The Battle That Could Decide the Paris Mayor’s War on Cars

A group of people walking down a street next to a building

Mayor Anne Hidalgo has built her reputation on urban planning and renovations to Paris’ infrastructure: She wants Paris to be a “smart,” “green” city.

Her latest pet project — a new bike and pedestrian path from the Place de la Bastille to the Place de la Concorde — has brought vehicle and foot traffic along Rue Saint-Antoine in the Marais to a near halt. The project is representative of Hidalgo’s broader struggle: how to justify her “war on cars” and environmentally progressive politics that often disrupt the day-to-day needs of a bustling city.

c/o Jake Lahut
A sign explaining the disruption in the Marais. “What is this? The creation of a two-way bike path.”  c/o Jake Lahut

Elsewhere in the city, Hidalgo has already renovated major intersections to be more bike and pedestrian friendly, leaving the lower bank Seine quais to pedestrians, introducing more pedestrian-only days throughout the city or on major streets like the Champs-Elysées, and banning older and higher polluting cars from Paris’ streets during the weekdays.

The mayor has also furthered the construction of unconventional and environmentally friendly architecture mostly in the 13th and 17th arrondissements — initiated in some ways by former Presidents Jacques Chirac and François Mitterand, for whom the area’s main metro station and national library are eponymously named — by making open calls for projects to “reinvent” more than 50 sites in the city. She has even endorsed street art, much to the chagrin of Paris traditionalists.

The Edison Lite Project won a site in the 13th arrondissement. (Project by Manuelle Gautrand Architecture.)
The Edison Lite Project won a site in the 13th arrondissement. (Project by Manuelle Gautrand Architecture.)

The flashpoint of her eco-friendly battle now, however, lies in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris, the Marais, where construction for the bike path has started on a series of about six blocks between Place de la Bastille and Saint Paul Square. Because of the space the new bike path will take up, “space for cars will be cut by half on Rue de Rivoli.”

Before the bike path is even in use, reducing the traffic on Rue Saint-Antoine — which becomes Rue de Rivoli at Saint Paul — just for construction has created enormous backups lasting well beyond rush hour on the bustling Place de la Bastille. Cars headed south through the Square are blocked by scores of stopped vehicles waiting to get their chance to enter Rue Saint-Antoine, putting a wrench in the normal pacing of the traffic in and around the Place.

Critics say that Hidalgo is pursuing too lofty of a goal, especially since her efforts have had such serious consequences for traffic. A full blown “motorists campaign” has been launched against the mayor since the Marais project was announced in 2015. Even a hashtag, #disleaAnne (tell it to Anne) was created to get the city’s attention on social media.

“If Mayor Hidalgo doesn’t listen to our coalition, she will hear the grievances of millions of drivers who will form a cavalry,” Pierre Chasseray, a general delegate for 40 Millions Automobilistes, a group leading the motorists campaign, told Le Parisien.

Despite the opposition, which has been strong since the outset of the renovations, Hidalgo isn’t budging. “Neither the arm wrestling with the local-right nor the anger of drivers coming from the suburbs have dissuaded her,” wrote two journalists from Le Monde in September.

c/o Jake Lahut
Construction of the bike path will remove a car lane from the street. c/o Jake Lahut

The feeling that drivers have of being disadvantaged isn’t wrong. According to a report in Le Parisien, automobile traffic in Paris increased 8% between 2015 and 2016. This runs contrary to Hidalgo’s main argument for the bike and pedestrian lanes, which is the reduction traffic and carbon emissions. Drivers’ advocacy groups are now pitting the value of decreased traffic against that of decreased emissions.

The city’s error here lies in their assumption that drivers would cede the road and become bikers, but that hasn’t happened. Consider the proverb, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” The city has provided bike lanes, but they can’t make Parisians use them.

Much like President Emmanuel Macron with the transit strikes, Hidalgo must stare down a vocal minority, hold her ground, and promote the use of the bike lanes in order for her mandate to come to fruition. And there’s plenty more opposition coming her way, since  construction hasn’t even begun on the final segment of the bike path between Hôtel de Ville and Place de la Concorde.

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