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.