Lessons from the Lockdown in Paris

Laetitia Dablanc is a Director of Research at the University Gustave Eiffel/IFSTTAR and a member of MetroFreight, a VREF Center of excellence in urban freight research. I spoke to her recently about lessons learned from the COVID-19 lockdown in Paris.

My take aways from this 6-min video:

  1. She estimates that the lockdown resulted in a 30% reduction in VMT, but the effect were not lasting. Traffic is already back to pre-lockdown levels in Paris.
  2. The Parisian government rapidly deployed improvements in data management, traffic enforcement, bicycle lanes, and the subsidy for companies acquiring electric vehicles has been doubled – all in the last few months.
  3. The demand for bicycle delivery services (UberEats, etc.) has led to an expansion of gig-based jobs in this sector (and increased use of those new bike lanes!). Laetitia thinks freight companies have an opportunity here to attract these part-time, temporary workers to be full-time, longterm workers in freight if the right training programs can be established.

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Paris Has a Plan to Keep Cars Out After Lockdown

Returning to a Paris dominated by cars after lockdown ends is “out of the question,” according to the city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo. Speaking Tuesday at a special session of the Paris City Council on transitioning after France’s national lockdown eases on May 11, Hidalgo was emphatic about maintaining the anti-pollution and anti-congestion measures introduced during her tenure, even as cities rethink transportation policies to avoid Covid-19 transmission.

“I say in all firmness that it is out of the question that we allow ourselves to be invaded by cars, and by pollution,” she said. “It will make the health crisis worse. Pollution is already in itself a health crisis and a danger — and pollution joined up with coronavirus is a particularly dangerous cocktail. So it’s out of the question to think that arriving in the heart of the city by car is any sort of solution, when it could actually aggravate the situation.”

During the height of lockdowns around the world, car traffic slowed to a trickle and air pollution plummeted with it. But as cities consider how to reopen while avoiding crowding on public transportation, it remains unknown how intense the surge in car use will be. This adds new urgency to Hidalgo’s pre-pandemic agenda to dramatically reduce the footprint of cars on the city. And she is joining several other European city leaders in strengthening commitments to cultivate other modes of transportation, particularly biking.

Hidalgo’s assertion of a link between Covid-19 and pollution is not without foundation. Already in the pandemic’s infancy, studies have suggested a link between poor air quality and Covid-19 deaths. Researchers at Harvard found that an increase in particulate pollution of just one microgram per cubic meter could increase a sufferer’s chances of dying by 15%. Air pollution is also known to exacerbate conditions such as asthma that may make the risk of Covid-19 mortality higher.

Hidalgo’s anti-car program is focused on remodeling the city core to make more space for pedestrians and cyclists, while barring older, more polluting cars from entering the city. This process has seen major thoroughfares for motor vehicles pedestrianized and the steady phasing out of car lanes and parking spots to create wider sidewalks and greenery. Earlier this year, Paris adopted a 15-minute neighborhood blueprint for future development that would see yet more of the city’s surface area taken away from car lanes and repurposed as community spaces.

Hidalgo’s statement shows a clear refusal to backtrack on this push. It may also be a hint of new forthcoming plans to restrict car access. The end of lockdown on May 11 will not mean the return of normal transit habits nationally: Anyone wishing to travel beyond a 100-kilometer zone around Paris, pictured in the image tweeted below, will require official permission from national authorities. Even if it does not affect commuters, this restriction should still mean that motor traffic in Paris will not immediately return to pre-pandemic levels.

On public transit, meanwhile, Paris will need to find ways to prevent trains and buses from becoming overloaded so people can continue practicing social distancing. The first precautionary measure, Hidalgo said in her city council address, is for anyone in Greater Paris who is currently working from home to continue doing so. Those who take the metro will be required to wear masks, and hand sanitizer will be provided at all ticket barriers. Bus services will also be significantly expanded. The most striking measure proposed by the mayor, however, is the creation of new, fully protected bike lanes extending from the city’s heart right out into the distant suburbs.

