By Juliette Michaelson

Over the course of the 20th century, Paris, like many cities, fell victim to the ever-growing presence of the automobile. Unlike many other cities, however, Paris has embarked on a major campaign to turn the tide. The Greater Paris Region’s Transportation Master Plan has no qualms about its three-pronged goal of reducing car traffic particularly in the areas that are well served by buses and trains; improving public transit; and encouraging walking and biking as important modes of urban transportation. These aren’t just empty words. Thanks in large part to the leadership of Bertrand Delanoë, Paris’s mayor since 2001, the Master Plan is actually leading to some of the most progressive urban transportation efforts in the world.

At this intersection, a sign explains traffic-calming improvements planned by the Mayor’s office.

For Delanoë, dealing with the city’s traffic is the most important quality-of-life issue faced by the city today. Bumper-to-bumper traffic jams, cars parked every which way, slow buses and dangerous cycling and walking conditions have tarnished the traditional beauty and comfort — and therefore the competitive edge — of the City of Lights. If Paris wants to compete in a globalized world, it must provide a high quality of life for its residents, workers and visitors.

When he was elected, Delanoë pointed out that “private motorists, who make up a quarter of road users, use up 94 percent of Paris’s road surfaces.” Much of his transportation work since then has focused on better balancing street space between motorists and transit-users, pedestrians, bicyclists and even rollerbladers. Across Paris, sidewalks have been widened, bike lanes striped, and trees planted. There are currently almost 200 miles of dedicated bike lanes in Paris. A new light rail line is being constructed around the periphery of the city, linking together a dozen subway and express train lines. The first section of the tramway will open in 2006, with an expected daily ridership of 100,000 passengers. Trains will be four minutes apart and nearly 40% faster than the existing buses.

More than 80% of Parisians approve of the changes and want more.

The most controversial of Delanoë’s projects so far, however, has been the construction of 25 miles of dedicated bus lanes along some of the city’s most important boulevards. Bus users love the new corridors since they allow buses to move much faster (twice as fast on the corridors, 25% faster city-wide) and more regularly — so regularly, in fact, that the city is now installing a panel with real-time bus information at every bus shelter. Drivers, though, hate the new bus lanes because they are a whopping 13 feet wide and aggressively separated from the rest of the street with an imposing concrete barrier. (The lanes are 13 feet wide in order to comfortably accommodate bicyclists and buses.)

That’s not all. Delanoë is also consciously making it more difficult for people to drive in Paris. The city’s “red axes,” dedicated in the 1980s for express traffic on one-way boulevards with no on-street parking, are slowly being turned back into narrower, slower, two-way streets with bike lanes. Even the expressway on the Right Bank along the Seine will eventually be eliminated if Delanoë has his way (right now, it is already closed one month every summer for Paris Plage, when the expressway turns into a public beach covered with tons of hauled-in sand — also a Delanoë project). Several “Paris Respire” (Paris Breathes) zones have been designated, where driving is not allowed on Sundays or holidays.

Paris Plage transforms an expressway by the Seine into public beach for residents who can’t afford to vacation outside the city.

Paris’ parking policy has also recently been redesigned to discourage car use. Every year, 55,000 on-street parking spots are being eliminated. Free parking will also soon be a thing of the past. The city’s goal is to make it easy and affordable to park in Parisians’ home neighborhoods (75 cents a day), but very expensive and difficult to park in other areas (up to $4 dollars an hour).

Another idea on the drawing board is to turn the traffic-choked heart of Paris into a car-free oasis. Under this plan, by 2012 only residents, buses, delivery vans and emergency vehicles will be allowed inside a 2.2-square-mile zone of the Right Bank that includes the Louvre, the Opéra, the Marais, Les Halles and the Ile de la Cité.

Paris has joined the ranks of major cities aggressively pursuing new ways to balance the needs of pedestrians, cars, and transit.

So far, City Hall’s transportation management efforts have been successful. Car speeds have remained stable at about 7.5 miles per hour, but bus speeds have increased significantly. Air pollution also appears to be decreasing. Paris had two pollution alerts last year, down from nine in 2001. Meanwhile, the use of public transportation in the greater Paris region rose by 5.5% last year. According to a survey conducted last year, more than 80% of Parisians approve of the changes and want more.

They are certainly going to get more — a lot more if Delanoë’s first four years in office are any indication. The city is now in the early stages of its most ambitious project yet to reclaim public space from automobiles: sinking the Périphérique–the highway that goes around the city–and covering it with a huge park.

After lagging for a time, Paris has joined the ranks of Bogotá, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and London — major cities intent on improving public space by aggressively pursuing new ways to balance the needs of pedestrians, cars, and transit. Though Delanoë’s sweeping changes may be imperfect (our source says that Paris’s low-income suburbs need more transit links to the city center now that auto access has diminished), from PPS’s vantage point in the U.S. there is much to applaud and little to criticize. The Mayor has realized that traffic management, done in the name of reclaiming city streets for people, is a political winner. The same could be true in American cities, but such speculation will remain idle until Delanoë’s counterparts in the U.S. dare to value people more than cars.