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.

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.