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Adieu, Cars: Paris Riverfront to Be Permanently Returned to the People

A rendering of the Right Bank of the Seine -- sans highway. Rendering: Luxigon

A rendering of the Right Bank of the Seine — sans highway. Credit: Luxigon

After years of experimentation, the Paris City Council this week committed to the permanent conversion of two miles of the Georges Pompidou expressway along the River Seine into a waterfront park.

The 1960s expressway carried two lanes of traffic and about 43,000 vehicles a day along the Right Bank of the river. But beginning in 2011, the highway had been converted for part of the summer each year to a beach and waterfront promenade. The “Paris-Plages,” as it was called, was popular with tourists and locals as well, seeing as many as four million visitors annually.

The Georges Pompidou expressway carried about 43,000 vehicles daily. Photo: Preservation Institute

The Georges Pompidou expressway carried about 43,000 vehicles daily. Photo: Preservation Institute

During the past few months, Mayor Anne Hidalgo piloted a temporary closure to test conditions for permanently opening the space to pedestrians and cyclists.

Although there was some outcry from motorists, they were overshadowed by supporters of the conversion. According to the UK Independent, 55 percent of Parisians supported the conversion plan. Support for the project reflects Paris’ progress in shifting away from motor vehicles. According to Slate‘s Henry Grabar, 60 percent of Parisians do not own cars. That’s up from 40 percent just 15 years ago.

The conversion to a park will cost about $50 million, an investment that is expected to benefit the city’s tourism-based economy.

The park plan is part of a wider set of efforts by Mayor Hidalgo aimed at reducing air pollution and dependence on cars. She has also presided over the city’s first car-free days and intends to eventually limit the famous Champs-Élysées to electric vehicles only. Her predecessor, Bertrand Delanoë was the original proponent of converting the highway into a park, and was responsible for beginning the “Paris-Plages.”

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Paris to Return Its Great Public Squares to the People

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Paris’s Place de la République, before and after a 2012 redesign. Before photo: Google Street View; after photo: Clem/Flickr

If you look at paintings from the pre-automotive era, Paris’s monumental public squares were full of people strolling comfortably. But over time, car traffic has consumed most of these squares.

Now, under Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris is setting out to remake the city’s squares as great public gathering places.

The city is currently in the midst of an initiative to turn seven plazas and squares into pedestrian-friendly spaces, including the Place de la Bastille, Place de la Madeleine, and Place du Pantheon. Each will be redesigned with the goal of dedicating at least 50 percent of the land area to walking, biking, and public space. And for each project, the city will test out several different configurations, with public feedback and a rigorous analysis of how people use the space determining which version sticks.

The New York-based firm Placemeter is observing how people use the squares and compiling data for Paris officials. The company is currently using cameras to collect travel information from Plaza de la Nation, where six different designs will be piloted over the course of a year.

“You could call it tactical urbanism — testing,” said Placemeter’s Florent Peyre. “All of them will go through a phase of temporary installing with deployments before selecting the winning design.”

Place de la Nation “has a lot of symbolic importance for Parisians,” said Peyre, and serves as a major gathering center for protests. But on a typical day it is practically overrun by fast-moving car traffic.

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Scenes From the Big Car-Free Day in Paris

The air was noticeably clearer yesterday over the city of Paris, where people walking, biking, skating, and otherwise getting around without a motor took over streets generally packed with cars, including the Champs Elysées.

About a third of Paris was free of motorized vehicles from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., except for buses and taxis. Car speeds were capped at 20 kilometers per hour in the rest of the city.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo, at the urging of activists, initiated the massive car-free event as a lead-in to the city hosting COP21, the United Nations’ upcoming conference on climate change. Paris is plagued by diesel exhaust, and the skies over the city were noticeably bluer yesterday, according to the Guardian. The exhaust cleared. The rumble of traffic was gone. People seemed happier and less stressed.

One of the tens of thousands who took to the streets told the Guardian it was “like a headache lifting.”

Camille Carnoz of the bike activist group Vélorution said she hopes the car-free day leads to permanent changes:

Today is symbolic, it’s about giving people a dream, showing us what a city could look like without cars, a type of utopia. But we need to go further, with more and larger cycle routes, better parking spots for bicycles, slower speed limits. There’s a lot to be done.

Here are a few more views of the day without cars.

