For me, one of the few bright spots of the pandemic was how it forced many cities to rethink how they use one of their most precious resource: their streets.
For far too long, far too many cities around the world have allowed private automobile traffic to occupy the top of the street-use hierarchy. It’s a recipe that often results in a city that has more air pollution, injury, noise, and inequality (to name just a few) compared with cities that have taken a more balanced approach to their streets.
In New York City, the pandemic streetscape improvements focused on an expansion of the Open Streets program and the institution of an emergency Open Dining program. Both programs were well-received by the public and the implementations were often quite well done, enhancing neighborhoods and supporting local businesses.
As good as these initiatives were, however, many of us in the transit/urban planning community felt that NYC could — and should — have gone much much farther. An unprecedented drop in traffic due to the lockdown was a prime opportunity to lock in the benefits of cleaner, quieter, safer streets by reprioritizing public transit, cycling, and pedestrians in the street use hierarchy.
Fortunately, one of the great cities of the world siezed the moment — and the opportunity. But it was Paris, not New York.
During 2020 and 2021, I read with interest and envy of how Mayor Anne Hildago of Paris was using the pandemic drop in traffic to remake how Parisians get around. Her bet on cycling was both entirely sensible yet still revolutionary and courageous.
As much as we love the Metro, the missus and I spent most of our recent visit to Paris getting around on bike. We wanted to experience for ourselves how the city had changed since our pre-COVID visits. Was Paris now a great cycling city? Was it better than Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London?
To say the least, we weren’t disappointed. Bike lanes of all kinds were everywhere, as were fellow bikers of all kinds, which contributed to the essential feeling of safety in numbers that every great cycling city has. Car drivers were by and large respectful of bikers and did not encroach on the bike lanes that did not have physical separations from the traffic lanes.
In 2022, biking may have become the easiest and fastest way to get around central Paris. Thanks to nearly-ubiquitous counterflow bike lanes, there were hardly any streets we couldn’t bike on, which meant plenty of route options to get to nearly any destination.
Paris has discovered that more bike lanes bring more bikers which bring safer biking for everyone. It’s a virtuous cycle (no pun intended) and Parisians and visitors alike are benefitting from. I can’t wait to see what they do next.