rather than attack.

“It also corrects the way in which women’s performance have been systematically wiped out or assigned to men over the centuries. History was not dominated by men, written history was dominated by men. And that includes street signs.”

Céline Piques points out that her organisation is active on both fronts. “A survey among women in Paris indicated that all women experience street intimidation. We also try to tackle this, with actions like ‘Take back the metro’, or by walking around town with women and identifying places where they feel unsafe.”


The streets don’t belong to everyone

Street harassment and lack of recognition of women in the public space are connected: both make women’s experience of public space differ from men’s. Throughout history, women have been more tied to the home – through laws, social codes, the threat of sexual violence or impractical clothing. To some extent, they still are. Prevalence of street intimidation shows that walking alone as a women is all too often interpreted as a sexual invitation. Girls and women are still told that they should not walk the streets alone.

But as Rebecca Solnit points out in her book Wanderlust, in which she investigates the history of walking, solo walking has often led to encounters and experiences that have inspired the work of writers, artists and political thinkers. “It is impossible to know what would have become of many of the great male minds had they been unable to move at will through the world. Picture Aristotle confined to the house, John Muir in full skirts,” she writes.

Change may be slow, but these actions and campaigns matter, as does counteracting street harassment. Leaving the merits of women unrecognised in public space confirms the idea that women are less important than men and can be treated as such.

And those who feel less safe and free in public space have fewer opportunities to think, to daydream, to see, to meet and to accomplish. In short: fewer chances to leave an impression on history – which in turn can lead to being honored with a street name sign.

Selma Franssen is a Dutch freelance journalist, based in Brussels.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.