The tracks were already in the pipeline before the pandemic, but they’ve been expedited as an emergency measures so that more people across Greater Paris can commute by bike. Within Paris itself, the new broad cycle paths will be carved out from road space to shadow the route of three metro lines. For the immediate future,  the axial Rue de Rivoli will become a space almost entirely for pedestrians and cyclists, with buses and taxis circulating only along a narrow central strip of the road.

Such temporary bike lane plans are by no means exclusively Parisian: They are already being rolled on in Milan, Barcelona, Brussels and Berlin, in addition to several other global cities, in a bid to make it easier for city residents to get around while socially distancing. With lockdowns still in place, it is too soon to see if measures such as these will be enough to sufficiently reduce crowding on trains and buses.

But they reveal a continued intention to focus on climate change, even as another global emergency diverts attention. And for Hidalgo, the pandemic and its connection to respiratory conditions has only provided newly intensified motivation to reduce pollution.

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Paris Mayor: It’s Time for a ’15-Minute City’

Paris needs to become a “15-minute city.” That’s the message from the manifesto of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is seeking re-election this March. Hidalgo has been leading a radical overhaul of the city’s mobility culture since taking office in 2014, and has already barred the most polluting vehicles from entry, banished cars from the Seine quayside and reclaimed road space for trees and pedestrians. Now, she says, Paris needs to go one step further and remodel itself so that residents can have all their needs met—be they for work, shopping, health, or culture—within 15 minutes of their own doorstep.

Even in a dense city like Paris, which has more than 21,000 residents per square mile, the concept as laid out by the Hidalgo campaign group Paris en Commun is bold. Taken at a citywide level, it would require a sort of anti-zoning—“deconstructing the city” as Hidalgo adviser Carlos Moreno, a professor at Paris-Sorbonne University, puts it. “There are six things that make an urbanite happy” he told Liberation. “Dwelling in dignity, working in proper conditions, [being able to gain] provisions, well-being, education and leisure. To improve quality of life, you need to reduce the access radius for these functions.” That commitment to bringing all life’s essentials to each neighborhood means creating a more thoroughly integrated urban fabric, where stores mix with homes, bars mix with health centers, and schools with office buildings.

Paris en Commun has created a diagram to illustrate the concept of what should be available within 15 minutes of “Chez Moi” (home).

Paris en Commun’s 15-minute city concept. From the top, clockwise, the headings read: Learn, Work, Share and Re-Use, Get Supplies, Take the Air, Self-Develop and Connect, Look After Yourself, Get Around, Spend, and Eat Well. (Paris en Commun)

This focus on mixing as many uses as possible within the same space challenges much of the planning orthodoxy of the past century or so, which has studiously attempted to separate residential areas from retail, entertainment, manufacturing, and office districts. This geographical division of uses made sense at the dawn of the industrial era, when polluting urban factories posed health risks for those living in their shadows. Car-centric suburban-style zoning further intensified this separation, leading to an era of giant consolidated schools, big-box retail strips, and massive industrial and office parks, all isolated from each other and serviced by networks of roads and parking infrastructure. But the concept of “hyper proximity,” as the French call it, seeks to stitch some the these uses back together, and it’s driving many of the world’s most ambitious community planning projects.

Barcelona’s much-admired “superblocks,” for example, do more than just remove cars from chunks of the city: They’re designed to encourage people living within car-free multi-block zones to expand their daily social lives out into safer, cleaner streets, and to encourage the growth of retail, entertainment, and other services within easy reach. East London’s pioneering Every One Every Day initiative takes the hyper-local development model in a slightly different direction, one designed to boost social cohesion and economic opportunity. Working in London’s poorest borough, the project aims to ensure that a large volume of community-organized social activities, training and business development opportunities are not just available across the city, but specifically reachable in large number within a short distance of participants’ homes.

Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, walking-distance-limited neighborhood planning is seen as central to climate action: The city aims to cover 90 percent of the city in so-called “20-minute neighborhoods,” where all basic needs—with the exception of work—can be reached within a third of an hour of walking time. In Australia, Melbourne rolled out a similar pilot in 2018.

