Episode 54: The French Connection


Doug Gordon: Hey, everybody, Doug here. This episode of The War on Cars is sponsored by Cleverhood, which makes great rain gear and outerwear for people who walk and bike. And I was hoping I could stroll around my neighborhood in the rain to demonstrate just how awesome the new Cleverhood Rover Rain Cape is. Unfortunately, we haven’t had any rain lately, so yeah, I am standing in my shower.

Doug: And yeah. Oh, wow. This thing is great, I am staying totally dry. It’s really comfortable. And the best thing is my microphone is not getting wet. So check it out. Listeners of The War on Cars can now receive 20 percent off the purchase of anything in the Cleverhood store. Just visit cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter code “waroncars”—all one word, and get your 20 percent off. Again, that’s cleverhood.com/waroncars. Enjoy the episode.

Sarah Goodyear: Hello, and welcome to The War on Cars. This is Sarah Goodyear. Maybe it’s just pandemic claustrophobia and the absolute meltdown that’s happening across every aspect of American society, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Paris. Alors, Paris. Les croissants. La tour Eiffel. L’amour. Ze hundreds of miles of bike lanes. C’est magnifique!

Sarah: Okay, hold up. This is not Emily in Paris. We don’t want to get carried away with some kind of rose-colored view of the City of Light. Paris has plenty of problems. Transport strikes, police brutality, not to mention a surge in bike theft since the pandemic made getting around by vélo even more popular. But Paris does have a mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who is committed to a complete transformation of the city’s streets and public spaces.

Sarah: Hidalgo was first elected in 2014, and since then, she has taken multiple concrete actions to get cars off the streets and make the city’s air cleaner. Her administration has continued to remove cars from the banks of the Seine, building on an earlier mayor’s initiative and permanently replacing riverside highways with parks and paths for biking and pedestrians, even in the face of stiff opposition and legal challenges for motorists. Under Hidalgo, Paris has invested €150 million in improving bicycle infrastructure, and encouraging cycling. Since the pandemic shut the city down for the first time in March, her office has added more than 30 miles of temporary bike lanes that are now slated to become permanent, including on the Rue de Rivoli, one of the city’s most iconic thoroughfares, which used to be completely devoted to cars.

Sarah: We heard in March from a listener in Paris, Cécile, about how the shutdown was affecting streets in the city. She recently sent us an update on how things are going now.

[Cécile: Hello. It’s once again Cécile from Paris. I spoke with my parents who also live in Paris and regularly use their e-bikes in the city, in the suburbs. They agreed with me that there are a lot more bikes in the streets. Therefore, there’s this mutual habituation. Cars are more careful. A lot of bike paths have been built since March. We call them corona paths. They were temporary things that got permanence after the first lockdown was over in May. Also, a biking association put up signs along bike paths that were following some metro lines to help subway users switch to biking. It was very useful. The fact that there are more bikes now also highlights the areas where biking is complicated, like around the edges of the city to get into the suburbs. In most places, you have to bike under the highway ring and across access roads. The area is not made for bikes. But apart from that, the new bike paths are twice as large as before, and more and more streets are limited to 30 kilometers per hour. So that’s 18 miles per hour. So you can bike in the middle of the streets with your e-bike without feeling like you’re annoying the cars behind you. It’s way safer.]

Sarah: Mayor Hidalgo was re-elected in June on a platform of continuing these transformations. Her administration recently announced that it will be removing 50 percent of the city’s 70,000 on-street car parking spaces, and working with citizens to use that space for people. How do they do it? To find out, I got in touch with Christophe Najdovski, Hidalgo’s deputy mayor for transport and public space from 2014 to 2020, who is now in charge of the city’s initiatives to increase green space and biodiversity within Paris.

Sarah: We’ll get to that interview in a minute. But first, if you want to support The War on Cars, please consider making a contribution via Patreon. We really couldn’t produce the podcast without your help. Please head on over to thewaroncars.org, click “Become a Patreon supporter,” and sign up today. You can start at just $2 a month, and you’ll get stickers, access to premium episodes, and even a handwritten thank-you note from one of us. Okay, now let’s get to my talk with Christophe Najdovski.

Sarah: So my colleagues and I have been talking about wanting to talk to someone in Paris about the transportation and public space initiatives that you have there, because you’ve done such amazing work in the past few years. So just a few questions for our listeners. What do you see as your major achievements in transforming the transportation infrastructure and public space in Paris in the last few years?

Christophe Najdovski: Well, first of all, thank you for the invitation. I’m very happy also to share my experience with you. I would say that certainly the main project we brought these last two years was the pedestrianization of the right bank of the River Seine, which was formerly an expressway. It was an expressway built in the ’60s and bringing almost 400,000 cars per day in the center of the city, bringing also noise and air pollution. And in 2016, we switched it to a pedestrian zone, an area of more than 3.3 kilometers, which is now a new park, like a small Central Park of almost five hectares in the center of the city.

