Après Congestion Pricing, It’s Time to Look at the Paris Model

Amsterdam Ave. and 76th St. with street space reallocated to walkers, bikes and buses.

When Transportation Alternatives, Project for Public Spaces and the Open Planning Project started the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign nearly three years ago, the plan was to build a movement that would work block-by-block and neighborhood-by-neighborhood to reclaim the city’s streets from the automobile on behalf of pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders. With congestion pricing knocked off of the civic agenda, in a funny way, we’re back to the original plan: Reclaim the streets.

If London was the model for congestion pricing then Paris is, probably, the best big city example of the kind of street space reclamation that now needs to happen in New York City. Here is a short piece I wrote on the topic for this week’s New York Magazine:

With the death of Mayor Bloomberg’s London-style congestion-pricing proposal, New York’s transportation advocates have turned to Paris for inspiration. Bertrand Delanoë was elected mayor of the French capital in 2001 on a platform of creating more "civilized space" and a promise to "fight with all the means at my disposal against the harmful, ever-increasing, and unacceptable hegemony of the automobile."

Shortly after taking office, he dumped 2,000 tons of sand on the Pompidou Expressway, which runs along the rive droite, and called it Paris Plage. Complete with volleyball nets, dance classes, a climbing wall, and a floating pool, the beach attracts 4 million visitors each summer and is paid for almost entirely by sponsors. Elsewhere, Delanoë eliminated on-street parking to create lanes for Le Mobilien, a citywide bus network with real-time electronic scheduling information at the stops, physically separated to keep cars out of the way. Bikes got their own protected lanes, too, and he doubled the size of the path network. His pièce de résistance? Last summer, Paris launched Vélib, the municipal bike-sharing system.

And while congestion opponents don’t understand the Francophilia — "New York City is unique, and I don’t think such a plan would work here," says Brooklyn councilman Lew Fidler — advocates see it as a road map. "Now, it’s all about taking pavement away from automobiles and reallocating it to more efficient modes," says Transportation Alternatives’ Paul Steely White.

Similar ideas are already in the works as part of city transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s implementation of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC. Last summer, the city opened a separated bike lane on a nine-block stretch of Ninth Avenue. Another, on Williamsburg’s Kent Street, got the nod last week. There are more to come, along with cordoned-off bus lanes (the rendering above shows a future Amsterdam Avenue). Also last week, work began on a new public plaza where Gansevoort Street, Ninth Avenue, and Little West 12th Street intersect; Sadik-Kahn promises more such projects, none of which requires Albany’s approval. There are no plans to turn the FDR into a beach, but the city is floating the idea of making some streets car-free this summer. The first attempt at car-free Sundays on Soho’s Prince Street died when neighbors feared it would make it too "mall-like." Alors!

  • Mark

    If I want to push street redesign in my neighborhood, who do I speak or write to? DOT? The community board? The electeds (Daniel O’Donnell ought to be feeling pretty guilty right now)? I want to really do something.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Not to repeat myself, but history is on the side of Plan B, at least in the City Council, as CP opponents have to show that they are not anti-everything in the face of angry and disappointed CP proponents.

    That same dynamic got us three subsidized stadia after the Olympics went down, and lots of big box stores for the affluent waived through after the City Council blocked a proposal to enable more large supermarkets adjacent to poor neighborhoods.

    And, if financial considerations are going to push the transit system into the decline, all the more need for people to be able to ride bicycles.

    Albany? They don’t care. They don’t have to. But the question is, what can they stop?

    The first place to reclaim space is the same place that CP went down — the heart of the CBD. No matter where people are biking from, that’s where they will be biking to and walking in.

    If Bloomberg/Quinn want to do something dramatic, how about turning 7th Avenue from Central Park to Times Square, and Broadway from Times Square to City Hall Park (and south to the Battery after Greenwich Street opens through the WTC site) over to non-motorized transport and emergency vehicles?