Hidalgo’s aspirations for Paris build on this idea, but with a local twist. The goal travel time is reduced to 15 minutes, but bike journeys can count. And while it likewise underlines the importance of stores and doctors, it also includes cultural activities and workplaces within its central aspirations.

In Paris, this isn’t necessarily such a tall order. The mayor oversees only the 2.2 million residents of the city’s heavily populated historic core, which already enjoys some of the use-mixing that the 15-minute-city concept encourages, thanks to its pre-industrial roots. Paris would have an easier time with the concept than say, sprawling Melbourne, where more radical residential densification may be in order.

Paris en Commun’s manifesto sketches out some details for what this future walkable, hyperlocal city would look like. More Paris road space would be given up to pedestrians and bikes, with car lanes further trimmed down or removed. Planning would try to give public and semi-public spaces multiple uses—so that, for example, daytime schoolyards could become nighttime sports facilities or simply places to cool off on hot summer nights. Smaller retail outlets would be encouraged—bookstores as well as grocery stores—as would workshops making wares using a “Made in Paris” tag as a marketing tool. Everyone would have access to a nearby doctor (and ideally a medical center), while sports therapy facilities would be available in each of the city’s 20 arrondissements.

To improve local cultural offerings, public performance spaces would be set up, notably at the “gates” of Paris — the large, currently car-dominated squares around the inner city’s fringe which once marked entry points through the long-demolished ramparts. Finally, Paris would be populated by a network of “citizen kiosks”—booths staffed by city employees that would offer not just information, but also community cohesion services. Think places where you can drop off and pick up keys, join a local club or buy compost for your balcony plants.

Paris en Commun provides some glimpses of what this more self-sufficient, neighborhood-oriented city might look like. The (imaginary) triangular intersection below resembles the current state of many in Paris; there’s some public pedestrian space, but it remains hemmed in by cars, both mobile and parked, and genuinely safe space for pedestrians is limited.

(Nicolas Bascop/Paris en Commun)

After a superblock-style transformation, several neighborhood streets have been stripped of cars and no longer act as through-routes. This frees up room for new public space, with a small park at one end and a produce garden for residents at the other. New trees, green roofs and balconies, and a fountain would help mitigate the heat island effect and make the area a more pleasant place to linger. Meanwhile, the crossing space has ballooned in size, providing greater priority for pedestrians.

(Nicolas Bascop/Paris en Commun)

In December, transit strikes in Paris in protest of national pension reform gave Parisians an accidental taste of what a 15-minute-city future would look like, at least in terms of the hugely enlarged volume of cyclists on the city’s roads while bus and Metro service was halted. At some points during the strikes (which are still ongoing), bikes started to outnumber cars by two to one—a premonition of what might be to come.

Still, piecing together an entire modern working city around this 15-minute rubric would pose a challenge. In addition to its residents, central Paris attracts vast numbers of tourists who must be fed, housed and transported from neighborhood to neighborhood. Millions more commute into the city for work on regional transit from the vast greater Paris metro area. The people living in self-sufficient squares like the one above might find their rents rise along with the charm. And Paris can’t be transformed into a city that solely serves the needs of affluent locals.

Just how Hidalgo would execute the infrastructural changes required remains to be seen. She appears well-positioned to stay in City Hall: She’s leading in the polls (and one of her rivals has pulled out of the race after a sex scandal). Her office has not announced any specific budget or timetable for the 15-minute city concept, which remains perhaps more of a rough blueprint for the future than an imminent makeover, should she be re-elected in March. As a rethink of the way cities should be planned—and exactly who they should serve, and how—it’s an idea that other cities are likely to watch with great interest.

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In Paris, a Very Progressive Agenda Is Going Mainstream

Whatever you think of them, you can’t say the new promises from Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo of lacking ambition. Seeking re-election at the municipal polls in March, Hidalgo unveiled proposals this week that include a referendum on the role of Airbnb, a plan to make the city center “100 percent bicycle,” a new 5,000-strong municipal police force in which at least half the staff are women, and a vow to spend 20 billion euros on converting office buildings into affordable housing.