Christophe Najdovski: And now you have pedestrians, you have cyclists, you have joggers, and you have people with their children playing. So it’s a big transformation, and maybe this is the project we can certainly be most proud of what we brought in the last past years in Paris. It was a huge transformation. Yes, of course. But it was also a huge struggle because we had, of course, some opponents. We went to the court. We lost the first time. Then we won the second time, and definitely. And so now it is definitely a new park for the city, and a new area for pedestrians and just for people. And we really appreciate that.

Sarah: Is that the main opposition you’ve had? Or what is the opposition been for, for instance, turning some of the streets over to bicycles, or the other measures you’ve had? Is it an organized opposition? And also, what powers does this city have in terms of, can the city government decide this is what we want to do and we’re going to do it? Do you consult with the local communities, the neighborhoods? What’s the process?

Christophe Najdovski: Yes. The resistances came from our political opponents, the Conservatives. And they went to the court. And also the car drivers association. And together, they applied for a memorandum against this measure and this pedestrianization, telling that it will bring more air pollution and more congestion in the city. And despite this mobilization of our opponents, we had the support of 60 percent of the citizens. And it was also a measure that we put on our political platform during the elections. So the people who voted in the majority for us were for that measure. So we were just implementing what we have announced during the campaign.

Christophe Najdovski: And during all the three or four years of resistances and fight to have this pedestrianization, we still had the support of the majority of the people, despite all the campaigns with unfortunately lies and fake news that were brought also by our opponents. So it shows that there is a strong social demand of the citizens to have more spaces for life, more spaces to breathe, to have more livable cities, also. The streets are not just channels to bring just cars and motorized traffic from a point A to a point B, they are also places to live. And that is also a strong social demand that we have today. And no one would propose today to come back to the former situation.

Christophe Najdovski: So it was a struggle during three or four years, but at last we won and we are very happy of that, of course. And in June this year, the mayor who brought this decision was brilliantly re-elected, so they chose also that it’s not just a measure that was brought just by a minority, but that it was also wanted by the citizens and by the people.

Sarah: It seems that leadership is very important. And for Mayor Hidalgo and for your party to say, “These are our values. This is what we believe is right for the citizens, and we’re going to stand by those values even in the face of opposition.”

Christophe Najdovski: Yes, because Anne Hidalgo, Paris mayor, assumed her position always. And she said that you can’t build a better city with more traffic. If you want to have more breathable and more livable cities, you need to have less motorized traffic, and bring more space to pedestrians, to people who cycle. So you need also to reshape the city, to share the public space and to share also the roads that were given just to the motorized traffic. You know, there is a proverb that some urban planners are using that if you build roads, you will have cars, and if you build bike lanes, then you will have cyclists. So it was also the proof of, if you are transforming a road that was just used for the motorist traffic in something else, then you will have other habits and other uses.

Christophe Najdovski: And that’s what we are seeing today with dozens of thousands of people who are using this place daily, even when it’s cold. And especially now, we have a lot of people who are just running and also cycling and commuting with this former highway, and coming from the suburbs to go to the inner city, to the center of the city by cycling. So there is also a shift from one model to another, and that is very interesting also to see that.

Sarah: Has the pandemic presented any particular obstacles to the transformations that you’re doing, or has it provided any opportunities? Here in New York, for instance, you know, now we have all these outdoor dining, we’ve taken away a lot of street parking that for years businesses said, “Oh, you can never take away parking,” right? It’s because—don’t take away parking for a bike lane or a bus lane because we need the parking. Well, as soon as it became clear that you could only eat outside, suddenly it’s okay to take away all the parking and put outdoor dining. So for us, that’s been an opportunity to show people, look how different our streets could be. So in Paris, has the pandemic caused any opportunities or any obstacles for the kind of work that you’re doing?

Christophe Najdovski: It can seem to be a paradox, but I think that it mainly opened doors, new doors, and also opened the mind to some people about the fact that we can also transform quickly the city to have a response, also. The response was to give social distancing from each other, and to have the opportunity also to give more public space to people. So this constraint was transformed in a new opportunity also to have these big changes. We built, just in a few months, 50 kilometers of new pop-up bike lanes in the city. And we had an increase by 70 percent of the use of the cycling in Paris. So it’s a big result and a huge increase in just a few months, which was just unimaginable a few months ago.

Christophe Najdovski: We also transformed the parking spaces and the curbs to new terraces for the bars and the restaurants, also to enable them to have space outside for the social distancing, also. It became possible with the pandemic. So I think this period also changed a lot in the way of thinking, also the urban planning and the way we live in our cities, because we know that when we are in a very dense city like New York City, for example, or Paris, we need also to have more space. And where can you find the space? In the public space or in the roads and in the sidewalks. So that’s what we did, and other cities and big metropolises like New York City did also.

Sarah: I’ve heard that one issue has emerged. Bike parking I’ve heard is a little bit of a problem there,that finding the space, especially, you know, given so many of the buildings have very narrow stairways, it’s a big hardship for people to take bikes in and out of their apartments. And I’ve heard that it’s gotten kind of competitive to find a place to put your bicycle. Is that true? And do you have any plans to deal with that?

