Paris is walking the walk with pedestrian priority projects

June 3, 2013 at 9:18 pm

When we talk about “taking back the street” in the US, it often just means putting in a small bike lane (protected if we’re lucky) and striping a crosswalk correctly. The PC way to keep cars in the picture too, and dominantly.

Not so in Paris.

This morning, Olivier Razemon on the blog L’interconnexion n’est plus assurée, the transportation blog in the French newspaper Le Monde, wrote about more developments in to make Paris a better place to be without a car.

Without a doubt, many European cities are already friendlier than the best American city when it comes to feeling safe as a pedestrian or person on a bike. Automobile usage is already somewhat inconvenient since major freeways don’t run through the city, streets aren’t arranged in a grid, and fuel and parking are expensive. So as I read Olivier’s post, I laughed to myself, thinking of how crazy any of these proposals might be in a city like Chicago, where the automobile is still fairly dominant.

Source: Paris.fr.

The post, which you can read here (in French, although Google does a decent job translating some parts), refreshingly notes that there is as much rhetoric about “bourgeois tree huggers” (French trust-fund hipsters from Neuilly-sur-Seine?) vs. “rednecks in their SUVs” as we probably face this side of the Atlantic. The difference is that the mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, is prioritizing people and bikes anyway.

The new program, “Sharing the Road,” launched today. The program extends the 30 km/h zones (18 mph) that exist in Paris, creates new roadway markings, initiates the “zones de rencontre” (“meeting/mixing zones”) program, and helps out people on bikes.

  • Extension of 30 km/h zones: According to the program, the 30 km/h zones have “greatly reduced” the amount of accidents. According to the National Roadway Safety Office of France, a 5% reduction in speed reduces the accident mortality rate by 20%. It also lowers pollution and noise.
    There are already 74 30 km/h zones in Paris. The majority of the new zones will be adjacent to or surrounding the existing zones. The zones are largely in eastern Paris and do not encompass the major arterial streets.
  • Meeting/Mixing Zones: Known in French as “Zones de rencontre,” this phrase is harder to translate. Started in the Netherlands in the 1970s and welcomed in Belgium and France in the 2000s, these zones limit the speed to 20 km/h (12 mph!) and prioritize the pedestrian on the roadway, even when sidewalks exist. People on bikes come next, followed by drivers. The website instructs drivers to pay close attention, as “you must give way to all pedestrians and cyclists at any time.”
    A majority of these zones are in eastern and central Paris, further away from some of the large boulevards, such as the Champs-Élysées.
  • New street markings: Different markings on the pavement will denote the different zones mentioned above. See below for an image, or go to the webpage.
  • Bikes and red lights: People on bikes in Paris can now turn right on red and pass through an intersection on red, provided it is safe to do so, in all 30 km/h zones. The video below (I captioned it into English) shows the right-on-red in action (turning right on all red lights is not permitted in most European countries):

This is perhaps the one most worth talking about from a bike perspective. Paris is serious about getting people on bikes (if you couldn’t tell from the 18,000 Vélib’ bikes), and Paris was not formerly known as a city for biking. One way for a city administration to show it’s serious about non-automobile transportation is to make it easier, safer, and more convenient to ride a bike. This is exactly what Paris is doing in some 30 km/h zones: Acknowledging that bicycles and cars are different in operation and in danger. A bike rolling through a red light when it is completely safe to do so is different than a multi-ton vehicle doing so.

This news comes on the heels of news that Chicago aldermen approved stiffer fines for both cyclists and drivers in the city. Chicago is not doing it right: Building protected bike lanes (now also known as buffered bike lanes) at a glacial pace and amending laws that go widely unenforced do not acknowledge the difference between people riding bikes and people driving cars, of which there are several: Cars are heavy, lethal, and take up many times the space of their occupants without providing significant societal or economic benefit. Bikes can maneuver easily, are inexpensive, don’t pollute, take up a small amount of space, and don’t kill pedestrians. This in itself is an entire different argument for another time, and it does not mean that I can’t acknowledge the utility of a car in some situations. It does mean the government should take a look at what it wants to prioritize – if it’s biking and walking, it should not seek to level the playing field, but tilt it in favor of its own goals.

This is what Paris is doing: removing expressways in the city, creating pedestrian-priority zones, and making it easier to bike in some neighborhoods.

Map of “Mixing zones” in Paris.

Of course no city is ever perfect and Paris, like we see in our media, has its NIMBYs (they don’t have a fun word like we do), but Olivier leaves it to the end and it isn’t sensationalized. The roads surrounding schools in Paris are already limited to 18 mph, but the police last week in the 12th district (south-east) wrote 120 tickets to drivers exceeding the limit*, most of them “coming from within 3 minutes of home,” noted the mayor of the 12th district, Michèle Blumenthal. Conservative Claude Goasguen and the council of the wealthy 16th district (west) adopted a “vow” asking the police to tolerate parents who “have difficulties parking their cars at the start and end of the school day.”

At least they’re not coming up with excuses to avoid safer streets near schools.

Turning right on red is already illegal in most of Europe, but cyclists can now do so at marked intersections in Paris. Credit: Mairie de Paris.

So how can we take some of this and bring it further west? Considering our mayor is only talking about bike infrastructure and is cutting ribbons for every single block of new bike lane (is that really an exaggeration?), I’d say we’re a bit far off. However, it is certainly good to look at what other cities are doing as an inspiration. New York has a similar concept, the Neighborhood Slow Zone, to slow down traffic to 20-30 mph. However, most Americans know this usually means 30-40 mph.

As the image above shows, the go-ahead-on-red signs would be welcomed at certain T-intersections here in Chicago. One that comes to mind is Clark and Armitage in Chicago. The T-instersection means people on bikes can’t continue on red, even though it is almost always safe to do so, provided no pedestrians are crossing Clark. In fact, I usually go through red (after stopping) here, because it gives me a head start on Clark, a two-lane street in each direction that splits at one dangerous point a block or two further north. It is safe to proceed on red and gives me a safe head-start. It would be nice if the City acknowledged this and permitted such a maneuver.

A mixing zone with new pavement markings. Credit: Mairie de Paris.

We could also use official “mixing zones.” Lincoln Square is already a sort of mixing zone; pedestrians already cross most parts freely, cars are discouraged from using one-way Lincoln as a through street, and cyclists bike in either direction despite its illegality.

Lincoln Square. Credit: Google.

Places that feel like Lincoln Square are few and far between in Chicago. Credit: Google.

I can think of several other areas where “mixing zones” would be nice, even if only on weekends and weeknights (as a test), such as Clark St in Andersonville (#22 buses could be rerouted to near-parallel Ashland Ave), whose sidewalks are so narrow already and often overcrowded due to sidewalk seating.

With the upcoming launch of Divvy bike share in Chicago, many more bikes will be seen on the city’s streets, which will be good for safety in the long run. If we can get more Chicagoans out of their cars (and do something about that pesky parking meter deal), we might one day see the implementation of some of these urban planning ideas.

* I’m not sure what the “tolerated” speed limit is; e.g. in the US it is common to exceed the posted speed limit by 5 miles/hour.

Updated June 4 for spelling error and introduction.