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Paris Mayor Pledges Bold Steps to Reduce Traffic in City Center

A decade of change to Paris streets has claimed significant space for transit, biking, and walking. Now Mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to go further and limit cars in the central city. Photo: Wikipedia

After a decade of repurposing street space from cars to people, buses, and bikes, Paris isn’t done yet. The world’s most-visited city is now preparing to remove even more traffic from the streets in the name of walkability and clean air.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo told the Journal du Dimanche this week that she intends to create four “semi-pedestrianized” zones near the city center. These areas would permit only bikes, taxis, buses, and cars driven by residents of the district. Delivery vehicles and emergency vehicles would also be given access, according to the Australian newspaper The Age.

Hidalgo said she plans to begin the policy of restricting through-traffic  during weekends, with the goal of ramping it up to a full-time policy. The proposal closely resembles a traffic reduction plan for central Madrid.

Hidalgo also promised to double the number of bike lanes in the city by 2020, pledging €100 million (US$123 million) to the effort. In addition, the mayor said she hopes to ban diesel engine vehicles within the city by 2020 and limit traffic on the famous Champs Élysées to “green” vehicles only.

These steps are largely a continuation of the path blazed by former mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who created bus lanes on nearly avenue in the city, overhauled wide boulevards with new bikeways and pedestrian spaces, reclaimed the banks of the Seine from cars during the summer with Paris Plage, and launched the huge Velib bike-share system with its 20,000 bicycles.

Those steps cut traffic in the city by 20 percent between 2002 and 2008. According to Hidalgo, the shift away from cars has only become more impressive since then. You may want to take this stat with a grain of salt, but the current mayor says the city’s car ownership rate has dropped from 60 percent to 40 percent since 2011.

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From London to D.C., Bike-Sharing Is Safer Than Riding Your Own Bike

Bike-sharing users might be safer because they take fewer risks while riding. These two women trying out Boulder's new bike-sharing system don't look like daredevils. Photo: dgrinbergs via Flickr

People riding shared public bicycles appear to be involved in fewer traffic crashes and receive fewer injuries than people riding their personal bicycles. In cities from Paris and London to Washington, D.C. and Mexico City, something about riding a shared bicycle appears to make cycling safer.

Paris’s Vélib’ is perhaps the most iconic bike-sharing system in the world. Launched in 2007 with 20,000 bikes, its widespread popularity not only transformed how Parisians traveled across their city but set off an explosion of new bike-sharing systems worldwide. With a few years of practice at this point, the Parisian experience is particularly telling.

“The accident rate is lower on a Vélib’ than on ‘normal’ bikes,” a spokesperson for the office of Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë told Streetsblog. In 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, Vélib’ riders were responsible for one-third of all bike trips in Paris but were involved in only one-fourth of all traffic crashes involving a bicycle.

The numbers are if anything more striking in London, where the Barclays Cycle Hire system — or “Boris Bikes,” to borrow the phrase locals have adopted in honor of their mayor, Boris Johnson — opened at the end of last July. Though the London government didn’t track the relevant safety stats of bike-share users compared to other cyclists, they provided us with the data to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations.

So far, after 4.5 million trips, no bike-sharing user in London has been seriously injured or killed in a traffic crash, according to Transport for London. Only 10 bike-sharing users were injured at all in the first 1.6 million trips on the system, a statistic that was compiled earlier. A spokesperson also told Streetsblog that they estimate that half a million bike trips take place across London each day, 20,000 of which are on Boris Bikes. Finally, during 2010, 10 people were killed, 457 seriously injured and 3,540 non-seriously injured while cycling in London.

Crunching those numbers, no people were seriously injured or killed on the first 4.5 million trips on Boris Bikes, while about 12 people are injured for every 4.5 million trips on personal bikes. And over 1.6 million trips, ten bike-sharing users received non-serious injuries, compared to an average of 35 such injuries for the same number of trips on personal bikes.

Stateside, transportation officials are seeing the same effect.

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European Parking Policies Leave New York Behind

Grosvenor Square, London, the site of Europe's first parking meter, shows how putting a price on parking clears up the street and makes parking available. Image: ITDP.

Grosvenor Square, London, the site of Europe's first parking meter, shows how putting a price on parking clears up the street and makes parking available. Image: ITDP.

Flashback to Europe, sixty years ago. Just emerging from the ruin of total war, the continent was in the midst of a nearly unprecedented reconstruction. Over the next decade, industry finally was able to turn toward consumer products, from stockings to refrigerators and, of course, the automobile. Italians owned only 342,000 cars in 1950, but ten years later that number had increased to two million, according to historian Tony Judt. In France, the number of cars tripled over the decade.

