Paris

As promised in my earlier review of the French city of Strasbourg, here is my report on Paris, a city that I found rather less civilised for cycling than the Alsatian one.

I have, as it happens, already written about Paris, following a short visit there last summer. That post focused, rather positively, on the aspects of the city that I found to be slightly better than London. These included the street closures to motor traffic, common in the Marais district; the closure of the Parisian equivalent of the Embankment to motor traffic on Sundays; the slightly greater ease of walking about the city; and some small measures being taken to improve the cycling environment, including two-way cycling on one-way streets, and some off-carriageway cycle paths.

Indeed Paris came to be mentioned recently for the notable fact that there was not a single cycling fatality in the city last year, compared with the 16 in London. I have to say – and I hope this will become apparent from what follows – I think a large part of this discrepancy must be down to luck and fate, rather than more intrinsic merit in the way the streets are arranged. It did appear – to me at least – that there were fewer HGVs, particularly construction lorries, using the streets. This is probably because central Paris is not so much of a building site as much of central London is at present. Large new buildings and construction projects are few and far between. Equally, while there are Parisian gyratories and one-way systems, they are not quite as obviously like a motorway as they appear to be in London, and other British cities. Both these factors could be influential.

But Paris is not all it is cracked up to be.

Perhaps it was because I had just arrived in Paris from the relative paradise of Strasbourg, but I found myself less inclined to be generous towards Paris this time around. Those cycle paths were still in evidence, and they were of a reasonable quality. However – being less generous – while the width and surface is adequate, many were quite clearly pavement conversions, rather than an appropriate reclamation of carriageway space.

Below, a particularly noticeable example, near the Gare de l’Est.

The amount of street width available here is incredible; the pavement itself is enormously wide. The path itself, however, is not, and seems more than slightly half-hearted. (Note also the discontinuity at the start, by the junction where I am standing.).

Elsewhere, there were rather better cycle paths – this example is in the Bastille district.

Cycle paths like this one, separated from motor traffic, either by vehicles, or with a kerb, or with both, appeared to me to be more common than they are in London, although as I have said the quality leaves something to be desired.

However, these Parisian cycle paths that involve some form of carriageway reclamation only seemed to be in evidence in places which were already reasonably quiet, like the location in the photograph above, or here along the Canal Saint-Martin.

My impression was that on busier roads, cycle paths would either go on the pavement, creating conflict with pedestrians and taking space away from them, or they would be non-existent. The Parisian version of ‘smoothing traffic flow’, in other words, seemed to be setting the priorities – the reduction in carriageway space for motor vehicles was rare indeed.

In fact, in places, the amount of space given over to motor vehicles in Paris is quite absurd; for instance, the Place de la Concorde.

It is hard to imagine anywhere in western Europe where such an extraordinary acreage of urban space – prime urban space – is allocated entirely to motor vehicles. Spot the three people stranded while trying to cross this vast desert.

As this road meets the Rue de Rivoli, we have a street arrangement that makes even the Elephant & Castle look slightly sane – a 12 vehicle wide queue at the lights, all about to scream off in the same direction. This cycle rickshaw was the only bicycle I saw passing through here. I don’t envy the passengers.

The Rue de Rivoli itself is, note, a one-way street. I was walking through here at mid-morning, a reasonably quiet period of the day. Google Streetview provides a good indication of what the Rivoli looks like at, and around, rush hour.

Imagine being on the right of this street, in the cycle lane that is just about visible behind the dark car, and negotiating your way across to make a left turn, on a bicycle.

No thanks.

Most Parisian streets are plentifully wide, quite obviously wide enough to accommodate segregated provision for cycle tracks. They’re just not there when they needs to be. Spot the cyclist here, on the Quai de Montebello by Notre Dame. There is a narrow cycle lane here, where on another occasion I saw a bus squash a cyclist up against the kerb as it rolled up to the lights.

 Likewise, how inviting is the Place de la Madeleine for this barely visible cyclist?

It’s a fairly horrible gyratory; just one that is Parisian, rather than British.