  • Mark, it may sound strange but not everyone out there is in favor of safety. There’s a powerful constituency of people who want to drive and park – including people from outside who want to drive through your neighborhood – and many will resist anything that restricts them. There’s also the potential conflict: at the last Queens CB2 meeting there were many who came to oppose a street redesign because they worried that “traffic would move to” their parallel street. If you want to succeed, you’ll need to identify potential sources of opposition and persuade them to support your plan.

    It’s also a good idea to find allies who will support you: I was amazed at the number of people who were silently, independently frustrated at the dangers on my street.

    The best place to start is Transportation Alternatives. They’ve got staff who can identify causes of unsafe situations and make recommendations. (They can also use more money.) Neighborhood resident and business associations, the community board and elected officials can also help.

  • I love all the plans but it’s too bad the East Side of Manhattan is considered “untouchable.”

  • Nemo

    Mark et.al.

    A good way to start effecting change at your local level is to form (or join) a local neighborhood association, and get your like-minded friends to join also, and use it to push for the changes you want to see, working together with TA, the DOT, community board, other local groups, etc.

    The process can take time because if you join an existing group, chances it will be full of motorists. I recall the perjorative term “Transportation Alternativistas” bandied about the group I joined. But, stick it out; time and history are on our side.

    Reclaim the Streets!

  • Great article Aaron. I really hope that complete streets takes off and really does change the landscape of NYC. I still feel it is going to be a ground up approach.

  • Christian

    Why is the East Side never included in any of these plans? We have a 5 lane expressway (1st and 2nd Ave) running right through the neighborhood which as far as I can tell handle almost all of the semi and express bus traffic heading downtown from points north.

  • M.P.

    For those asking how to make a difference in reclaiming YOUR streets, go to YOUR local Community Board meeting. What a great way to infuse your own opinions and actually get them heard in a public forum. There are too many old timers wanting to protect outdated policies that don’t have any future in a 21st century “sustainable” city.

  • Nemo

    Community Boards can be pretty frustrating. For one thing, they are purely “reactive”. They have to wait for some plan to emerge somewhere else and be put before them. So if you want to make changes, don’t waste your time with the CBs. It can be helpful to serve on one of their committees so that when the good ideas come along, you can advocate on their behalf and try to get the CB to support them.

    But the usual protocol for a CB meeting is that you have to wait through a 2-3 hour, excrutiatingly boring meeting, and only get to speak in the “public session” at the very end when a lot of the CBers are looking at their watches and digging their car keys out of their pockets and heading for the exits.

  • But the usual protocol for a CB meeting is that you have to wait through a 2-3 hour, excrutiatingly boring meeting, and only get to speak in the “public session” at the very end when a lot of the CBers are looking at their watches and digging their car keys out of their pockets and heading for the exits.

    One reason I’m very appreciative that Queens CB2 moved the public comment session to the beginning of the meeting.

  • Josh

    Larry wrote:
    “If Bloomberg/Quinn want to do something dramatic, how about turning 7th Avenue from Central Park to Times Square, and Broadway from Times Square to City Hall Park (and south to the Battery after Greenwich Street opens through the WTC site) over to non-motorized transport and emergency vehicles?”

    I just got home from spending a long weekend in Denver. About 25 years ago, Denver took what I assume must have been one of the main thoroughfares in the middle of the city and turned it into the 16th Street Mall. It has since been lengthened in 2001 and again in 2001. It’s off-limits to private automobile traffic; deliveries seemed to occur during off hours but generally the only traffic was frequent free shuttle buses and the occasional police car. It was a great area to spend time and was clearly the focus of the downtown area of the city, despite the lack of auto traffic. If something similar happened in the Times Square area, I think it’d be awesome.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (If something similar happened in the Times Square area, I think it’d be awesome.)

    It would be awesome, there, in Herald Square, and in other places along the route to have more space for pedestrians, sidewalk cafes, whatever. It would definately help the retailers there.