With mass car-ownership fundamentally new for Europe, parking policy was practically non-existent. The first parking meter — an American invention — only made it to Europe in 1958, arriving in front of the American embassy in London. In most places, cars could park not only for free but wherever they wanted: on the sidewalk, in a public square.

When they realized that simply giving drivers free rein to park anywhere was untenable, Europeans attempted to build enough parking to meet the population’s galloping demand. Public space, from sidewalks to canals, was turned into parking space. Zoning forced all new development to use money and space for parking. All these concessions, however, only made European cities friendlier to cars and further drove up demand.

Today, however, all that is in the past. As outlined in the new report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, “Europe’s Parking U-Turn: From Accommodation to Regulation,” the continent is now leading the world when it comes to innovative, intelligent and sustainable parking policy [PDF].

Across Europe, cities have come to understand that oversupply or subsidy of parking leads to too much driving. The effect is considerable. In Vienna, for example, when the city began to charge for on-street parking, the number of vehicle kilometers traveled plummeted from 10 million annually to 3 million. In Munich, the introduction of a new parking management system has resulted in 1,700 fewer automobiles owned in the city center each year since 2000.

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Theft and Vandalism Just Not a Problem For American Bike-Sharing

Minneapolis' bike-share system has only had __ stolen bike, but it's not just because they're Minnesota nice. Theft and vandalism haven't been a problem for American bike-sharing systems. Photo: __.

Minneapolis's bike-share system has only had two stolen bikes, and not just because people there are Minnesota nice. Theft and vandalism haven't been a problem for any American bike-sharing system. Photo: Kevin Jack via Flickr.

Even as bike-sharing spreads across the United States, it remains dogged by one persistent doubt. Critics, and even some boosters, fear that the bikes will be routinely stolen and vandalized. It’s time to stop worrying about crime, however. In America’s new bike-sharing systems, there have been essentially no such problems.

Fears that public bikes will be abused can be traced to Paris’s Vélib system, which while wildly popular has struggled with high levels of theft and vandalism. Take Michael Grynbaum’s write-up last week of New York City’s bike-share plans in the Times, where crime is portrayed as the only downside:

In Paris, the pioneer of bike-sharing, the bikes are used up to 150,000 times a day. But there has also been widespread theft and vandalism; bicycles have ended up tossed in the Seine, dangling from lampposts and shipped off to northern Africa for illegal sale.

The scenes of Vélib bike abuse replicate descriptions widely circulated in a 2009 BBC story about the system’s troubles. The problems with Vélib are real, if overhyped by the media. In 2009, JCDecaux, the advertising agency that runs Vélib, estimated that over 8,000 bikes were stolen and another 8,000 rendered unrideable and irreparable. It was a problem that had to be addressed.

Luckily for the rest of the world, it seems to have been an easy fix for other cities. Many now believe that the locking mechanism at Vélib’s stations was poorly designed. Systems that use a different method have successfully controlled theft to the point where the cost is negligible.

Vélib bikes lock on the side of the frame, as seen here. Other operators, including ClearChannel, B-cycle and the Public Bike System, have had dramatically lower rates of theft and use a different locking method, explained Bill Dossett, who runs Minneapolis’s new NiceRide bike-sharing system. “The ClearChannel systems had the locking mechanism built into the headset,” where the handlebars meet the bicycle frame, “and just has never had the same problems,” he said.

For example, Barcelona’s Bicing system, run by ClearChannel, has had about one-fifth the rate of stolen public bikes as Vélib, despite higher theft rates citywide, according to the New York Department of City Planning.

Stateside, the problems with crime have been smaller still.

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Picturing a Car-Free Seine: The New Vision for the Paris Waterfront

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left_bank_before.jpgThe new plan for the Seine's left bank will transform space for highways and parking into space for people. The area outside the Musee D'Orsay will host outdoor film screenings. Image: City of Paris.

A few weeks ago, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë announced a plan to transform his city's waterfront, closing 1.2 miles of expressway on the left bank of the Seine and slowing the highway along the right bank to the speed of a city boulevard. For an added bit of historical irony, the city's waterfront expressway is named for Georges Pompidou, the president responsible for scarring the nation's cities with highways -- the French Robert Moses, if you will.

Delanoë's plan is the latest development in an incremental transformation that's been years in the making. Soon after he became mayor in 2002, he instituted Paris Plage -- a month-long transformation of the Pompidou into a riverfront beach, complete with sand and swimming -- as a way of bringing summertime recreation to those not able to leave the city for vacation. Paris Plage was itself an expansion of the practice of giving the highway to pedestrians and cyclists for a few hours on summer Sundays. In 2006, it became "Paris Plages," as the popular beaches multiplied along the Seine.

