Imagining the place de la Concorde without cars is like imagining Paris without the Eiffel Tower. But the unthinkable may be just around the corner as part of a larger move to dramatically cut traffic in Paname's car-clogged center, while encouraging cycling and walking.
The city is considering a scheme to remove all vehicles except buses, taxis and bicycles from the teeming intersection, one of the busiest in the city. The 160 million franc project, to be finalized next year, would turn the historic square into a pedestrian and bike-friendly zone with grassy enclaves linking the Tuileries garden and the Champs-Elysées.
The idea is part of a broader four-year plan to spend more than a billion francs to add bike and pedestrian paths along the Seine and to improve the quality of life in the quarters along the river.
"These are not pie-in-the-sky projects," said Mayor Jean Tiberi at a news conference to announce the changes, which will allow cyclists within four years to pedal from the Parc André Citröen in the 15th arrondissement to the quai de Bercy and the Bibliothèque Nationale in the city's eastern sector.
The city sees the action as necessary to guard Paris's image as a mecca for tourists, while helping combat a growing air pollution problem, caused mainly by belching tailpipe exhaust.
But the critics are already lining up. They either complain the city is not doing enough to restrict car use and encourage alternate forms of transportation, or that it is proposing too much. Motorist groups charge the Concorde changes would lead to terrific snarls elsewhere in the city. Tiberi maintains it would actually reduce traffic in the city center by up to 10 percent.
Finding salvation in the humble bicycle is hardly news in other European cities, particularly in Scandinavia, Holland, Germany and Switzerland, where pedestrian and bike zones have long been in vogue. But for Paris it marks a sea change in thinking.
"We are behind," admits Patrick Allouche, director of Maison Roue Libre, a bicycle rental, repair and information center in Les Halles run by RATP, the city's transit authority. "But you have to start somewhere."
Until very recently the capital of the country with the most famous bike race in the world, the Tour de France, had virtually turned its back on two-wheeling as a serious means of transport. But thinking is starting to change, particularly among young people who live in the center of the city, says Allouche. "They are beginning to realize that they can travel faster on a bike than by car, and also save a lot of money. It can cost 20,000F to 30,000F a year to maintain a car here, when you add up all the expenses for insurance, parking, fuel and maintenance."
A sign of the changing times is an increasing number of two-wheeling commuters, a police force that now has a bicycling squad and a city force of young employees who cycle around the city cleaning up messy areas. As well, the city has embarked on a program of creating "quartiers tranquilles," quiet neighborhoods where car traffic is restricted to promote more pedestrian and bike use.
The tide began to turn during the infamous transit strike of 1995. Forced to find other means of getting around, Parisians rediscovered the pleasures of cycling, roller skating and walking. Mayor Tiberi, with an ear to the mood swing following the transit strike, launched a plan vélo to develop 150 kilometers of paths. So far, a 107-kilometer network has been put in place, with 20 kilometers to be added this year and a proposal being studied to encircle the 20 arrondissements with a cycling périphérique. The city also has installed more than 9,500 parking spots for bicycles around Paris. And it promotes cycling and walking every Sunday from spring till fall, when roads along the Seine and other areas like the Canal St-Martin are temporarily closed to traffic.
Still, some bike advocates say the mayor is only paying lip service to the needs of cyclists. "I know he's not a cyclist so he doesn't really understand the problems," says Victor Dugain, a guide with Paris à vélo, c'est sympa!, which runs escorted bike tours around the city. Dugain said many of the cycle lanes were poorly designed because initially there was little input from users. And progress on expanding the network is too slow, he said. Many parts of the city do not have bike lanes, or they are uni-directional, making trips hard to plan.
Another issue, said Dugain, is that bike lanes are not always respected by motorists, who park and drive in them. To combat the problem, the city has launched an advertising campaign to remind drivers and pedestrians that it is against the law to block cycling lanes. It also has set up a commission to get feedback from cyclists and to address some of the concerns raised by Dugain.
Rose Burke, a long-time cyclist in the city and author of the "Best Biking Guide to Paris," says drivers here may have a wild reputation but they're actually very accommodating to cyclists. "I think the French motorist is more accepting of bicyclists on the street than your average New York city cab driver," she says. "There's more of a sense here that you have a right to a piece of the road."
While Paris is behind certain other European cities in the development of bike paths, Parisians have always maintained a romantic attachment to the bicycle, dating from the days when that was all they could afford, she says. As for safety, "there's more of a chance of getting killed on a country road in France than there is in Paris just because motorists have to drive more slowly in the city."
For more information about cycling:
Maison Roue Libre rents and repairs bikes, offers guided tours from its headquarters near Les Halles and during the summer at locations around the city close to Métro stations. It also offers Internet access, free to the public, for dozens of bike-related websites. 95 bis, rue Rambuteau, 1er, tel: 01.53.46.43.77.
L'Association Réseau Vert is an organization actively working to establish a "green network"of bike-friendly streets throughout the city. 114, rue du Château, 14e, tel: 01.43.22.40.64.
"The Best Biking Guide to Paris" by Rose Burke (60 pp), available through Web France International, 3, les Grandes Bruyères, 91470 Boullay les Troux or on Internet at: firstname.lastname@example.org
"Faire du vélo à Paris," published by Parigramme as part of its "Paris est à nous" series of pocketbooks (3F each). Also "Le Roller à Paris" and "Où trouver le calme à Paris."
about the city's plans for the Seine and the place de la Concorde
are available on the web site of la Mairie de Paris: http://www.paris-france.org