Photo by Venus Major

What Paris Can Teach Other Cities About Removing Roads

The City of Light is deprioritizing cars and aims to become “more human.”

Story by Thalia VerkadeMarco te Brömmelstroet

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This is an expert from “Movement: How to Take Back Our Streets and Transform Our Lives” by Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brömmelstroet. Copyright © 2024 by the authors. It is reproduced here with permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Can removing a road make it easier to drive more freely elsewhere? A major study of 63 roads and squares closed to motor traffic in various European cities (mainly in Britain and Germany) suggests that it does. In many cases, cars disappeared altogether, rather than being displaced into parallel streets, lessening the dreaded congestion.

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, made the same claim, but the court disagreed, holding that the research was inadequate. However, actual measures of traffic levels before and after the road closure along the Seine, announced the week the court handed down its decision, indicated a reduction in motor traffic in nearby areas.

Whatever the situation, Paris provides its residents with ample alternatives to cars, something traffic models fail to take into account. When my friend and I get on the Métro after a concert, we are struck by how busy it is. Five years after Anne Hidalgo became mayor, people make 200,000 more trips by Métro than before — every day.

Being determined to take the long-term view, Hidalgo continued her battle. When the court denied that there had been a drop in motor traffic in the area around the road she closed, she switched to a different approach based on more fundamental principles — the need to protect Paris’s cultural heritage. She won her case: people can continue to stroll unhindered along the banks of the Seine today.

Rather than enabling more people to travel around, Hidalgo wants to bring their destinations closer together. She’s keen to organize Paris on the principle of “hyper-proximity.” People must have the right to engage in all the meaningful activities necessary to fulfill their needs and wishes without being dependent on rapid modes of transport — that’s the message of the “15-minute-city.”

In “Movement: How to Take Back Our Streets and Transform Our Lives,” journalist Thalia Verkade and mobility expert (“the cycling professor”) Marco te Brömmelstroet explore the possibilities of our streets. 

Having won the 2020 municipal elections, Hidalgo took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to speed up her plan to make Paris a more human city. Pop-up cycle paths have appeared city-wide and additional funds have been made available for similar infrastructure in the outlying districts, the banlieues. She has promised to cut 72% of street parking spaces — that’s 60,000 spaces. Her ultimate aim is for people to be able to reach any point in Paris by bike or on foot: the City of Light as a patchwork of “15-minute communities,” with the Champs-Élysées transformed from a highway into an urban garden.

Paris reopens my eyes to my own country. On the highways along the Seine, cars have made way for picnic tables. Could we make the same changes?

The contrast with my home city of Rotterdam feels particularly stark. The tunnel under the River Maas, which links the northern and southern parts of the city, could be made car-free too, but after renovation it’s reopened by a woman on stilts and a troupe of actors with learning difficulties. We’re allowed to walk through it for one day, to celebrate the fact that we can race through the renovated yellow tubes in our cars again tomorrow.

Here too, though, motor traffic around the tunnel melted away when renovation work began. BNR Radio announced, “The closure of the Maas tunnel is expected to cause major traffic problems,” the evening before it was shut off. The next day, the local broadcasting organization RTV Rijnmond reported, “The first evening rush hour after the closure of the Maas tunnel is no different from usual.”

Some Dutch cities have opted to put people’s interests above those of traffic in certain areas. In Utrecht, the canal encircling the city centre that was transformed into an urban highway and parking area in the 1970s has now been restored. In 2019, The Hague inaugurated a school street inspired by examples from Flanders. The Abeelstraat, where cars used to stand at the school gates with their engines running, is now reserved for cyclists and pedestrians from a quarter of an hour before the school bell rings to a quarter of an hour afterwards. To ensure there was enough room for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the local authority went on to expand the pilot project to include another dozen streets. A year later, it began making these school streets permanent, by means of a traffic by-law.

Groningen is in the process of making “room for you.” The local authority that made a radical choice in the 1970s — a low-traffic city center — is set to take further action over the next few years. More cars out, more people in. The guidelines on the use of public space, in which Marco has had a hand, state: “We no longer take a one-dimensional approach to designing street[s] in which mobility is the sole guiding principle. Instead, mobility will join accessibility, safety, human perception [meaning experience], health, social interaction, ecology, climate adaptation, economy and cultural history in making the street: the ten dimensions of the street.”

Before and after the recent restoration of Central Utrecht’s historic canal. Source: Bouwput Utrecht.

But other Dutch initiatives that I’d initially thought radical turn out on closer inspection to be aligned with ‘car logic’ after all.

An example is the ‘cars are guests’ sign you see in specially designated ‘bike streets’, which are increasingly widespread in the Netherlands. At first sight, it’s a nice idea.

Cycling Professor @fietsprofessor

So people are guests everywhere else in towns and cities? Why don’t they put this sign at the beginning of the built-up area? ‘Welcome to our town, where cars are guests’?

Plans to reduce the number of traffic accidents to zero are also less ground-breaking than they sound. Take Vision Zero, the European Commission’s plan to reach zero traffic mortalities by 2050, which is also the target the Netherlands has set for itself. The initiative originated in Sweden, homeland of Volvo, the car that built its reputation on safety.

Vision Zero is beginning to come within reach in the Nordic countries. Helsinki announced that there were no traffic deaths in the city in 2019 — for the first time since records began. But it soon became clear that people cycle and walk relatively little in the Finnish capital, especially children.31

Oslo, too, nearly managed it in 2019, with just one traffic fatality in a car accident involving a single victim. However, Norway’s Vision Zero policy is now that children are ‘permitted to cycle on the pavement’. So, Norwegian children have to avoid traffic, not vice versa. Is that the aim of Vision Zero? Zero traffic fatalities because there are no people in the streets anymore to be knocked down and killed? Despite these measures, a two-year-old was run over and killed in Oslo in January 2020 when both the traffic lights and the pedestrian lights were on green at the same time.

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Thalia Verkade is a writer and journalist from Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She has worked as Moscow correspondent for the Dutch daily newspaper NRC and has been writing about technology, mobility language, and culture for Dutch online platform De Correspondent.

Marco te Brömmelstroet is the chair of Urban Mobility Futures at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Amsterdam. His teaching centres on the relationship between land use developments and mobility behavior. As founding academic director of the Urban Cycling Institute he strengthens the links between academia and how cycling relates to the urban and social environment. Cycling offers him a lens to radically reimagine the way in which society thinks about mobility, transport systems, and the street. 

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