Paris’s street pattern — avenues radiating from destinations and intersecting at odd angles as one radial pattern confronts another — makes the city interesting to explore (and difficult to know without a map always at hand). Its small streets and some of its medium-size “connecting” streets remain amazing examples of how to draw in and maintain an individual’s interest.

We call this the “art of the path” — the way a sidewalk or park trail engages your attention, making it an asset to the surrounding environment. Small gaps along a path can be brushed by as a walker moves on, but larger interruptions by the wrong use — a long blank wall or a loading dock — can ruin a whole blockfront. Many of Paris’s streets respect the art of the path, thanks largely to the consistent excellence of street-level retail architecture, but this quality is diminished by the increasingly oppressive presence of traffic.

For Paris to survive as a livable city, sanity must be restored to traffic management along main thoroughfares and around major focal points.

Unfortunately, Paris is becoming a collection of destinations without accommodating the ability of people to get from one place to another. The current preference for automobiles has resulted in a lack of pedestrian-friendly connections between destinations. The walkable Paris is threatened by excessively fast vehicle traffic on the roads along the Seine, traffic-dominated focal points such as Place de la Concorde, and the conversion of historically significant boulevards into giant parking lots for cars. (One major exception has been the removal of parking from the Champs Elysées, and the broadening of newly paved sidewalks.)

This single-minded mission to maintain traffic flow, maximize roadway space, and accommodate legal and illegal parking wherever possible detracts enormously from the pedestrian experience. Public spaces have been separated from one another to such a degree that people often need to travel by Metro for short distances rather than walk along the surface. This detracts from the wonderful experience of discovering things while walking from place to place, and leaves many streets and neighborhoods unseen.

In Place de la Concorde, automobiles take precedent over pedestrians.

For Paris to survive as a livable city in the long term, sanity must be restored to the traffic management along main thoroughfares and around major focal points. Other cities have made progress in this area. In London, a “congestion pricing area” demarcated last year has already resulted in a 36% decrease in private transport within its boundaries. This decision has made London a city where people can once again ride a bus that won’t be bogged down in traffic. Not only that, but people can also shop or stroll along thoroughfares like Oxford Street without the overwhelming intrusion of vehicles. By examining the results of recent steps taken in London and other cities, such as Zurich, Copenhagen, Curitiba, and Bogota, we learn what a city can achieve when the negative impacts of the automobile are mitigated.

The presence of vehicles on Paris sidewalks infringes on human life and ultimately eats away the soul of the city.

In spite of these recent examples, to get from destination to destination along the major thoroughfares in Paris can be a miserable experience. Walking between the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay and from the Tuileries to the Champs-Elysées are dangerous exercises. It is also unpleasant to cross the streets to reach many of the city’s major destinations. For example, before entering one of the world’s greatest parks, Luxembourg Gardens, one encounters frenetic traffic on two of the four roadways that surround it. The park is a gem gleaming across the street, but the chaotic roadway is a major barrier, separating the park from the neighborhood around it –- what we call “the outer park.” The result is that the adjacent neighborhood is not a natural extension of the park, and vice versa. (A mitigating factor is that there are entrances on all sides of the park, six in total.)

Taking a bus in Paris can also be a frustrating experience. Along some of the city’s major streets you can walk faster than the bus chugging along next to you. While the addition of special bus lanes to streets such as Rue de Rivoli has helped to some degree, every driver seems to think they can use these lanes as well.

The bus stops in Paris are top-notch, but the buses themselves get bogged down in city traffic.

While the larger streets and boulevards dominate the city with their fast-moving traffic, the small streets have become a refuge. In fact, sometimes it seems that tourists populate and actually take over the smaller streets to the detriment of local residents. This is especially true where all traffic has been removed to form pedestrian-only zones. In fact, the effect of these zones, except when they are for street markets such as Buci and Mouffetard, has been to cheapen the area, attracting loiterers and driving away residents.

To witness a city such as Paris surrender itself piece by piece to the supposed needs of the automobile is unspeakably tragic.

The danger in this situation is that the small streets no longer serve as reservoirs of neighborhood shops for local residents. These streets are so overwhelmed with stores for tourists they leave residents no alternative but to walk the busier, more uncomfortable streets with their less personal shopping experience. A tell-tale sign is evident in the numerous Paris “walking” guides. These books show very few walks along or through the traffic-dominated areas of the city. On a broader level, this phenomenon illustrates how the vehicle has eroded the sense of identity we derive from our neighborhoods.

Since many of Paris’s boulevards and squares have fallen victim to excessive vehicular use, the city’s sidewalks should provide sanctuary for pedestrians… But do they? Sadly, the answer is “No.” Increasingly, pedestrians find themselves competing for sidewalk space with parked cars, motorcycles, and scooters. A common scenario: You’re standing on a corner waiting to cross the street when suddenly a throttling motorcycle pulls up beside you, ready to disembark from the sidewalk where it has been illegally parked.

The city's street life is diminished by allowing vehicles to occupy space once reserved for pedestrians.

Jane Jacobs described the erosion of cities by automobiles as “a kind of nibbling, small nibbles at first, but eventually hefty bites.” The presence of vehicles on Paris sidewalks is a prime example of “nibbling” in action. It infringes on human life and ultimately eats away the soul of the city. To fully grasp the consequences, you need only watch the city’s children and elderly people navigate their neighborhoods with fear, denied their comfort by the ubiquity of vehicles.

To witness a city such as Paris surrender itself piece by piece to the supposed needs of the automobile is unspeakably tragic. Paris will always be great, but if it is to retain its unique station as the urban ideal to which other cities aspire, it needs to begin recognizing the small opportunities to preserve and create spaces that allow comfortable, natural human activity.

Critical Issues: Streets was last modified: March 6th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces
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