How Paris is Beating Traffic Without Congestion Pricing

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Biking by the Seine during car-free hours on the Georges Pompidou Expressway.

The mayor of a global metropolis, elected to his first term in 2001, set out to reduce driving and promote greener modes of transportation in his city. Congestion pricing turned out to be unfeasible, because influential political forces in the suburbs believed, rightly or wrongly, that charging people to drive into the urban core was regressive. Undaunted, the mayor found other means to achieve his transportation agenda.

The mayor is Bertrand Delanoë, and the city is Paris, where private auto use has dropped 20 percent in a few short years.

As Mayor Bloomberg and the team at DOT chart a way forward without London-style congestion charging, it's worth noting that for all the differences between New York and Paris, Delanoë also confronted a vocal car culture while winning huge victories for pedestrians, bikes, and transit. To get a better sense of how New York can apply the lessons of Paris, Streetsblog spoke to Luc Nadal and Aimée Gauthier of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy about the hurdles faced by Delanoë and his deputy mayor for transportation, Denis Baupin.

To begin with, congestion pricing was considered completely untenable from a political point of view. Paris proper is not much larger than the proposed congestion zone in New York, and like Manhattan it is increasingly seen as the domain of the prosperous. Levying a fee perceived mainly to affect the working-class suburbs "would be very difficult to sell politically," said Nadal. "Mayor Delanoë put that solution aside from the beginning."

Delanoë and Baupin decided instead to rethink how the public right-of-way was divvied up on Paris streets. In 2002, they launched Quartiers Verts ("Green Neighborhoods"), an initiative to improve pedestrian space and reduce traffic in residential areas. The administration anticipated especially strong opposition to the parking policies in the plan -- higher rates, a reduction in the amount of on-street parking, and the elimination of free parking altogether. To counteract the expected outcry, the city tied those reforms to the introduction of residential parking permits, which are now available for a nominal yearly fee. With RPP still fresh in New Yorkers' minds following the congestion pricing debate, could permits be an effective carrot in a similar overhaul of parking policy here?

Delanoë's next major initiative -- Espaces Civilisés ("Civilized Spaces") -- took aim at Paris's most car-friendly boulevards. The first such project, on Boulevard de Magenta, trimmed a six-lane road down to two traffic lanes and two bus lanes, with the remainder going to sidewalks and street trees. This substantial redistribution of space did not happen overnight. Launched in 2002, Espaces Civilisés yielded its first finished boulevard in 2005. About half a dozen such transformations have been completed so far, with plans for another on the way.


Separate bus and bike lanes on Boulevard Rochechouart, one of Paris's new "civilized spaces."

As DOT embarks on a roughly similar project for 34th Street, Paris offers some insight about what to expect from the public and the press. "There’s been widespread satisfaction on the part of the public at large, and the local communities," said Nadal. "However, there’s been a lot of media activity around the congestion that some of these projects have caused during construction and after." The media fixation on slower traffic flows was picked up by Delanoë's political opposition, though Nadal notes it didn't find much traction. "They tried to use it as best they could," he said, but Delanoë was re-elected to a second six-year term last fall, garnering 58 percent of the vote.

The construction of physically separated lanes for buses and bikes also set off concerns about business deliveries. The great majority of new bus lanes are curbside, so the city identified places to reserve for delivery parking, Nadal said. A new type of permit was issued for store owners, contractors, and other businesses who need short-term parking for trucks and vans. Vehicles with the delivery permit can park in the special slots for up to 30 minutes at no charge.


A delivery zone set off from a separated bus lane. At four meters wide, the lanes are designed to allow buses to pass bicycles and half-parked delivery vehicles (photo: Luc Nadal).

The Quartiers Verts and Espaces Civilisés initiatives helped generate a 50 percent increase in bicycle modeshare, but the boost wasn't visible enough to justify the expense of the bike infrastructure. Then came Vélib, the city's ambitious bikeshare system. Part of the motivation behind Vélib, said Gauthier, was to make better use of existing bikeways. Providing public access to more than 10,000 bikes that anyone can ride for a pittance has doubled the number of bike trips made on Paris streets. Bicycle modeshare now stands at about three percent.