By international standards these are bold proposals. Other European cities may already be on the road to going further in similar policy areas: Madrid has already banned cars from its inner city, Barcelona has hit Airbnb with a fine of €600,000 for breaking local home-share rule infractions, and Berlin has approved a citywide five-year rent freeze. No other city is as yet going quite as hard as Paris, however, in trying to tackle pollution, congestion, and housing access and affordability simultaneously.

In an unusual Paris election season, however, what might seem ultra-progressive in other cities doesn’t set Hidalgo’s policy package drastically apart from the crowd. While she currently leads in the polls, her primary opponents have not necessarily been Green-skeptic conservatives as such, but other candidates occupying the center-left space who have equally forthright, broadly pro-green choices in their manifestos. As news magazine L’Obs puts it, Paris has “a municipal landscape where all the candidates are striving to green their program.” In that local context, Hidalgo’s plans do not seem especially radical.

If the current mayor is re-elected, some of these program promises may be relatively easy to deliver. A referendum on Airbnb, for example, has been in the cards for some time. The idea, the mayor insists, would not be to block possibilities for genuine home-sharing, but to allow Parisians to decide neighborhood by neighborhood exactly what local regulations they want placed on the sector. Slated to be held before this summer, the vote could still create some problems by introducing a hyper-local checkerboard of differing rules, with strict regulations in some places and a more laissez-faire approach in others, but it’s something that not even Airbnb itself could object to in principle. Other proposals, such as the plan to make inner Paris a bicycle-first city work well because they do not come with a specific timetable attached, and thus suggest a simple continuation of the tough car-removing policies with which Hidalgo has already made a name for herself.

The plan would see more express cycling routes, segregated with raised medians, and lane space allotted to bikes across the city. This space would be largely taken from current space allotted to cars, while a pedestrianization plan will continue to sweep motor vehicles away from major streets. Such changes are indeed within the mayor’s power, though they have been challenged (unsuccessfully) in the past by regional leaders claiming that they are unfair to suburban commuters.

Others, however, will require substantial funding and the mobilization of support. Hidalgo is setting herself the target of  starting construction on 30,000 new homes with rents at least 20 percent lower than market rates by 2026—a plan to be funded by a 50/50 split public-private partnership. Many of these units are due to come from converted office space, which Hidalgo believes is oversupplied and in less urgent demand than housing. And the plan would certainly be popular with the stretched middle class. Employers may nonetheless fear a loss of potential workspace, and “affordable housing” that hinges on market-rate prices can easily become unaffordable when private rents spike.  

What’s striking about Paris’ current politics, however, is not that these measures are being proposed, but that many of Hidalgo’s main opponents are proposing something similar. Benjamin Griveaux, candidate for President Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party, is also proposing to help middle-class renters—by helping landlords to renovate substandard-condition housing that is unrentable. He is likewise pushing for new segregated cycle paths that will ultimately be double the length of Paris’s metro. Popular independent Cédric Villani, a former LREM leading light who has launched his candidacy in opposition to official party candidate  Griveaux, wants to become “Paris’s first true eco-mayor,” cracking down on skyscraper construction on the periphery of the city, pushing for more Airbnb regulation, and introducing such measures as organic-only meals in school cafeterias. The Green Party candidate David Belliard is no less forthright, advocating that Paris follow Berlin’s example and instigate a five-year rent freeze. In a city where these four candidates together are currently polling over 65 percent of the vote share, Hidalgo’s proposals for the 2.2 million residents within her jurisdiction are clearly mainstream.

As you might expect, these candidates are highly critical of Hidalgo’s record. But these criticisms are not aimed at the mayor’s policies so much as the discrepancy between them and her actual record. Griveaux says the mayor is dawdling on her bike plans, with only 50 percent of the goals set in 2015 met. Villani has likewise criticized Hidalgo for failing to deliver yet on her goal of reining in the effect of Airbnb on the rental market, and of cynical links with developers constructing a controversial skyscraper on the Paris periphery. Hidalgo has defended herself around housing issues such as Airbnb’s pressure on rents by pointing out that 100,000 public housing units have been constructed in Paris since 2001, when her socialist party predecessor as mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, assumed power.

