How Paris is Beating Traffic Without Congestion Pricing

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.

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.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Note that jurisdictional issues also helped Paris.

    Folks like Lew Fidler and Anthony Weiner could oppose bike lanes and residential parking permits as bad for middle class drivers, whereas representatives of the suburbs of Paris couldn’t stop them.

  • Mark Walker

    Really great in-depth piece, kudos to Ben.

    I go to a different city in Europe every year — using the money saved from not owning a car! I always come back with a feeling that they’re organized in ways we’re not.

  • In new york, they can’t even enforce the rules we have already… we need to tackle double parking, and cars, trucks, and buses, that routinely block traffic for their own agenda.

    then we should start a plan similar to paris.

  • The beauty of the Paris strategy – and the reason it really works – is that it is a comprehensive agenda with lots of different moving parts that complement each other – elimination of free on-street parking, reduction in number of total parking spots, exclusive bus lanes, a real bike SYSTEM, slow-street “green” neighborhoods, recreational use of roadways at key times, sidewalk widenings, expansions of the subway/tram system, etc.

    In New York, any one of these initiatives would be a heavy lift, and I seriously doubt that more than three could be adopted in the next five years. This is the price of a very democratic system; everyone has an opinion and it’s hard to get anything changed short of a cultural revolution.

    And although one or two of these initiatives being adopted in New York would be wonderful, it wouldn’t create the sea-change that is happening in Paris these days. Delanoe has truly transformed the city.

  • Gwin

    I just got back from a 10-day trip to Paris. As an avid biker, I was very interested in seeing the Velibs and trying one out.

    It seemed that everywhere I went, there were locations to rent a Velib. You could rent one for the day, a week, or get a monthly pass (the most obvious option for a local). They were super-cheap: I think it cost me 2 euros total to rent mine.

    The bikes themselves were very sturdy, and therefore quite heavy (I imagine this would somewhat deter people from stealing them). The fee for not returning one is 150 Euros, by the way.

    I rode mine for about 90 minutes. There did seem to be a lot of shared lanes for buses and bikes, and with the exception of the occasional cobblestone street, it was a pleasant and stress-free experience.

    Over the course of my visit, I would say that about half of the people I saw on bikes were on Velibs. I only saw ONE person wearing a helmet, though. Also, in general people seemed to be rather tentative bikers (wobbling, etc.). I think this was probably happening for 2 reasons: 1. the front of the bikes are rather heavy, and when one adds a backpack or whatever into the basket at the front, that makes them even harder to control; and 2. greater oppportunities for biking is probably resulting in a larger number of inexperienced cyclists on the road.

    In general, though, I was very impressed by the project.

  • JK

    Delanoe ran for office promising to roll back the car in the city. Bloomberg did not. He did not seek, or get, a mandate for a sustainable transportation revolution. Nor did the City Council, which a few short years ago eliminated metering parking on Sundays. What’s happening now is all about reframing public expectations for the next mayor and city council. Hopefully, the silver lining of the congestion pricing fight is to force the next mayor to deal with the roll of the car from the start. The challenge now is to make sure they learned the right lesson from congestion pricing — which is that people want less traffic.

  • Good point, JK. Unfortunately, it looks like nobody wants to run on a promise to roll back the car in NYC:

    Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said a likely scenario would be for the Ravitch panel to release its recommendations after the elections this fall.

  • City Cyclist

    I biked in Paris last summer and it was an amazing day to spend a Sunday afternoon.

    But I also just came back from a peaceful ride in New York City. Nothing is as calming as riding my bike through the city, and being able to yell at idiots… of course when I’m on my bike I can yell at people with little fear they’ll ever catch me.

    So if you see a guy on a white track bike with a Welsh jersey yell at you… that was me!

  • Larry Littlefield

    One thing that I believe could be imported is Quartiers Verts (“Green Neighborhoods”). Let people choose — make the auto the king of the streets for their cars, and it is king of the streets for through traffic too.

    Just do it by referendum not through community boards, and in areas smaller than community boards.

  • JK

    Capn. I completely agree that no NYC candidate is going to be as aggressive as Delanoe (or Bloomberg)about changing transportation. But maybe the pricing debate raised the public expectation for action. Before PlaNYC transportatation was a second or third tier political issue. With the MTA debt bomb, a still important pricing coalition and a sensitized press, maybe this election will be different. This mayor and DOT still have a lot of surprises left up their sleeves.

