Impressions of Paris

I’m recently back from a short trip to Europe – a few days in Paris, and then a longer period in Utrecht (about which more later).

Paris has always struck me – at least on a few previous visits – as a highly car-centric city, one that is certainly not very friendly to cycling or walking. But while large parts of the city are still deeply unpleasant to navigate on foot, or by bike (the whole shopping district around the Opera is frankly a disgrace, and the Place de la Madeleine, which could be an extraordinarily beautiful open square, is a car-choked nightmare) I think things are improving. At least, that’s the impression I got from the few days I was there.

One of the most striking things I noticed was the partial closure of the Voie Georges Pompidou.

This busy dual carriageway beside the Seine normally looks like this –

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But on the Sunday and Monday of my visit, it looked like this –

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A convivial riverside walking and cycling environment, presumably created at the expense of ‘smooth traffic flow.’ (It is interesting to note that this section of the dual carriageway is now closed every summer for one entire month, to allow the construction of the ‘Paris Plage‘ – which suggests to me that the use of this road by motor vehicles is not particularly essential in the first place.)

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Of course, these restrictions on motor traffic only apply a few days a week, and outside of commuting hours, but it was deeply refreshing to see a major road completely closed to ‘traffic’, coming so soon after the dispiriting Blackfriars saga. And the road closures are not limited to this dual carriageway. A large number of streets in the Marais district have similar closures –

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Streets for people.

The result is that the Marais is – during the day, at least – a lovely place to explore. Huge numbers of pedestrians were milling about, across the width of the street.

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These photos are taken on streets that weren’t even closed to traffic – pedestrians seemed to be ‘owning’ the road in the face of motor vehicles attempting, mostly carefully, to make progress (note also the 30 km/h speed limits). I can’t imagine similar scenes in an equivalent district in London – the closest I can think of is Soho, where milling about in the middle of the street would most probably get you run over.

I also noticed, in many areas, a basic presumption that all streets should be two-way for cyclists, while remaining one-way for motor vehicles (other areas, as I have mentioned, remain unpleasant for ‘casual’ cycling). You can see these contraflow lanes in all three of the photographs above. More examples –

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Again, it is worth comparing this approach with, say, Westminster, where the very idea of opening up one-way streets to two-way cycle flow seems to be anathema.

Finally, some well-designed separated cycle tracks are also in evidence –

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A decent width, a good surface, with clear demarcation from the pedestrian areas of the pavement, and with priority over side-roads. Surely this could be achieved in London?

Paris is still certainly not brilliant, but I must admit I was quite impressed with the measures I saw. Steps seem to be being taken in the right direction. Maybe my sunny disposition was a consequence of being on holiday, or because I arrived on the back of total disillusionment with Transport for London, and its seeming hostility towards walking and cycling as a mode of transport, but there are surely lessons for London here. Huge volumes of motor traffic do not a pleasant city make. Is it not time for a change of priorities, not least for those tourists who are now experiencing more convivial walking and cycling environments in other major European cities?

UPDATE – I have just noticed that David Arditti, who blogs at Vole O’Speed, has also recently visited Paris, and his impressions are slightly different from mine.

This entry was posted in Cycling policy, Infrastructure, London, Road safety, Shared Space, Transport for London, Transport policy. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Impressions of Paris

  1. Your study of Paris was more extensive than mine, and you point out there are very large contrasts between different areas of Paris, so clearly I did not see the “right” bits. Some of the new infrastructure you have photographed looks very good indeed. My opinion of how things are going in Paris stands revised. Which is excellent news, both for Paris and for London. Paris and New York are the cities with which London is most often compared, and with which it most fees it is in competition, so any sign of policies going in the right direction in either of those is very useful as a lever on London politicians.

    • stabiliser says:

      ‘Extensive’ is generous! I was only there for a couple of days, and managed to see only a limited amount of the city.

      You are right, though, about the contrast between different areas of Paris. Around the islands, both north and south, the environment seemed to be much more walking- and cycling-friendly than London in general. But the other areas I visited – particularly around Madeleine, and Opera – were not great at all. Large multi-lane streets, pedestrian barriers, no two-way cycle access, long waits to cross roads, with multiple pedestrian phases – in short, the same kind of obsession with ‘traffic flow’ that we see in London – yet all the more absurd given that these are major tourist and shopping hotspots, where a great number of people are on foot (or could be on bicycles).

      I’m not going to pretend that Paris is fantastic, but I could nevertheless see glimmers of hope.

  2. I do find Paris far better for walking than British cities. The reason is the arrangement of pedestrian crossings at junctions and the law of priority. The crossings generally are right at the junction corners, not set back a bit up the road as UK engineering practice prefers. This means they are on the desire lines. They are not push-button, but they share the green phase with the traffic proceeding in the same direction. This means that traffic that is turning has to give way on the junction if pedestrians are on the zebra markings, even if it has a green light. This is quite different to how UK junctions work, and also different to how UK zebra crossings work. On the French junction zebra markings the pedestrian cannot cross unless there is a green light for them and for traffic proceeding in the same direction. On this system, turning traffic stops for pedestrians on the junction, and potentially blocks traffic behind. Thus it is not good for vehicle throughput, which is obviously why we do not do it here. On this system, junction capacity definitely plays second fiddle to convenience for pedestrians. It means that if you are walking and have to cross a lot of intersections, as you do in the centre of the city, half the time you will happen to have a green and will not have to wait at all, so it makes for efficient walking.

    UK traffic engineers would probably say that the French system is less safe for pedestrians than the UK system, as pedestrians do not have a phase of their own where all traffic is topped by a red. It probably is, but it is an example of how you can trade-off absolute safety against convenience. The British system is “safer”, but introduces so many delays and detours for pedestrians that it discourages walking. It also means that motorists do not have to look out, they can just assume when they have a green they can go for it.

    All this is closely related to the way cyclist priority at junctions generally works on the continent. The assumption that turning traffic with a green does not have a right to go, but must give way to anything else going straight across its path, is how priority is achieved for the segregated cycle tracks I have seen in Germany. This is the simplest was of getting priority for cycle tracks at signalised junctions, but it is foreign to the UK motoring culture.

    • stabiliser says:

      Good points. I had, of course, forgotten about how drivers have to yield to pedestrians using the crossings at side roads when they have a green light.

      That is certainly far more civilized than the UK approach.

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