Green candidate David Belliard, meanwhile, has questioned Hidalgo’s green credentials, attributing her successes in sustainability to pressure from his own party whichto add a twist — currently holds posts in Hidalgo’s administration as a minor coalition partner in Paris’s municipal assembly. It may be hard to demonstrate that Green Party influence has been the shaping force in the administration’s sustainability goals, but the mayor’s reputation as trusted driver of green change has been somewhat damaged by a chaotic breakdown in the city’s bikeshare system last year.

Among the serious candidates, only Rachida Dati of the Republicans still declares herself against what is possibly Hidalgo’s most controversial policy, the pedestrianization of quays on the Seine’s right bank. Dati is likewise the only major candidate skeptical about the mayor’s pro-bike drive. “I don’t see myself going to work by bike,” she has said. “You’d only have to see the state I’d arrive in.” A reasonable objection to bike commuting, no doubt, but its rarity among candidates suggest that Hidalgo has won arguments over placing sustainable transit at the heart of the municipal program.

Does that mean she will also win the election? In a rather strange election season—a political climate that has changed dramatically in recent years—there is still much up for grabs. When Hidalgo was elected, France also had a socialist Party president. Since then, support for her party has plummeted nationally (much of it shifting to Macron’s LREM), making her highly vulnerable even if she enjoys much local support. In Paris’s two-round process of elimination system, she will still likely prevail as the candidate of the left due to disarray amongst her opponents. (If LREM’s supporters hadn’t been split into two camps due to the rival campaigns of Griveaux and Villani, Macron’s party could likely have won.)

But even if she still doesn’t beat her rivals, what isn’t nearly as vulnerable is an ambitious green agenda, as her sole major opponent on the right, Dati, currently has only minority support. With a slate of candidates backing similar policies to Hidalgo’s, the true victory seems to be for an urban politics that places sustainability at the heart of its policy choices—a position at center-stage that looks set to endure in Paris whatever the result of March’s elections.

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Before Paris’s Modern-Day Studios, There Were Chambres de Bonne

Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series on the home designs that define four European cities: London, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. Read the collection here.

Many of Paris’ grandest buildings hide a secret. The main facades of the city’s avenues may charm with their wrought-iron balconies and honey limestone. Inside, they may contain grand, high-ceilinged apartments on their main floors. Under the roofs and up the back staircases, however, it’s a different story. These buildings, largely constructed as part of Baron Haussmann’s mid-19th century remodeling of the city, have, despite their grandeur, long housed some of the city’s poorest residents.

Called Chambres de Bonne—“maids’ rooms”—these tiny bedsits initially intended for domestics are packed into Paris’ garrets and still number more than 100,000 across the city. Usually built without bathrooms or running water, the floorspace of these units can be as small as 85 square feet, often making them legally unrentable today. The construction of such spaces may be long passed—and most Parisians live in more spacious conditions—but Paris’ Chambres de Bonne have still done their bit to shape the city’s contemporary living culture. They have helped to combine different classes under a single roof, by stacking poor residents above wealthy—and have helped to drive down local assumptions about exactly how small a living unit can be.

(Josh Kramer)

Given their small size, it might seem incredible that when Paris’ Chambres de Bonne first surfaced as an urban phenomenon they actually represented an improvement for many. Until the mid-19th century, it was common for French domestic servants to sleep on mattresses wherever space could be found in their employers’ homes. As wealthier families moved into apartments in Haussmann’s new buildings, however, the domestic servants they needed were finally given their own (tiny) spaces: right under the roof dormers accessed by a service staircase. With only shared water pumps, these rooms were often freezing in winter, but they at least offered their tenants some privacy.