  • JL

    That dark green bike that lady is riding in the first picture is so Paris Chic! I want one. The Electra’s are nice bikes, but are so heavy for commuting. I wish someone here in the US made a bike like that for us girls so we could wear our skirts (and carry our flowers in the front basket)!

  • Jim

    In considering this strategy for New York — what is the density of Paris with low rise buildings vs NYC with high-rise buildings.

    This is a great plan for Paris —
    but are all the other variables relevant for NYC?
    Would love to see it here.

  • bureaucrat
  • Marcotico

    In response to one comment #5 from Gwin “I only noticed one person wearing a helmet”. When I lived in Sweden nobody ever wore a helmet on their bike. I think when bikes are fuly integrated into the transportation system with theie own rights (and responsibilities) the need for helmets goes down. I’m sure they should still be advocated, and they should always be mandatory for those under 18. I know the fatality/injury rates in bike accidents is heavily correlated with not wearing helmets, but I wonder if that is the case if you control for the involvement of a motor vehicle in the accident.

  • Julia

    Like most Americans, I love my car. Despite the cost of maintenance, insurance etc. and ever-increasing gas prices, car ownership is freedom from bus and train schedules and unwanted looks and muttered comments in foreign languages from creepy people on public transit. I miss the days in college where I could walk to class and work, but I currently live 45mn-1 hr driving distance from my job, and biking or walking is clearly out of the question. Also, ridesharing is out of the question bcause no one I work with lives near me either.

    Clinging to my car in Long Island,

  • car ownership is freedom from bus and train schedules and unwanted looks and muttered comments in foreign languages from creepy people on public transit.

    God bless America.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    unwanted looks and muttered comments in foreign languages from creepy people on public transit.

    I’ll take unwanted looks and muttered comments any day over the deadly games of chicken that creepy people play in their cars. Unfortunately, I still have to deal with the drivers when I’m crossing the street.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Freedom is walking to work, biking to work, working at home, or at worst a train ride during which one can read and listen to music with headphones.

    A drive of 45 minutes to an hour each way to work is 1 1/2 to two-hours of unpaid slavery per day. I’ve been willing to accept a lot in my life to live in a place where this can be avoided.

  • Clinging to my car so hard that I don’t care if it emits 5 tons of CO2 per year, and I don’t care if global warming that I help cause has already started killing people.

    As for me, I like to take the subways to avoid the truly creepy people from Long Island.

  • Julia

    Ouch, Charlie, that stings. No need for the personal attacks, I was just stating my opinion. And for the record, I’m Ivy League educated with a degree in natural resources management and I care very much about the environment. My carbon footprint is assuaged by other efforts on my part, thanks. Public transit on Long Island is neither convenient, safe nor reliable.

  • Julia: Actually, you were not just stating your opinion. You were describing your actions. And if people act in destructive ways, it quite proper to say they are being destructive.

    I believe that we have to reduce the world’s per capita co2 emissions to 1.2 tons per person by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global warming, so there is no way to “assuage” the 5 tons that your car emits each year.

    I know it is impossible to live without a car in much of Long Island, but if we want a livable world, we need to 1)make the political effort to start rebuilding Long Island so it is more pedestrian- and transit-oriented 2)make the personal effort to commute by public transit, even if it is a less convenient than driving.

    Personal attacks breed personal attacks. When you talk about creepy people on the subway, you have to expect a response in kind. However, it makes me cringe when people call me “Charlie,” so we are now even on the “ouch” factor, and we can drop the personal attacks in the future.

  • Spud Spudly

    GASP! Foreign languages! Oh no! I’m going to have to start muttering my creepy comments in English.

  • “A drive of 45 minutes to an hour each way to work is 1 1/2 to two-hours of unpaid slavery per day. I’ve been willing to accept a lot in my life to live in a place where this can be avoided.”

    Wow, pretty poor intrinsic and extrinsic reasoning there Larry considering 1) you don’t know if the person is being compensated more for working that job further away than a job closer to home and 2) you don’t know if the work that they truly enjoy doing is even available closer to home. However, your analysis doesn’t surprise me considering the rest of the parallels and conclusions you made in this post.

