Mayor Anne Hidalgo is making Paris more friendly to cyclists – and more hostile to cars

Avoiding the strikes. Image: Getty.

Since Anne Hidalgo’s election as Mayor of Paris in 2014, she has pursued a genuinely radical agenda of greening the city by creating “urban forests” and re-engineering some of the city’s squares and roundabouts to be less centred on cars. Yet by far the most radical transformation Hidalgo has overseen has been the radical expansion of protected cycle lanes around the city.

The results are astonishing: cycling rates have gone up by 50 per cent in one year alone. On some streets, installing protected cycle lanes doubled or tripled numbers of cyclists using them. Pollution is down. More Parisians now cycle every day than take line 1 of the metro, the busiest of the lot. Car use in Paris is falling for the first time since the 1940s.  

The quality of the new cycle lanes is variable. Some, like those passing in front of the Louvre on Rue de Rivoli and another on Boulevard de Sébastopol, are world-class, segregated from traffic and wide enough for cyclists to ride four abreast. Segregated cycle lanes now line the length of the most famous avenue in the world, the Champs Elysées.

As of this summer, cyclists can cross all of Paris along the left bank of the river, separated from traffic the entire way. Meanwhile, on the right bank of the Seine, completely free of motor traffic since 2016, cyclists mix with boozy sunbathers, tourists on electric scooters, and giggling children. Most importantly, none are jostling for space with motorised traffic – so there is little tension between the groups.

Other infrastructure is less good, varying from faded paint on pavements to simple signposting allowing cyclists to go down one-way streets. Southern Paris remains badly served by protected cycle lanes. Only half of the city’s plan vélo has been implemented – though even this incomplete goal has still done far more for cycling than other comparable cities could dream of.

Completed cycle routes are in blue; those under construction in orange. Image: City of Paris.

Still, Paris is a city whose cycling potential is huge – as long as the right infrastructure is delivered, as Hidalgo’s administration has realised. The city proper is physically small, just five or six miles across, so it can crossed from one end to the other in around 25 minutes by bike. It is criss-crossed by a dense network of wide avenues, well-suited to accommodating segregated cycle lanes, while the residential streets are often tiny, calming motor traffic through their design.

Seventy years of what activists disparagingly term le tout-voiture – car-centred planning – have left their mark on the city. Hidalgo’s vision is of reversing that planning – with the eventual aim of making Paris the first large mostly car-free city. She plans to ban diesel cars by 2024 and fuel cars by 2030 if re-elected this year.

One unexpected boon to Hidalgo’s vision has been the ongoing strikes which have paralysed Paris’s public transport network. Called in protest at President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to reform the pension system, the strikes have shut down most metro, tram, bus, and suburban rail services since 5 December.


In advance of the strike, bike shops saw an explosion of interest in the vehicle the French affectionately nickname la petite reine – the little queen. Right-wing Parisians, who grumbled about Hidalgo and the never-ending construction she has overseen to transform the city, are reluctantly conceding that her vision is right. “She’s convinced me. I found her rather sectarian before, but now I’m asking myself whether she is not a visionary and me a Luddite,” says one.

Hidalgo’s courage in facing down the critics of her ambitious measures is to be commended. Whether she is re-elected this May or not, her vision of a greener Paris with fewer cars and more space allocated to pedestrians and cyclists has been accepted by all major contenders for the mayoralty. The right bank will not be reopened to motor traffic. No cycle lanes will be dismantled. Several candidates for mayor intend to build on Hidalgo’s anti-car policies, with some even advocating the gradual closure of the périphérique ring road that cuts off Paris from its immediate suburbs.

There are several lessons to be learned from Paris. The first is that a determined mayoralty with significant powers over most roads is able to take more decisive action on cycling than in cities where other entities have the final say. Commutes and leisure trips do not take account of administrative borders between arrondissements – and so, neither should cycle routes. A significant failing of Paris’s cycle network is that infrastructure cuts off at the edge of Paris, where Hidalgo’s jurisdiction ends. She is fortunate to have control over most of the roads within Paris proper.

The second lesson is that taking space away from cars is popular. Plans for pedestrianised streets and cycle lanes are invariably opposed by NIMBYs. Yet administrations like Hidalgo’s with the courage to push through construction will find opposition tapers off once voters realise the benefits that come with reduced car traffic and better infrastructure for alternative modes of transport.

Less pollution, less congestion, more footfall for local businesses – the benefits of reallocating urban space away from cars are increasingly widely recognised. Now other cities need to follow Paris’s lead.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.