Paris has a pollution problem. Instead of the smoke from Gauloise cigarettes and the aroma of freshly baked bread, the air is packed with smog, an issue that got so bad one day last month, the city forcibly halved traffic by allowing only cars with odd-number plates to drive.
Paris is working toward less authoritarian, more considered solutions, including a program that gives drivers up to $11,400 if they trade in an old diesel for an electric car. It changed its public transit fare system to charge passengers equally, whether they’re staying in the city center or commuting in from the far suburbs.
And this week, the City of Lights unveiled a bold, $164 million plan to make itself “the cycling capital of the world” by 2020. The goal of the plan, which goes to the city council for approval April 13, is to triple the share of all trips made by bike from 5 to 15 percent. To get there, in the next five years, it wants to double its network of bike lanes to 870 miles (partly by making many lanes two-way) and drop speed limits on many streets to 18 mph. It would create 10,000 secure bike parking spaces and offer financial incentives for those buying electric and conventional bikes.
Becoming the cycling capital of the world may be out of reach—cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are well ahead of Paris when it comes to share of trips made by bike—but the plan deserves credit for both for its scale and its scope. And there’s plenty American cities can learn from it, says Evan Corey, a senior associate at transportation planning firm Nelson Nygaard.
“It’s ambitious,” Corey says, which isn’t surprising for this city. Paris has one of the world’s largest bike share systems, and it’s been rolling out extensive pro-pedestrian initiatives in recent years. This new plan looks to improve just about every aspect of the cycling experience, and backs it up with the necessary cash.
Providing a good cyclist experience—so pedaling around the city feels safe and comfortable—is key, says Geoff Anderson, president and CEO of Smart Growth America, a coalition that works against sprawl. More bike lanes should do that, especially the five proposed “highways” that will be almost entirely protected from car traffic, on some of the city’s biggest corridors, including the Champs-Elysées.
It’s also key to build a real transportation network, Anderson says. “Way too many places are just thinking about cycling in terms of individual facilities, rather than as integrated systems” that actually take you from one place to another. Paris seems to get that as well: Along with all the extra lanes, the plan calls for making biking into and out of Paris safer, with traffic calming measures at the busy intersections around the city’s edge. That makes cycling more practical for inhabitants of the largely impoverished suburbs. The 10,000 new parking stations would make the end of any trip easy instead of a pain.
The financial incentives to buy bikes are especially helpful, Corey says, because promoting cycling is all about eliminating reasons not to get on two wheels. It’s easy to forget or overlook, but the money it takes to get a bike in the first place is one of those disincentives. (Paris’ Velib bike share system also helps on that point, but while it’s affordable at $32 per year, it’s not free.)
In the US, “if you look at any transportation survey, people don’t think that the answer to congestion is building more roads,” Anderson says. “They think of it as more transit, more biking, more walking, more choices.” That’s especially true among the young, affluent people cities want to lure into their tax bases.
So what’s the takeaway for US cities that want to encourage cycling? It should not be that it takes more than a hundred million dollars to make it safe and practical. First of all, that’s not really an option. “Our funding context is quite different from what’s being done in Europe,” Corey says, and it’s unrealistic to think an American city would be willing or able to drop that kind of cash in just five years.
The good news is that investments into things like encouraging walking and biking “are often really, really, cheap” Anderson says, especially compared to building infrastructure for cars. “You can actually make significant impacts on transportation behavior with relatively small amounts of money.”
What’s important is to make sure that whatever money is spent goes to attacking barriers to cycling in a thoughtful way. That’s what the Paris plan does best: The ideas presented aren’t new, but they consider each step of the process, from buying a bike to parking it. And it thinks about different use cases, including tourists and commuters, those in the city center and those in the suburbs. Any plan that matches its scope, whatever the scale, will help encourage cycling.
You might not get “Paris-level results,” or the world’s best city for biking, Corey says, “but you can still get a lot of bang out of your buck by spending more on bicycles, transit and walking.”