There are marked cycle lanes on the roads approaching the church, marooned as it is in a sea of swarming cars, but they are pretty useless – often blocked by vehicles, just when they are needed.

Another gyratoriously inviting street for cycling – Boulevard Haussmann.

There are bus lanes in Paris, and most of them are kerbed off. Unfortunately the width at which they have been kerbed off is often sufficiently wide to make squeezing past someone on a bicycle, in a bus, quite tempting. Unfortunately the width of the bus lane would probably make this a bit unnerving for the person on the bike.

Note also the taxi racing down here – the signs don’t explicitly permit taxis, but I didn’t see much evidence of compliance.

Probably not much fun to cycle in, in short.

There are one-way streets on which it is permissible to cycle in both directions (this is something which I noticed, on my previous visit, as being rather more prevalent than in London, although this may swiftly change now that UK guidance has been amended). Unfortunately the typical solution is a desperately narrow contraflow lane.

Other streets have no provision whatsoever, and are clogged with parked vehicles on both sides.

Many streets, which should in principle be calm shopping environments, have appallingly narrow pavements, and two lanes of traffic speeding in the same direction.

Other streets, such as the Rue Saint Germain, are enormously wide, yet have no contraflow provision whatsoever. This chap is taking matters into his own hands, briefly cycling against the flow of traffic, at great personal risk.

Others use the pavement to negotiate one-way streets.

And the pavement is, more generally, quite often an inviting way of cycling on busy and hostile roads.

Paris does, of course, have a hire bike scheme that is even more widely used that London’s (indeed, it provided the template for the London scheme). A close inspection at the controls of a Velib machine, however

reveals plentiful warnings about staying out of the blind spots of vehicles, and about not going up the inside of them; warnings that wouldn’t really be necessary in a civilized city, that didn’t expect vulnerable users to mix it with heavy goods vehicles.

There are European cities from which we can learn lessons about how to improve conditions for cycling; I’m far from sure that Paris is one of them.

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4 Responses to Paris

  1. vudurebel says:

    I wouldn’t agree with you. Parisian cycling infrastructure is definetely a compromise. But in a city as tight as Paris anything better would be almost impossible to achieve from the start. The question is – does Paris move forward with its cycling provisions? And I think it does.

    For example the second picture – near Gare de l’Est – is of Boulevard de Magenta which used to have a 6-lane carriageway. Around 2004 it was narrowed down to 4 and in some places to 2 lanes of traffic (with 2 kerbed bus lanes). Instead of 2 car lanes they’ve put those cycle tracks and 2 additional rows of trees. It is much better I think that a usual crappy bike lane blocked with cars. The cycle tracks are quite narrow (~1.6m) and it is complicated to overtake a slow cyclist but in Parisian context they are a blessing.

    Protected bus lanes are not as bad as you describe them. Bus drivers are used to cyclists and buses even have a special gentle bell to alarm cyclists and pedestrians when approaching. Taxis by the way are considered pubic transport in Paris, so they use those lanes legally. Riding a bike in those lanes is not as good as on protected paths but much better than in mixed traffic, and better than on a usual bike lane (those are too often blocked with parked cars).

    On all the warnings on Velib’ bikes I can tell you that even in Amsterdam in a bike rental shop they’ll hand you a flyer on safe cycling and a map of preferable routes. Since a lot of Velib users are tourists (who could have last cycled in their childhood easily) providing some basic safety info isn’t a bad thing to do.

    P.S. My cycling experience in Paris consists of 2 weeks of riding a Velib bike. I was specifically interested in cycling infrastructure, so my point is somehow justified.

  2. I just got home from today’s 4km evening commute, which started by the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, in the 5th arrondissement, and took me along the Boulevard Saint-Marcel (in a separated bus lane), across the Pont d’Austerlitz (in a continuation of the same lane), on the Boulevard Diderot past the Gare de Lyon (absolute nightmare), and then along several quiet secondary streets.

    Much of what you say is true, and yet, I think Paris is far better than London, for a few reasons.

