February 03, 2008

The Greening of Paris

As Asian cities demonstrate their development through an extensive network of expressways and flyovers, Paris, recipient of the World Sustainable Transportation Award, shows the way forward to making our cities more livable…

On January 14, 2008, the city of Paris received The World Sustainable Transportation Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in Washington. This award is a recognition of the work being done over the past six years to make public transportation in Paris greener. The work has been primarily the initiative of Denis Baupin, the Deputy Mayor of Paris, who represents France’s Green Party. With the support of the socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, Baupin’s team has managed to implement various initiatives in the transportation sector that are making Paris a world leader in this field.

In the last century, Paris was all set to transform itself into a city serving car owners and if it were not for the initial resistance put up to an expressway project on the Left Bank of the river Seine, it would have gone the way of most modern cities. Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing’s refusal to continue with the expressway project after the 1974 presidential elections was possibly the first radical step taken by a president towards “new mobility” in Paris. This, along with the evolution of a “modern” urbanism in Paris that sought to conserve and promote Paris’ architectural heritage, created constraints in which transport mechanisms had to become efficient.
Inefficient means of transport

In a dense urban context, cars are the most inefficient system of transport, creating traffic jams and needing more and more parking space. The car culture in the city had to be replaced by alternative systems of transport, a goal that was challenging not only in terms of providing these systems but also in terms of inspiring a change in the habits of Parisians.

Yet, the goals of the mobility plan for Paris went way beyond simply improving public transport. The five priorities of the plan started with a basic goal of improving air quality and public health, with an emphasis on reducing carbon emissions. Secondly, mobility had to be improved not only for the rich few, but for all, overcoming barriers of physical and economic handicaps. Thirdly, these changes could not be done at the cost of the aesthetic values of Paris and creating a beautiful city remained a priority. Fourthly, the transportation plan had to rejuvenate economic vitality, supporting commerce and tourism. The fifth priority, takes the plan to a broader level of aiming for regional solidarity, uniting the two million people who live within the city limits with the 12 million that live around the city, in the larger region of the Ile-de-France.

The New Mobility plan for Paris focussed on five significant initiatives: The Mobilien Bus Rapid Transit system, the new tramway, the Carte Orange for easy access, the recently introduced Velib public cycles and lastly, the idea of car-sharing. Some of these were new ideas, some involved improving existing systems and some, the reintroduction of old systems such as the tramways with improved technology. The built environment of Paris governed the location of each system and together, they created a network that served the entire city.

The plan also pursued an active agenda of discouraging the use of cars. At the turn of this century, Paris already had in place an effective underground metro network and the challenge was mainly the effective use of a limited, existing network of roads. Initiatives to discourage car users involved reduction of parking space for cars and reduction of road space available for car users. The plan also aimed at reducing overall carbon emissions created by transportation in Paris.

The first step to introducing alternative systems of transport involves creating an infrastructure that will support these. Roads are the most essential and unless a new system of transportation has an adequate road network, it will not function. The 20,000 Velib public cycles that were introduced in June this year were preceded by an establishment of 400 km of cycle paths in the city. For the Mobilien Bus Rapid Transit, special lanes were set aside that allowed them to avoid traffic jams. And the new tramway that came about uses tracks amidst a green patch, which has improved the look of the neighbourhoods along which it runs!

With several systems of transport serving different parts of the city, it also became necessary to provide easy access to each and easy transfer from one to another. The Carte Orange is a system that facilitates movement between these modes of transport. It is a card that identifies the user and is therefore secure. When the card was first introduced, bus usage went up by 40 per cent within a year. Recently, the Navigo, a magnetic card with a microchip, has replaced the Carte Orange. The Navigo can be detected even through a bag and significantly reduces waiting time.

And for those users who simply cannot move away from cars, Baupin’s team introduced “autopartage” — public cars that can be hired successively by different users to cover different routes. It differs from car sharing which involves the use of a car by several users at the same time to cover the same route. In this system, one car can replace five to eight cars. The cost of hiring a car covers the cost of petrol, the insurance and the maintenance. It is expected that 2,000 such cars will be made available in Paris over the next year.

Using IT

All these systems benefit from an access to information that uses all possible means of communication. At any point in the city, one can receive information on a mobile phone regarding the nearest cycle or car available. Recharges of subscription can be done via telephone or Internet and maps can be downloaded as well. Information about the waiting time for the next bus, or tramway is made available at stations as well as within the bus or tram.

With such an extensive system of infrastructure in place, the fastest mode of moving around in Paris is finally not by car. Introducing the concept of “slowth”, Eric Britton, an international consultant on sustainable cities who has been guiding the evolution of public transport in Paris, refers to the story of the turtle and the hare. According to him, “a traffic system based on slowth is carefully calibrated to lower top speeds , but the entire system leads to far steadier flows and throughput, and, with it, greater safety, lower emissions, and higher quality of life all around.” In such a system, a cyclist would get to the same destination faster than a Ferrari. The larger progress of the community takes priority over individual comfort, but eventually it leads to an improvement in everyone’s lives.

Resistance to these innovations mainly involved concerns about risks and doubts about their effectiveness. The last six years have seen constant reconstruction of roads, changes in systems and a few fatal accidents as people get accustomed to the new systems. Car owners who feel the changes have been unfair to them have been the most vocal in their complaints. On the other hand, carbon emissions have not reduced proportionally with the quantity of cars, as newer cars are larger and less efficient in terms of emissions.

Yet, Denis Baupin has watched people who initially disagreed with him, turn around and accept his views as he has effectively proven the wisdom of new mobility. More and more Parisians are turning to public transportation, choosing to save their cars for longer drives out of town. Meanwhile, the World Sustainable Transportation Award itself is a recognition by the world at large of the perseverance and dedication needed to bring about lasting change in public transportation systems.

For us in India, the example of Paris can perhaps help us to question our choices of expressways, flyovers or even rail based systems that are capital intensive and relatively inflexible. The solutions to traffic congestion, air pollution, road accidents and failing public transport seems more likely to be a network of various creative innovations as has been successfully demonstrated by Paris.


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