This transformative leap has come at a minimal perceived cost to the city, thanks to a deal with JCDecaux, the outdoor advertising giant. "The Vélib program was a really innovative way of packaging a deal so it didn't cost a lot of money," said Gauthier. "They worked with Decaux to implement the whole system. Total investment and operation costs are covered by Decaux. In return they get the right to do public advertising. That way it doesn't feel like it's taxpayer expense." While Decaux retains the revenue from billboards, bus shelters, and other advertising in public spaces, the city pockets the fares paid by Vélib customers, estimated to exceed 30 million euros per year (even though the first 30 minutes of bike rental are free). For more details on the Vélib contract, fee structure, and other aspects of the Paris mobility plan, see the 2007 edition [PDF] of ITDP's magazine, Sustainable Transport.

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The Vélib station on Rue Louis Blanc. Most stations have replaced on-street parking spaces, adding up to thousands of fewer spaces for cars by the time of full implementation.

"Vélib has been a smashing success politically and in the media," said Nadal. After seeing Vélib in action, Paris's inner-ring suburbs -- the rough equivalent of New York's outer boroughs -- clamored for their own piece of it. Already, a few municipalities have partially implemented some form of bikeshare. The Paris experience suggests that, in New York, launching an intensive pilot program with stations clustered in a dense network in one part of the city -- the band between 14th and Houston, say -- could set the stage for an incremental but steady buy-in from other neighborhoods.

The expansion of Vélib has not come without challenges. For one, Paris's suburbs have their own contracts with outdoor advertising firms. To integrate with the Paris system, each would have to reach an agreement with JCDecaux, raising legal questions of unfair competition. Putting aside the vagaries of French anti-trust law, the pertinent issue for New York is that Paris and its metro region must also cope with problems of disjointed jurisdiction and bureaucratic silos. Nowhere is this more instructive than in the case of the Mobilien, the BRT-esque system launched by Delanoë and Baupin.


Paris has built dedicated busways for the Mobilien. Expanding enhanced bus service region-wide will require complex negotiations between the regional transportation authority and different municipalities.

Featuring dedicated bus corridors, signal priority, and raised stations, the Mobilien required the city to make significant changes to the infrastructure of Paris streets, including the conversion of on-street parking to bus right-of-way. At first, of course, there was an outcry. In the neighborhood of Montparnasse on the Left Bank, the locals held a funeral procession for the neighborhood and flew flags that read, "Le Mort de Montparnasse" ("The Death of Montparnasse"). The owner of the famous Café Select worried that the loss of parking space would kill his business. Now most of his employees have a reliable bus to get them to work, and it's nicer to sit at a sidewalk café on a street that isn't choked with traffic. "We've come to love it," he said.

Taking the Mobilien across city limits, however, is proving trickier than winning over public opinion. The bus network is planned by a regional authority that negotiates routes with each municipality. "Decisionmaking can be protracted and political," said Nadal, especially since some suburbs are much more car-oriented than Paris. In last year's local elections, candidates debated whether to streamline this process by creating a new municipal jurisdiction that would include the first ring of suburbs. By comparison, some of the inter-agency cooperation that would most benefit New York -- like having the MTA agree to let DOT's BRT routes cross East River bridges -- looks like a walk in the park.

Along with expanding Vélib, the Mobilien, and a new network of tramways ringing the city, Delanoë plans to use his second term to launch a system of car-sharing, or, to use the French term, "autopartage." Renting a public car will cost significantly more than a Vélib bike, though regular use would add up to much less, of course, than maintaining a car of one's own. While the network of car-sharing stations -- located mostly in existing garages -- is intended to actually reduce car ownership, the administration has cannily pitched it as proof that Delanoë is not out to get motorists. "He can say that he is not anti-car, but for a rational use of cars when there's really a need," said Nadal.

Appeasing and outfoxing the auto lobby in one fell swoop -- that's the kind of deft maneuver Delanoë has relied on more than any innate Parisian antipathy to the car. Something to keep in mind the next time someone says they can do it Paris but never in New York.

Photos: Top two - Ben Fried; Delivery space - Luc Nadal; Vélib station - xtof/Flickr; Mobilien - Aaron Naparstek.