    As a commuter into and out of NYC who has his “bike pass” for the LIRR and who has biked 20 miles each way from LIRR stop to my intended destination, I can say from experience that mass transportation is outdated, doesn’t meet the population needs (ever try getting home from Shea?), is dangerous (see platform and gap deaths), time inefficient and exposes you to dangers and weather elements in a more drastic manner (I’ll take my safety tested car getting slammed into as opposed to being clipped on my bike or ruining dress shoes walking through floods).

    These “Camelot” views on mass transportation, green technology and solving City congestion just don’t match up to the reality. You’re making the mistake that too many people make –
    You’re placing the onus on the individual and not the car makers, the politicians and people who can effect the problem on a mass scale.

    Instead, you make the laughable argument of “To begin with, congestion pricing was considered completely untenable from a political point of view” which basically translates into “I won’t do the right thing which is hard because I want to get re-elected”. Cry me a river for the politicians.

    This entire post makes me think of that classic Seinfeld quote – “That’s all the City needs – more, slow moving wicker vehicles”.

  • Julia

    My car based on year, make, model, transmission and miles traveled per year emits approximately 1.5 tons of C02. While that is obviously more that 1.2, it’s not 5 tons. Buying green products, and utilizing other means of transportation when possible are on my priority list, and part of my everyday actions.

    My statement was concerning “unwanted looks and muttered comments in foreign languages from creepy people on public transit.” Note, I didn’t say all people on public transit were creepy. If someone is oggling me and saying strange things to/at me under his breath and generally making an innocent fellow transit-goer feel uncomfortable and threatened, that makes him scary and creepy in my opinion, and is enough to keep me and lots of people away from mass transit.

  • JF

    Public transit on Long Island is neither convenient, safe nor reliable.

    So what did you move there for?

    You’re placing the onus on the individual and not the car makers, the politicians and people who can effect the problem on a mass scale.

    Except that so many individual drivers supported and will probably re-elect their assemblymembers who refused to vote for congestion pricing.

    Hagrin, Larry’s argument is about driving (which is fairly demanding work) vs. transit (which can be relaxing). 45 minutes unpaid transit riding is bad enough, but I agree with Larry that 45 minutes unpaid driving is exploitive.

  • Julia

    Well obviously I didn’t move there for the public transit system.

  • J. Mork

    Carbon emitted by your car is only half of the picture. How much more carbon does heating and cooling your house (or an average LI house) create, compared to the average urban dwelling?

  • 20% drop of private car use?

    Not bad for a city that has no metro service at night…

  • vnm

    Public transit on Long Island is neither convenient, safe nor reliable.

    Julia, you’re kidding, right? And yet you’re willing to spend 45 minutes to an hour each day in the most dangerous mode of travel yet invented. In 2005 there were 248 people killed in traffic crashes (.xls) in Nassau and Suffolk County. How many people do you think were killed on the “unsafe” Long Island Rail Road and Nassau and Suffolk bus systems? I would be absolutely shocked if it was more than 5 total.

    Every time you get behind the wheel, you’re putting yourself and others at risk. If you don’t like creepy people on the train or bus, that’s fine. I have absolutely no problem with that, but be aware that you’re willing to take quite a risk to be able to avoid them.

    I miss the days in college where I could walk to class and work, but I currently live 45mn-1 hr driving distance from my job, and biking or walking is clearly out of the question.

    I can sympathise with that. I enjoyed the college campus lifestyle and made a point of living in the city to retain the walking aspect of life. You said you didn’t move there for the public transit, so why did you move there?

    My car based on year, make, model, transmission and miles traveled per year emits approximately 1.5 tons of C02. … My carbon footprint is assuaged by other efforts on my part, thanks.

    What other efforts could you possibly be making to counteract 1.5 tons of CO2? I’m thinking things like changing lightbulbs? Calling catalog companies and asking them to cancel subscriptions? While good, these types of typical household items really don’t go very far to addressing the problems we all face. As the Sierra Club notes, the single most important choice we all make as consumers is the type of car we buy. At this point I’m feeling pretty good about not buying a car at all.

  • Michael

    There has already been a “green neighborhood” initiative here in Chicago. We call it a “home zone.”

  • Faridah Namukasa

    Greener models for transportation in cities faced with high vehicle congestion are the best options. With such transportation options we shall safe guard the future generations. For all those concerned about the sustainability of the environment now is the time to advocate for such interventions in our respective cities. However this will require that at the individual levels and political levels we need to drop the selfish attitudes that do not have others in mind


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