April 02, 2024

2023 STA Winner Paris, France Presents a Bold Vision for its Historic Streets

A version of this article was originally published in the No. 35 issue of the Sustainable Transport Magazine. Read it here.

By Iwona Alfred and Alphonse Tam, ITDP Global, and the Mobility Agency of the City of Paris

It is impossible to imagine Paris without its sweeping boulevards, grand circular crossings, majestic architecture, and scenic bridges. Those iconic Parisian streetscapes were primarily built toward the end of the 19th century under the radical and divisive urban renewal efforts of Georges-Eugène Haussmann. In two decades, the complete transformation of the city’s street plans sought to address issues that plagued the previous medieval layouts, including overcrowding, poor sanitation and airflow, and maze-like streets. Paris’s transformation, in many ways, ushered in a new era of modern urban planning that still impacts how people experience their built environment today.

In a pattern repeated across Europe’s cities, a surge in the popularity of motor vehicles in the 20th century quickly turned Haussmann’s wide Parisian boulevards into sites of congestion, safety hazards, and pollution. By the 1970s, Paris’ automotive boom had already impacted mobility and accessibility across the city of two million. Suburban sprawl and development gained traction, and density declined in the urban core, making commuting more challenging for residents in the metropolitan area. The city’s mobility officials have been working to rectify these issues recently, undertaking a ‘soft revolution’ of its streets and public spaces. In 2023, the city’s government continued to embrace ambitious plans to give every Parisian a cleaner, more convenient, more livable city.

During and after the pandemic, Paris invested in its public spaces and streets to prioritize people over cars. Image: ITDP

Reclaiming the Boulevards

Over the past two decades, officials and advocates have sought to reclaim Paris from the dominance of cars to give equal priority to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport. In 2001, the city initiated various social and environmental reforms and investments, including the region’s first major bikeshare program and the city’s first climate plan. Then-Mayor Bertrand Delanoë committed to improving Paris’s public spaces and street designs by instituting dedicated bus lanes and over 400 miles of cycling paths. Stretches of roadways along the banks of the famed Seine River were closed to vehicle traffic, and in 2007, the Vélib bikeshare system was officially introduced.

In 2008, Paris was first recognized with the Sustainable Transport Award by the STA Committee, a global group of transport and sustainability experts, for the city’s work to develop comprehensive, connected cycling infrastructure alongside the Vélib system. Vélib was just one component of Paris’s early-2000s mobility transformations, emphasizing civic spaces and streets oriented toward people instead of cars. These efforts helped to improve Parisians’ quality of life by addressing the issues caused by rising vehicle emissions, traffic accidents, and congestion. Paris committed to renovating several public plazas, widening many sidewalks, improving landscaping, and designing raised crosswalks that better serve pedestrians and cyclists. Such improvements demonstrated tangible results: according to the city’s 2020 Climate Action Plan, between 2004 and 2014, these public transport and active mobility policies helped Paris achieve an estimated 39% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector.

Paris’s sustainability commitments have continued under the current tenure of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2020. The administration continues to advance efforts to reduce driving and congestion, focusing on related measures like social housing, enhanced public spaces, and vehicle electrification. The city has adopted two consecutive mobility plans to cut local emissions by 50% by 2030. Promising progress is happening in the transport sector: according to the city’s 2022 transport trends data, car traffic inside Paris decreased by 50% between 2002 and 2022. Cycling traffic on bike lanes increased by more than 71% in 2022 compared with 2019. Public transport’s mode share grew by 4% between 2010 and 2020 for trips between the city’s center and its suburbs.

Paris’ 2023 STA honor highlights, among other efforts, the city’s focus on improving cycling infrastructure. Image: Clement Dorval

Watch the 2023 STA Series of webinars highlighting Paris and the year’s honorable mentions.

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

When the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions hit Paris in 2020, Mayor Hidalgo’s office seized the moment to advance a vision for a ‘15-minute city’ that would expand temporary bike lanes, open up pedestrian streets, and reduce traffic to allow people to go outside while adhering to social distancing recommendations. As restrictions in Paris—and worldwide—brought people outdoors for leisure and exercise, enhancing the quality of urban streetscapes, parks, plazas, and playgrounds became a priority. Paris committed to extending its cycling infrastructure, including developing over 1,000 kilometers of cycling routes. The Mayor also presented a 2021–2026 citywide cycling plan calling for nearly €250 million to be invested in more bicycle infrastructure and related facilities.

Beyond cycling, Paris transformed local educational facilities into community hubs throughout the pandemic to encourage more active civic engagement. The city expanded the operations of schoolyards and nurseries to provide residents with much-needed recreational spaces. This was complemented by a pedestrianized ‘school streets’ program to support safe travel in and around school zones. Today, the city has enhanced numerous cycle paths, sidewalks, and bus routes to accommodate children, students, and families. Resident-focused urban development has further driven changes in how the city is governed, with new measures to allocate aspects of policymaking to the city’s boroughs and local mayors.

The city has now created opportunities in every district for residents to participate in neighborhood planning to improve civic engagement. In 2021, Paris made available a participatory planning budget of €75 million that residents can allocate to crowdsourced community projects. These innovative and inclusion-oriented efforts earned the city its second Sustainable Transport Award in 2023. Over the past few years, Paris’s mobility investments and policies have inspired cities worldwide and garnered significant recognition from the transport community. Soon, the whole world will turn its sights to the city as it prepares to host the 2024 Olympic Summer Games for the first time in nearly a century.



“We are living in a historic inflection point. Like most major cities, Paris is shifting towards becoming more walkable and cyclable. We want to accelerate this revolution; it is both a public health issue and a response to climate change,” said Paris Deputy Mayor David Belliard. “This paradigm shift concerns all of us — whether you are a driver, a cyclist, a pedestrian, or a public transport user.” 

A Global Spotlight

Ahead of the Olympics, Paris is stepping up its vision to improve more streets and mobility systems with low-cost, efficient, and high-impact interventions. This includes ensuring its infrastructure is adaptive to residents and visitors through tactical urbanism projects that make public spaces more inviting, colorful, and human-scaled. Pop-up cycling paths and facilities will complement the increased demand for cycling and bikeshare that will undoubtedly come with the 2024 Games. The city has also modified street designs with more movable, convertible, and flexible facilities that protect pedestrians and cyclists and make public areas more vibrant. Looking beyond the Olympics, Paris will continue advancing projects and policies to reduce its carbon footprint and enhance resident well-being by investing in more resilient infrastructure, flexible street facilities, and transit-oriented development.

At this moment, Paris has the unique opportunity to demonstrate to other historic and global cities that sustainable and equitable transformations are possible, even for its iconic and storied streets and neighborhoods


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