“Why Paris will be the ﬁrst post-car metropolis” by Simon Kuper in The Financial Times
In Lima next Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee will rubber-stamp Paris as host of the 2024 Games. By the time the Games begin, Paris will be transformed. “Vehicles with combustion engines driven by private individuals” could well be banned from the city by then, says Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor, whose responsibilities include urban planning. He gestures out of his office window in Paris’s city hall at the busy rue de Rivoli. By 2024, driverless shuttle buses should be going up and down the road all day.
Olympic visitors will see a vision of the post-car city. Anyone watching lorries calmly unload on pedestrian crossings in today’s Paris will struggle to believe this. Paris is now dirty, chaotic, years behind the transport frontrunners Amsterdam and Copenhagen and, according to its mayor, Anne Hidalgo, suffers 6,500 deaths a year from pollution. But that’s largely because Paris was built pre-car, and never had the space for the 20th-century technology. Now, as private cars start fading out, pre-car cities will come into their own. Paris, capital of the 19th century, could be the capital of the 21st.
The city is already unrolling the future: raising the price of parking, adding bike lanes and planning to ban diesel cars by 2020. Paris has all the qualities to become the world’s first post-car metropolis. First of all, it’s too dense for cars and, as ever more tourists pile in, it keeps getting denser. “Every inch of that road surface has to be maximised,” says Ross Douglas, who runs Autonomy, an annual urban-mobility conference in Paris.
“The first thing the city will want to do is reduce the 150,000 cars parked on the street doing nothing. Why should you occupy 12 square metres to move yourself? Why should you use a big diesel engine to pollute me and my family?” By 2024, driverless taxis will be making ride after ride, almost never parking. Paris’s parking spaces will become bike or scooter paths, café terraces or playgrounds. Paris can also change fast because France’s car industry has been steadily shedding jobs since the 1980s. It’s now too small to lobby hard against the future. Also, France has a 39-year-old tech-savvy president. Whereas his predecessors spent their energy saving dying industries, Emmanuel Macron intends to grab pieces of new ones, such as driverless vehicles.
Paris doesn’t need private cars because it already has the best public transport of any international city, according to the New York-based Institute of Transportation and Development Policy. Visitors from clogged developing cities ride metro trains here goggling in amazement. Already, nearly two-thirds of the 2.2 million Parisians don’t own cars, says Missika. True, the 10 million people in the suburban towns outside Paris rely more on cars. But, by 2024, most of them should have been weaned off. Wander around almost any suburb now, and somewhere near the high street you will find a billboard saying: “We are preparing the metro site.” Grand Paris Express — Europe’s biggest public-transport project — is going to change lives. It will bring 68 new stations, and thousands of homes built on top of them. The Olympics will help ensure it’s delivered on time. Then driverless shuttle buses will circulate endlessly along main drags. (One is already being trialled at La Défense, the business district. The only time it caused an accident was when a human driver took the wheel and hit a pedestrian’s ankle.) New electric bikes will allow suburban cyclists to cover two or three times current distances, making long commutes a doddle.
The Périphérique — Paris’s ring road, which now cuts off the city from the suburbs — will become obsolete, predicts Missika. He looks forward to it turning into an urban boulevard lined with trees and cafés. By then Paris and the suburbs will have merged into a single “Grand Paris”. Missika points out that the Olympic stadium and athletes’ village in 2024 will be outside Paris proper, in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of France’s poorest departments — just five minutes from Paris by train, but currently a world away. Missika says, “For me, the Games are above all the construction of a Grand-Parisian identity.” By 2024, Paris will be the EU’s unrivalled number one metropolis.
I asked Missika if he expected Brexit to benefit Paris. He replied that he considered London and Paris a single city, “the metropolis”. You can travel between them in less time than it takes to cross Shanghai. Anyway, he adds: “I have the impression Brexit won’t happen, since the English are pragmatic. The moment when they say, ‘We were wrong, we’ll take a step back’ will be a bit humiliating, but it will be better than doing Brexit.”
“Paris is again picking up,” British architect Richard Rogers told me at last Saturday’s FT Weekend Festival. Admittedly, the city won’t be paradise yet in 2024. Soldiers with machine guns may still spend their days patrolling sleepy side-streets for terrorists, alleviating their boredom by eyeing up Parisiennes. But already, Paris is starting to regard its English neighbour with sympathy rather than envy.