Denis Baupin. A driving force to change Paris

A driving force to change Paris

Denis Baupin, deputy mayor for the environment, spearheaded the creation of the city’s bicycle-sharing program. (Pierre-Emmanuel Weck)

By Robert P. Walzer

For his efforts to reduce the privilege of car drivers in Paris, Denis Baupin has been saddled with nasty nicknames, including “Monsieur Embouteillages” (Mr. Traffic Jam), Khmer Vert and worse.

As the transportation chief of the French capital for seven years, Baupin, who has written a book called “All Cars, No Future,” was the force behind the development of Paris’s hugely successful bicycle-sharing program, Vélib’. He introduced a tramway, minibuses, rider subsidies, more bus lanes and faster bus speeds. He reduced auto speed limits to 30 kilometers an hour, or just under 19 miles an hour, from 50 kilometers an hour on 1,000 streets and closed many to cars altogether.

In short, Baupin has changed the face of mobility in Paris, making it, by most accounts, easier for users of public transportation, pedestrians and bikers, and less accessible to car drivers.

Since March 2008, the Green Party member has had a new but related charge: fighting climate change.

Under his plan, €2 billion, or $2.6 billion, of taxpayers’ money will go towards renovating a quarter of the city’s 220,000 subsidized apartments to receive better insulation and more efficient heating. The program would eventually extend to all of Paris’s 3,000 public and 100,000 private buildings, nearly half of them built before 1915.

Financing for the plan has not been set, though Baupin is in talks with the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, the French state-owned bank.

“The challenge is how we can devise a mechanism to finance this work using the energy economy of tomorrow with the money of today,” Baupin said.

Baupin is expanding the city’s car-sharing program, even as his boss, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, prepares a competing plan to place 2,000 electric cars throughout the city in 2010. Baupin happens to oppose the mayor’s AutoLib’ idea and fears its ease of use will prompt residents to abandon public transportation.

“The idea of car-sharing is you use it when you have no alternative,” Baupin said. “With Autolib’ the risk is people will use it every day.”

Baupin is also beseeching Parisians through educational campaigns to reduce the waste stream by, for example, halting the purchase of bottled water and using fewer plastic shopping bags.

For all his efforts, Baupin, 46, has become a pacesetter for urban environmental progressivism worldwide. He travels the globe meeting other urban planners and coordinating initiatives.

“You have to judge Denis in terms of what he’s done so far, which is to create a magnificent model of a city coming to grips with its mobility issues in a very interesting way,” said Eric Britton, the Paris-based managing director of New Mobility Partnerships, a nongovernment agency. “Yes, you can look at Copenhagen or Amsterdam and say they are better for bicyclists. But they’ve been doing it for 100 years. Paris, in short order, has become a model for other cities.”

At the end of 2008, Baupin was in New York to discuss Vélib’ with the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He also spoke in Tokyo at a meeting of the C40, a group of cities that lobbies to reduce carbon dioxide gases.

“Everybody came up to me and asked me about Vélib’,” Baupin said in a recent interview. “It shows that what we are doing in Paris is an example to the world.”

Baupin’s efforts come as climate-related ethos is ascendant. In 2007, the administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to emissions-reducing targets as part of the so-called Environmental Grenelle, or roundtable. The French Senate is set to debate the measures this year.

Paris, with Baupin’s guidance, has set even more stringent targets, following an audit of carbon emissions from buildings, transportation and industry. The city plans to reduce its emissions 30 percent below 2004 levels by 2020.

Baupin, intense, driven, a workaholic, tends to be viewed by his critics as unyielding and radical. In reality, his views are more nuanced.

For example, he is opposed to imitating London’s congestion charge for drivers’ entering the city, because he feels it is unfair to low-income drivers, especially those who live outside Paris. But he favors highway tolls, including one for the Paris beltway, to shift more of the cost of polluting to drivers. Cars would be able to enter Paris without cost on slower routes.

“Our political positions have more to do with reducing pollution and getting people to use public transportation,” Baupin said. “London has instituted what they specifically call a congestion charge, not a pollution charge. So, people who can afford it can actually use their cars more easily than before. That’s not our objective.”


Source and fair use:

This article originally appeared in the New York Times of 22 January 2009 based on a series of interviews carried out in Paris by their reporter Bob Walzer. You can view the original at

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