The Parisian public has nonetheless always been aware that the rooms’ conditions were bleak. As far back as Émile Zola’s 1882 novel Pot-Bouille, writers have been deploring them and, even as their original servant tenants were replaced with other low-income groups, they developed a reputation as louche, shady places whose seclusion placed them outside regular social control. As sociologist David Lepoutre put it in 2010:

This presence of a poor population on the sixth floor … perpetuates in renewed forms an old vertical urban segregation. It induces practices that make the top floor a place of weak social control where marginal lifestyles and an illegal economy can develop: midnight move-outs, un-authorized sublets, squats, wild electrical connections, warehouses of furniture and objects of all kinds in the corridors.

The city has tried to regulate the rooms for over a century. As early as 1904, the city banned maids’ rooms of less that 8 square meters (86 square feet) from being rented, a limit extended in 2002 to a princely minimum of nine square meters (97 square feet). While  maids’ rooms can be more than double that size, that 9-square-meter legal threshold still meant many  were left legally unrentable. As of 2016, up to 85 percent of Paris’ 113,000 maids’ rooms were either empty or let illegally.

That doesn’t mean that the rooms have necessarily retired from the scene. Some have a second life as Airbnbs for guests who are happy to trade cramped conditions for a good price and location. And shadowing North American design publications’ obsession with tiny homes, Parisian media commonly celebrate revamped maids’ rooms, made habitable by ingenious fold-down furniture and inventive storage.

A former maid’s room repurposed as a modern apartment, in 2016. (Thomas Sampson, AFP, via Getty Images)

Meanwhile the city is trying to bring them back into the fold. The municipality adopted a policy in 2016 of combining maids’ rooms to make small public apartments. So far, plans have been very modest—the city has set itself the target of creating just 500 new public homes from combining attic rooms. But the location of many of these units in prosperous western Paris will help promote the city’s goal of encouraging more public housing in wealthier areas.

While maids’ rooms are steadily being converted, the shadow they cast still shapes the Parisian view in a city where people still tend to live in small spaces. As of 2014, the average size of a flat within Paris’ Peripherique beltway was just 43 square meters (463 square feet)—minuscule compared to 70.4 square meters in Berlin and 74 square meters in Amsterdam. The average Parisian would no doubt balk at squeezing into a single attic studio, but in a city whose cultural image has, from La Bohème to Ratatouille, celebrated both the squalor and freedom of garret living, the maids’ rooms still shape expectations. A Parisian might find their tiny one-bedroom apartment claustrophobic but, they may reason, at least they aren’t squeezed tightly into an old servant’s room under the eaves.

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The Book That Captured Mid-’70s Paris

Paris looms so large in the global cultural imagination—from Hugo to Hemingway, from Madeline to Moulin Rouge—that you don’t even need to be there to be looking at it.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, Gustave Caillebotte’s 1877 impressionist masterpiece “Paris Street; Rainy Day,” with its wet cobblestones, carriages, umbrellas, and one prominently featured electric lamp, functions as a kind of portal back to the City of Lights: That’s what Paris’s own mayor, Anne Hidalgo, found two years ago during the North American Climate Summit, when, thousands of miles from home, she almost inevitably found herself with a glass of wine and facing the Caillebotte’s Paris portrait. Wherever you go, there’s Paris, a shining metropolis full of romance and reverie.

Forty-five years ago this fall, the French writer Georges Perec spent three days on Place Saint-Sulpice, creating a portrait of a decidedly different Paris, one notable not for its monuments or cultural pedigree but for its simple, peopled everydayness. He sat in cafes and bars, noting the perambulations of his fellow Parisians, and catalogued their stuff: their cars, buses, dogs, kids, bags, newspapers, mail. Rather than celebrating Saint-Sulpice’s stately architecture or imposing church, his intent was to describe “that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”

The result was An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, first published in the French journal Cause Commune in 1975 and as a small book in 1982. (Marc Lowenthal’s English translation was released in 2010.) It’s a pamphlet-length memento of the capital at the end of “Les Trente Glorieuses”—the three optimistic decades of prosperity and growth immediately following World War II. Nearly half a century later, it’s a remarkable document of what’s since changed, and also of what hasn’t.

