Watery Future for the City of Light

One of the amazing/complicating things about the world of mobility in cities is that it is one of those slices of daily life where everything touches something else and then something else again. Which means that nothing ever obliges us by standing still long enough so that we can fix it fast, once and for ever. It’s all about process.

So here is a report from today’s New York Times on a pretty exciting waterfront  project here in Paris for which World Streets’ editor was interviewed this week  and about which, when you get right down to it, is pure New Mobility Agenda. As you can see he managed to patch in some of our common concerns here (see closing section below), along with some words on the importance of value capture and tax reform, followed up by a good closer from Todd Litman in Vancouver. You will recognize and I hope appreciate it.

Sustainable mobility: Step by step. Step by consistent persistent step.

The New York Times. Special Report: Business of Green. June 24, 2010

Watery Future for the City of Light

By Louise Loftus – http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/business/energy-environment/25iht-rbogpar.html

PARIS — Murky with pollution after decades of industrial and agricultural dumping, the River Seine, flowing through Paris, was nearly dead in the 1970s.

Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, started a cleanup campaign in the early 1990s, and by last year Atlantic salmon were reported to have returned to the river — though just this month eating fish from the river was banned because of dangerously high residual levels of polychlorinated biphenyl, a toxic chemical outlawed from industrial use in Europe more than 20 years ago.

The French environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, has set in motion a project to eradicate PCBs from Paris’s waters. Meanwhile, a plan to extend the cleanup from the river to its banks is being pushed by City Hall — part of an ambitious project to lure Parisians back to the river.

Every Sunday for the past few years, the expressways that border the Seine in central Paris have been closed to cars and opened, instead, to strollers, roller skaters and cyclists.

In April, the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, announced plans to go a step further by permanently closing a 2-kilometer, or 1.2-mile, stretch of the Left Bank and slowing traffic on the Right Bank. The whole area would be transformed into a “pretty urban boulevard,” Mr. Delanoë said, with cars and pedestrians coexisting among cafes, flowers and floating islands.

City Hall planners estimate construction costs at €40 million, or $48.8 million, and maintenance costs at €2 million a year, and say the project could be completed in two years.

That, however, may depend on the readiness of the center-right French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his government to support the plan, since the riverside roads belong to the autonomous Paris Ports Authority, not to City Hall, and traffic management on them is the responsibility of the prefect of Paris, an official appointed by Mr. Sarkozy.

Mr. Sarkozy himself has other visions for Paris, expressed by the creation in March 2008 of a new government post, secretary of state for the development of the Capital Region, and the announcement last year of a €35 billion metropolitan redevelopment plan covering Paris and the Seine Valley.

With presidential elections due in 2012 — in which Mr. Delanoë may be a Socialist contender — the Seine is on the front line both in the political war and in Mr. Delanoë’s battle against what he calls the “unacceptable hegemony” of cars in the capital. Since 2001 he has introduced new trams, bike and bus lanes and the popular Vélib’ bicycle rental scheme. He is also responsible for the Paris-Plage program, which transforms a section of the riverbank into an urban beach every summer.

But some Parisians are not convinced. The Seine expressways were built in the 1970s as the linchpin of a program by President Georges Pompidou to turn Paris into “a city for the automobile.” On the Right Bank, the expressway carries 40,000 vehicles per day and 4,000 an hour at peak times, according to City Hall figures. On the Left Bank, the traffic is lighter but still reaches 2,000 vehicles per hour at rush hour.

According to Mr. Delanoë’s office, rerouting traffic away from the riverbanks would increase commute times across the city by only six minutes. But some commuters and taxi drivers warn that congestion in the city, already scarcely tolerable, would be made far worse.

“This will degrade the quality of life of French workers,” said one message on the mayor’s public consultation Web site. “The lives of people who work during the week will be even more complicated and stressful, and you degrade the working conditions of the inhabitants of Île de France in favor of the ‘idle’ and tourists.”

Supporters of Mr. Delanoë turn that argument on its head. “This is an initiative for all Parisians, and it’s part of a pattern of a larger translation. We are in the midst of a shifting paradigm,” said Eric Britton, an American economist in Paris and founder of New Mobility, a sustainable transport advocacy organization.

Amenities like rivers and green space must be allowed to once again become the “lungs of the city,” Mr. Britton said. “Cities must plan this way to be global competitors now,” he said. “The time of the car is over, and symbols, like the river, are the new metrics of civilization.”

The benefits can be not just environmental, but economic too, he said.

A 2009 study by Walkscore, a Web site that rates neighborhoods in terms of pedestrian access, evaluated the effect of “walkability” on U.S. housing prices, using 95,000 real estate transactions. The study found that making it easier for people to get around on foot raised housing values in 13 out of 15 markets. In some areas, increasing walkability by 25 percent raised house values by as much as $34,000 — with potential spinoff benefits to the public through higher property tax revenues.

“What we have to make sure of,” Mr. Britton said, “is that there is a proper system of land value capture in place.”

Todd Litman, a transportation economist and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization based in Canada, puts the lesson this way: “Some of the money cities currently spend to increase travel speeds could be spent more efficiently improving the comfort, convenience and security of walking, cycling and public transport.”

# # #

More responsible environmental reporting from The New York Times..

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/business/energy-environment/25iht-rbogpar.html. Photo credit: Ed Alcott for The New York Times. (See https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/about/editorial-team/fair-use/ for our policy on Fair Use.)

About the author:
Louise Loftus’ articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times online, the Scottish Herald and other publications. Born in Scotland, Loftus graduated from Glasgow University with a degree in law in 2007 and has a masters in journalism from Strathclyde University. She’s now based in Paris, where it is acceptable to be a cyclist. You can follow her blog at louiseloftus.tumblr.com

2 thoughts on “Watery Future for the City of Light

  1. Great quotes — ‘lungs of the city’, ‘symbols’, ‘global competitors’, ‘time of the car is over’, etc. love it. there’s no mistaking where you stand, and no apologizing for cars. simple. direct. appeal to our sense of urgency with ‘lungs’ — especially while we all watch the animals choke on oil. give a sense of the inevitability of the reduction in car use. reel in the ‘growth/business/investment’ folks with the ‘competitiveness’ angle. and elevate the debate to something more than the usual by talking of ‘symbols’ — thus allowing us to ‘dwell in a hopeful place’.

    C’est magnifique!

  2. Great article.

    Interesting point about the study which found that “in some areas, increasing walkability by 25 percent raised house values by as much as $34,000”

    This seems obvious in a way, I can’t imagine there are that many people who want to live next to a busy major road.

    Perhaps related to this, I understand from a friend who worked at the GLC during the 1980s that there was a study done on the economic benefits of roads, which found that in many cases the value of the land for real estate use was higher than the value of the roads when used for transport.


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