    First, French drivers, professional and amateur, are generally far more attentive and courteous to cyclists than most American and British drivers. I notice that in the city as well as in the countryside. And I notice it in particular when I ride around the Place de la Bastille, the Place de la Concorde, and other major traffic circles.

    Second, when traffic is dense, I am usually going as fast, or nearly as fast, as most motor vehicles. At the Place de la Bastille, for instance, I just choose my lane, signal my intentions just before the traffic light changes, hold my line, and keep an eye out for the other cars. And I am a fat cyclist in his 40s riding a 23kg (50 lb.) Vélib’, not a speed demon.

    Some cyclists, and most motor scooter drivers, filter to the left of stopped traffic, in the oncoming traffic lane, but that seems suicidal (I’ll filter to the right if the traffic is completely stopped, but not otherwise). If I can see that there’s a really nasty backup of traffic, I will get off my bike and walk it on the sidewalk (pavement) until I’m past the obstruction. (I will ride short distances, 10m or less, on the sidewalk, at 5-8 km/h, but only if there are no pedestrians at all.)

    There are some intersections where it is difficult and dangerous to turn from a protected bike lane or bike/bus lane in some directions. In those cases I usually dismount and cross as a pedestrian.

    In short, I agree with most of what vudurebel wrote, except for the Boulevard de Magenta; that project, which was supposed to turn the boulevard into a “civilized space,” should have put in wide bus/bike lanes. Clueless pedestrians are the big problem there.

    There are public squares where huge amounts of space is (or was) given over to cars–most of the time. The Place de la République is being redesigned to turn it from a giant traffic circle (rectangle, really) into a square with roads on only one of the long sides. The Place de la Concorde is another case. I’m really not entirely sure why it is as big as it is. It is used for public demonstrations, though, since tens of thousands of people can fill it, and it’s right across the Seine from the National Assembly. But the Champ de Mars, south of the Eiffel Tower, is also used for huge assemblies and demonstrations (and concerts), and it’s mostly grass.

    One thing you may have noted is that the big Parisian squares/traffic circles are cobbled, not paved with asphalt. That does slow down traffic, and in general I approve, even though I find it annoying when riding my small-wheeled folding bicycle!

  3. Rob says:

    I spent a few days cycling around Paris on a recent stay. Perhaps it is just because I’m comparing it with London and you’re comparing it with somewhere better, but I thought cycling in Paris was pretty good.

    In general car/bus drivers tended to leave me alone and not try to squeeze past like they would in London and the road surfaces were much smoother so I didn’t have to spend so much time avoiding potholes. The shared bus/cycle lanes were OK – I thought the physical separation was better than a white line in London – and the network of dedicated cycle lanes were very useful (although it wasn’t easy navigating around town).

    I would agree that it appears they’ve taken the space from the pavements rather than the road, but Paris has the luxury of wide pavements, squares and gardens whereas there’s no such option in London.

    At junctions I thought the chessboard road markings/bikes with arrows (see picture 1) did an OK job of highlighting the possibility of cyclists to car drivers, much better than the disappearing blue paint of the Cycle Superhighways. Interestingly I didn’t see any advanced stop lines and I do think they are useful (if you can get in them, that is!).

    They also close a load of the roads to traffic on Sundays and bank holidays making it easy to cycle around town. Imagine that happening in London!

    • Rob–I’m with you. I’d just like to add that there are some advanced stop lines, AKA bike boxes, in Paris, but not that many. In practice, cyclists often filter up to to crosswalks, which are slightly ahead of automobile stop lines.

      I will also add that there are a few places where bike lanes have to cross auto lanes, e.g. on the Boulevard de Bercy, where the outside bike lanes become inside bike lanes before crossing the Seine. And there are a few spots where bike+bus lanes do something similar. It’s not a paradise. But compared with the other major cities in which I’ve cycled, it’s pretty good–keeping in mind that Paris intra muros, despite its small physical size, does have 2 million residents, making it substantially larger than Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

      I’ve spent over three years total living in Paris, since my first visit in September 1989, and I’ve seen that the city has become much more bike friendly since then, and especially since the mid-1990s.

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