Christophe Najdovski: Yes, it is, because the increase of the traffic was faster than the fact that we are building some new parking spaces for the cyclists. So we have also to try to give a response about this need. Of course, we are trying also to build these parking spaces in the safe locations, in the railway stations, for example, to enable also the people who are commuting to make it with intermodality between the mass transit and the public transport and their own bike or, for example, a shared bike from a bike sharing system. So we have a plan of having 100,000 more parking spaces for bicycles for the next five years to have a response also to this need of having more bicycles in the city.

Christophe Najdovski: So of course, we need to adapt the city. And it’s the same like the problem with the cars. Once you have the traffic, you need also parking spaces. But one bike, it’s just less space than a car. So in a one car parking, you can put five maybe to ten bikes, so it’s not also the same space needed. So cycling is more efficient, in our point of view, in a very dense city, because it is less space just for the people. So it is more efficient and better also for the city.

Sarah: Have you seen a change in the attitude of the citizens toward bicycling in particular? I mean, I don’t know how it is in Paris, but in New York historically, there’s been some hostility, certainly from car drivers, toward bicyclists. There’s been some sense that this is not a serious form of transportation. Have you ever had those problems in Paris? And if so, has that attitude changed over the years?

Christophe Najdovski: Yes, there are problems, because it’s a kind of fight for the space. For example, some documentaries like Bikes vs Cars showed also the fact that the automotive industry invested a lot to occupy the space and the roads that were just transformed for the motorized traffic. So what is given to cyclists is given by those who had formerly the monopoly of the use of the public space, and now they have to share it. So most of them, I would say, understand the fact that we need to share the public space, and that we need to share the streets and the roads with other people and other ways of traveling and commuting. But some have still some problems with the others. And there are resistances.

Christophe Najdovski: But I would say also that there is a cultural change in the way of thinking and also in the behavior of more and more people. And what we see with the pandemic is that people are giving up, unfortunately, the mass transit and the public transport system, but a significant part of the people are shifting to bicycle. So that is also interesting. And also to see that these people are young people, there is a significant part of women. And I see that also in the streets in Paris these last months, I see more and more women that are cycling. So it is very interesting also to see that the motorized traffic, which is mainly traffic for men driving their car, and now you have also with the share of the space, and also with the fact that we are reshaping the streets, you can see also more and more women that are investing the streets that were formerly using the public transport. So you can have a balance now between men and women in the streets, and that is also very interesting to see that.

Sarah: Yes, that is. And I’m wondering, have you been able to measure improvements in air quality, and also perhaps in noise pollution?

Christophe Najdovski: Yes, we have an improvement of the air quality every year in Paris now since five or six years. There is a strong relationship between the volume of the traffic and the air quality. The less you have traffic, the more you have good air quality. It’s a fact. So we improved the air quality. We had a drop of the air pollution, especially about nitrogen dioxide, I think. And with the pandemic and also with the lockdown, we saw during the first lockdown a big drop in the traffic, and also a big drop in the air pollution. We had an improvement by 70 percent of the air quality during the first lockdown because there wasn’t traffic. So we can see also the strong relation between the motorized traffic and air pollution. And the lockdown showed us also this matter and this fact.

Sarah: So I guess my last question is, for leaders in other cities who would like to make similar changes, do you have advice from your experience that you think could be useful to leaders who may be encountering opposition or a lack of vision on the part of their colleagues or the citizens of the city? How would you advise that people go forward, and why is it worth it? Why is it worth the struggle?

Christophe Najdovski: It is worth it to have a better life. These changes in the streets are also very important for the people. You know, with the pandemic, we see more and more people that want to quit the cities, and to live in smaller cities or in rural parts of the country. So if we want also to keep the people in the big cities, we have also to improve their quality of life. And you can’t have a better quality with more traffic. That’s not possible. So if you have the political will, then the changes are possible. And if you assume also your position and your political will, I think that it will be okay with the people and they will understand. Of course, maybe you have to try to start with some measures that are making consensus. But it will be also a demonstration of the fact that it is possible to change and to have less traffic, more space for pedestrians, for cycling and at last for people. So with these changes, you can also show and demonstrate that another way of life and another quality of life is possible in the city. And then I think that you can get also the support of a majority of citizens. Of course, you won’t have a hundred percent of people supporting you, but if you have the majority of 50 or 60 percent, it is very important. So we can make it if we have the political will.

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. If you like what you’ve heard, please pitch in a couple of dollars via Patreon. Go to thewaroncars.org and click on “Become a Patreon Supporter.” Help fund the war effort, and we will send you stickers and t-shirts, and you’ll have access to bonus episode content available nowhere else. Special thanks to our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Drew Raines and Virginia Baker.

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Sarah: We love hearing from our listeners. Email us at [email protected]. Find us on Twitter and Instagram @thewaroncars. And don’t forget, you can get 20 percent off the purchase of stylish Cleverhood rain gear for walking and biking by going to cleverhood.com/waroncars. Enter code “waroncars” at checkout for your discount. This episode was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Danny Finkel of Crucial D Design. I’m Sarah Goodyear. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, this is The War on Cars. Or as they say in Paris, “la guerre contre les voitures.”