Even this permanent highway closing isn't the final word in Paris's rediscovery of its river. "This is only a step," Denis Baupin, Paris's deputy mayor for the environment, told Time Magazine

The politics of reclaiming so much space from the automobile -- "reconquering the Seine," in Delanoë's words -- were a lot easier thanks to the massive investment in walking, bicycling, busways, and commuter rail that Paris has made over the last decade. The Paris city council votes on the proposal in July. 

More pictures below the fold: 

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Bike-Share: Not Just for French Commies

bixi_station.jpgIn Montreal, theft is "not a major problem" for the bike-share network. Photo: TreeHugger.
The Times ran a piece on Vélib's growing pains this weekend. The story is more thoroughly reported than the hatchet job we saw from the BBC back in February -- no claims that bike-share in Paris will flame out quickly this time around. Vélib is part of Parisian life now, and some level of theft and vandalism is part of the bargain. Still, there's no mistaking the overwhelming sense of schadenfreude emanating from this new Times story (headline: "French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality"). Francophobes all over America are relishing the tale of Parisian comeuppance. But bike-sharing is a global phenomenon. So why do we only seem to read alarming stories about the problems in Paris? Part of the reason appears to be that bike-share operators in other cities have few alarms to sound. In Montreal, 5,000 public bikes are available through the Bixi system, launched earlier this year. Responding to the Times story, a Bixi spokesperson told the Montreal Gazette that theft and vandalism don't affect the system very much:
“Our bikes are very robust and Montrealers have a great respect for the Bixi program,” said Michel Philibert, a spokesperson for Stationnement de Montréal, which oversees the bike rental program. “Montreal is not Paris. The theft of bikes here is not a major challenge.”
The Bixi operators also brought down theft rates thanks to a technical fix: They reinforced segments of the docking stations, and fewer bikes were stolen. Vélib showed the world what a bike-share network can accomplish, but the appeal of public bicycle systems has never been limited to Paris or France. In the past few years, cities in China, Brazil, and the United States have launched bike-shares of various size. London is looking at a 6,000 bike system, and Dublin recently launched a network with about 500 bikes. Boston may be on the verge of rolling out the first truly robust American bike-share network. Even in Australia, where it's illegal for anyone to ride without a helmet, bike-share is on the way. Like any good invention, bike-share tech is going to evolve over time. The first telephone looked like a fat brick with a hole in one end, and there was no way to tell if someone else was calling you. So it makes sense that Vélib has some kinks -- it marked a huge step forward for bike-share systems, on a scale no one had ever tried before. Inspired by the Vélib model, cities all over the world are also trying to improve on it.
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Reports of Vélib’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated

velib_decaux.jpgJCDecaux touted Vélib on the cover of its 2007 annual report [PDF].
If you've read this BBC story currently making the rounds, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Vélib, Paris's wildly popular bike-share system, has suddenly been afflicted by an epidemic of theft and vandalism that threatens its very existence. Vélib bikes have been "torched," strung up from lamp-posts, and smuggled across borders, the Beeb reports in alarmist tones. A spokesman for JCDecaux, the outdoor advertising firm that operates Vélib, calls its contract with the city of Paris "unsustainable," and the whole system is referred to in the past tense.

So is Vélib destined to burn brightly only to flare out after a short time? Hardly. Vélib is here to stay, according to officials and transportation experts familiar with the details of its operations. The BBC's portrayal of a mortal threat, they say, is best understood as a negotiating ploy on the part of JCDecaux. (Note that the JCDecaux representative is the only source quoted in that story.)

"Decaux is using media sensationalism in order to obtain more money from the city of Paris," said Denis Baupin, who as Deputy Mayor for Transportation oversaw the Vélib launch in the summer of 2007.

The basic structure of the Vélib contract works like this. JCDecaux runs the whole system in exchange for the rights to 1,600 outdoor displays, turning its profit from selling that ad space. The city of Paris keeps the revenue from Vélib user fees, so it can claim to provide the service at no taxpayer expense. Now, with the full Paris network of 20,600 bicycles and 1,451 stations completed, penalties for inadequate maintenance are in the process of taking effect. Hence the hue and cry from JCDecaux.

"It's in large part a PR issue," says Luc Nadal of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. Some aspects of the Vélib contract are still in flux, and the sky-is-falling press coverage gives JCDecaux a stronger hand in those negotiations. "Their bargaining position depends on the public's perception."

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