    For bicycles, the long motor vehicle-free stretch would be a way to attract novices afraid to ride in traffic. Perhaps the hotels along the route could even rent bicycles to tourists.

    Lafayette/4th would have to be make two-way from the Centre Street merge to Union Square and some buses would have to be re-routed, but the grid seems to work otherwise.

    The 7th/Broadway bikeway and Broadway/7th southbound roadway would meet in Times Square but not cross, leaving 34th Street/6th/Broadway as the only tough intersection. And perhaps it would be possible to redesign it to work better with no motor vehicles on Broadway.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Intuitively I believe that the MTA bus productivity value of the street reclamation is ultimately more valuable than what CP would or could produce. It does accrue to operating rather than capital an still leave the long term capital issue at sea but still, this is very valuable stuff in economic terms.

  • Josh

    Larry, I’m not clear on whether you intend “no motor vehicles” to include buses.

  • Louis

    One reason why Paris was able to be revamped so quickly was the splendid lack of public participation. Parisian planners do not have to defend each and every block change to a group of petty whiners.

    If that were the case, Paris would never have changed nearly every street within a time frame of a few years.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Larry, I’m not clear on whether you intend “no motor vehicles” to include buses.)

    Yes. I’d relocate the buses too — not enough room to have a 12-foot lane in each direction for bikes, wider sidewalks, and the buses as well. But looking at the street grid, and the bus map, I don’t see that as a big problem.

    In Midtown you have 10th and 11th Avenues, 8th and 9th, 6th and 7th (or Broadway N. of Times Square), 5th and Madison, Lex and 3rd, 1st and 2nd. Broadway/7th is an extra downtown street. The grid doesn’t need it.

    Looking at the bus map, NYCT could just slide the southbound 11, southbound 20, and southbound 6/7 over one avenue.

    For the area of lower Manhattan from the Centre Street merge to the Brooklyn Bridge Broadway replicates Lafayette going southbound.

    South of there it is a key route paired with Trinity/Church, but this role could be better played by the re-opened Greenwich Street through the WTC site, which will link up with Varick/7th. I told the LMDC that it should built a flyover near the BBT Garage to allow direct access to the BBT from there, making it idea for express buses who now do down Broadway and have to snake around.

    That leaves Lafayette/4th from the Centre Street merge to Union Square, which would have to become two-way. But it runs into Park Avenue, which is also two-way. As it is, the extra uptown capacity has nowhere to go from there, because Broaday on the other side of the park is an extra downtown-only street.

    The buses would be shifted to Lafayette/4th in this arrangement.

  • If you live in Park Slope, consider getting involved with the Park Slope Civic Council Livable Streets committee. The Park Slope Civic Council was one of the first civic groups to support CP. We’ve got an ambitious agenda; we’re working on all kinds of improvements in our community. Send an email to livablestreets (at) parkslopeciviccouncil (dot) org.

  • Jacqueline

    I am a Bostonian living in Paris for 15 years. I have also lived in NYC. I adore NYC and Boston but wish to emphasize how Paris is evenmore walkable and wonderful–it is a truly pedestrian-friendly city. The mayor still has his work cut out for him–there is a LOT of traffic even with such wonderful public transpotation–but people do love their cars…The bikes are fabulous but don’t offer a solution for transporting children under 14.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    The bikes are fabulous but don’t offer a solution for transporting children under 14.

    I’ve heard that same thing from my Parisian friends. They say it about the Metro too. Some of them don’t buy cars until they have kids.

    But I don’t understand why the Metro is so bad for traveling with children. Plenty of people do just fine on the New York Subway; what’s different? People have been transporting kids on the Paris Metro for over a hundred years; what changed? My friends said something about the gates not being wide enough for strollers, but I don’t buy it.

    Vélib may not offer a solution for transporting children under 14, but clearly bikes do in general – if the streets are safe enough:



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