Henry Grabar for slate.com, | September 15, 2021

The Liberation of Paris From Cars Is Working

The French capital is quickly cutting automobiles out of daily life. David Belliard is the deputy mayor behind it.

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Over the past six years, Paris has done more than almost any city in the world to take space back from cars. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has opened linear parks in the old highways along the Seine, phased out diesel cars in the city, opened bus lanes, raised parking meter prices, and plowed bike lanes down hundreds of streets. When COVID hit, Paris eliminated cars from the Rue de Rivoli, its major crosstown thoroughfare. Plans are in the works to pedestrianize the Champs-Elysées and plant thousands of trees to green, clean, and cool the city.

As the adjunct mayor for transportation and public space, David Belliard is the point man for many of these endeavors. His latest projects include establishing car-free zones outside schools and enforcing the capital’s new speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour—a notch below 20 mph.

Earlier this month, I met him in his office to talk about Paris, COVID, and cars. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Belliard: You want an overview?

Henry Grabar: Sure.

OK, quickly: At the start of the 20th century, in the ’20s, ’30s, the car asserts itself as a travel mode in urban centers, which are transformed. Paris is clearly an old city with many centuries of history with an urban fabric. Even though it was transformed by Haussmann in the 19th century, it has an extremely dense urban fabric with a lot of small streets and a configuration a priori not adapted to the auto. When the car arrives, we transform what we can call public space, and this public space becomes automobile space, with the logical system of the car imposing itself in Paris. And public space is completely devoured, eaten away, and in a certain way privatized to one single, unique use.

Very quickly we see the limits of “total car” in Paris, even in the ’60s and ’70s. We try to say, “How can we preserve this city?” Well, by putting cars underground. So we construct parking, even whole highways, under Paris. But there’s opposition to the highway on the Seine. There were protests. When we did the parking under Notre-Dame, there was a lot of opposition, because they were going to graze the crypt underneath.

They did that?

They didn’t, but the crypt was closed in a case of concrete to protect it from the parking that was installed alongside.

Starting in the ’90s, the negative externalities become more and more obvious, in terms of deaths and injuries on the road, danger for children and older people, and air pollution. The right-wing mayor started creating bike paths. But when I arrived in 2001, 2002, I bought a bike at once, and it was war. It was really difficult to ride in Paris, and I never felt secure. They built bike paths, and we called them “death paths.”

You mention that he was right wing to show it was not a political project?

It was a general movement. We elected officials on this proposal to give up less space to cars. Reserved bus lanes were an absolute scandal. Bike lanes really started in 2015. We’re in a situation where climate change is accelerating, which manifests in heat waves of 107, 109 degrees, and 122 degrees in 10 or 20 years. That means we won’t be able to live in Paris if we don’t do anything, because the city is too vulnerable right now.

Parisian public space is rare, precious, and very useful. It belongs to everyone and it can’t be captured by one unique usage, which is the automobile. Today, still, 50 percent of public space in Paris is consecrated to the car, whether it’s on the road or parked. That represents just 10 percent of trips.

I know it’s a movement with a long history, but how has COVID changed your approach? It’s given you the chance to do projects more quickly, perhaps, but at the same time, has it made you rethink the idea that Paris might always be the central business district for a million people every day?

First, COVID permitted us to accelerate certain things, especially with respect to the bicycle. We created a lot—in two years, since [Hidalgo’s reelection in June 2020], more bike lanes than in the whole preceding term. There’s a strong taste for biking we’ve seen rising for several years, but COVID was a kind of electroshock.

The question that’s posed with COVID, climate, social pressures, all that, is: What is a city? Can we still think of cities like we did a century ago? Can we still have big cities that capture so many economic and cultural resources, requiring hundreds of thousands of people to move from the periphery to the center to work, consume, etc.?

You don’t think there’s an element of social exclusion? Paris is a small part of the metropolis, it’s the most expensive place to live, so by limiting parking and the entry of private cars, you favor people who already live in Paris, while people who live in the banlieue might find access to Paris more limited.

Who lives in Paris? Nothing against you, but you presupposed that everyone in Paris is rich, which isn’t true. In Paris, like many urban centers, you have great social inequalities. More than 20 percent of the 19th arrondissement [a large, outer district on the city’s eastern edge] lives below the poverty line. Who uses their car today? Generally, and especially when you take out businesses, it’s the rich. One in three Parisians has a car. In the 20th, the level falls toward 15 percent. On the other hand, in the 16th, a neighborhood that’s much more bourgeois, it’s closer to one per household. It’s the same thing in the suburbs.

We always say “Madame Michoux, a nurse at the Saint-Antoine Hospital, who lives at the edge of Paris, when she works nights she must take her car, the poor thing, she’s got to park!” First of all, parking is free at night. Madame Michoux, I know her, my mom was Madame Michoux. She takes public transit. Eighty percent of trips between Paris and the suburbs are by public transit. And for the other 20 percent, a lot is tied to small businesses.

The redistribution of public space is a policy of social redistribution. Fifty percent of public space is occupied by private cars, which are used mostly by the richest, and mostly by men, because it’s mostly men who drive, and so in total, the richest men are using half the public space. So if we give the space to walking, biking, and public transit, you give back public space to the categories of people who today are deprived.

In the U.S., for projects that prioritize pedestrians, a lot of the opposition comes from small business. Have you tried to convince them that this is in their interest?

It’s counterintuitive. A lot of them believe they’re going to lose business because there will be less traffic. All the figures show the opposite. Every time we do experiments, we see that first, a big majority of their clients don’t use a car to come to their place, and then, people who use bikes and on foot consume more than people in cars. So really, what we’re trying to do is not convince, but argue by proving it, showing that it works.

When I listen to debates, when I see social media, I see right-wing elected officials talk about a Paris that doesn’t exist. I have the impression that everyone is living in the ’80s, with their big Jeeps, bringing their kids to school, big trucks delivering sofas. The city I see is parents using cargo bikes—that’s exploding—the post office which is making most of their fleet electric, a parking lot near Notre-Dame transformed into a warehouse and distribution center for groceries.

Anne Hidalgo is running for president. Is there a national element, something for people who don’t live in Paris, in her accomplishments here?

I’m from the country. I did my studies in high school in Vesoul—18,000 inhabitants, east of France, biggest employer was Peugeot. It’s a city marked by the car. Forty kilometers away you have a bigger city, Besançon. It’s a pretty city, I invite you to visit, it’s very cool.

These two cities were tied by a railroad, which disappeared in the ’30s. Replaced by what? By a road, which has been enlarged substantially, to four lanes. The mayor of Besançon is écolo; we were saying, “Can we keep doing this? Big highways through the countryside?” The question we ask in the urban centers about the place of the car can be asked about everywhere, and especially in rural places. Obviously you’re not going to do bike paths between Vesoul and Besançon, but frankly, can we not put the money we put into the route into a railroad line to create a public service? That’s a question that can be asked everywhere. France has an incredible rail network, in terms of density, and we closed dozens, hundreds of lines. In the presidential campaign, that should be a challenge—the reopening of those lines.

Are you suggesting there’s something in these anti-car politics that could be attractive even to someone who supports the gilets jaunes, the yellow-vest protesters who took over French cities two years ago?

The gilets jaunes is what? People saying, “We’ve had enough of gas prices going up.” Frankly they’re right. When I was in Vesoul, I was obliged to have a car, the car was not an object of emancipation but of servitude. I could do nothing without my car. So evidently, we are asking them to pay ever more for something they are required to use. The question of alternatives is the fundamental question.