The text doesn’t guide the reader, offering no narrative movement or historical sweep. Instead, it’s merely a collection of moments and details. “Rue Bonaparte, a cement mixer, orange,” Perec writes. “A basset hound. A man with a bow tie. An 86 [bus].” Dropped into the Café de la Mairie alongside him, the reader is free to make his or her own decisions and judgments. Take it with you to any cafe in any city, and Perec will be both your drinking partner and your tour guide, drawing your attention to each little detail coming and going.

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris is hardly canonical—Perec, who died at age 45 in 1982, is not well known outside of fans of experimental fiction. He may be most famous for his novel La Disparition (in English, A Void), which was written entirely without the letter e. But make no mistake: The little book is a masterpiece of city writing. In Ulysses, James Joyce look more than 700 dense pages to explore 24 hours in Dublin; Perec uses less than 60 sparsely populated pages to document the better part of three days in mid-1970s Paris. Where Joyce gives you the ambitions and loves of his protagonists, Perec focuses solely—and much to the urbanist’s delight—on movement. There is no plot, no character development, no arc spread out over volumes or even chapters—only the persistent movement of the city around a sedentary observer. “People, in waves, continually.”

As Perec knew, the movement of people through a city space is its own kind of performance. In his final book, the French theorist and unintentional urbanist Henri Lefebvre claimed that city dwellers perform on the street like horses in a dressage competition. “Humans break themselves in like animals,” he wrote. “They learn to hold themselves.” Indeed, Stanford professor Ato Quayson, who has spent years researching and observing Oxford Street in Accra, Ghana, argues that no urban planner can legislate the interactions that take place on the urban thoroughfare. Strolling Ghanaians, he notes, rarely wear headphones, as dynamic interactions demand their full attention. Walking down Oxford Street, he says, requires improvisation; to walk there is to perform, to signal to others—merchants, motorists, other pedestrians—through “rhetorical codes” based on movement.

The French social scientist Michel de Certeau called these statements “pedestrian speech acts.” Swerving, stopping, even window shopping, he argued, transforms the urban spaces around us. Walking is much more than going from place to place—all of which sounds very theoretical until you’ve tried to walk across 6th Avenue at rush hour, navigate Shibuya Crossing, or, for that matter, read Perec.

In Perec’s Attempt, each observation is a snapshot of Parisians living their daily routines, but also performing for each other. “Most people are using at least one hand: they’re holding a bag, a briefcase, a shopping bag, a cane, a leash with a dog at the end, a child’s hand.” A man tries to enter a cafe but pulls rather than pushes on the door. Tourists stand taking photographs. “A man who just bought a pack of Winstons and a pack of Gitanes tears off the crystal (cellophane) envelope of the pack of Winstons.”

Even as they appear to be moving at random, these people are signaling to each other, and to the cars around them, in a physical language embedded in muscle memory by years of practice. “Automobiles follow obviously privileged traffic routes,” Perec explains; “it’s much less noticeable with pedestrians.” Indeed, the whole project can be read as a museum of Parisian walking styles and codes in 1974.

But Perec’s project also anticipated current research on a number of urban issues. In his 2013 working paper “The Kind of Problem a City is,” Luis A. Bettencourt, then of the Santa Fe Institute, develops a quantitative analysis around density and the value of—to deploy a non-technical phrase—people bumping into each other. Cities are shaped by transportation infrastructure and land use, he argues, but they are most importantly sites of social interaction. “The central idea is that cities are first and foremost large social networks. In this sense cities are not just large collections of people, they are agglomerations of social links.”

So while his experiment is a solitary one, Perec does not truly sit alone: He is still part of a larger urban organism. At one point he recognizes a face in the street, a “distant acquaintance (friend of a friend, friend of a friend of a friend)” who comes by to say hello and stays for a cup of coffee. And An Attempt at Exhausting Paris is a portrait not just of the Paris flâneur, but also of mobility itself—of the movement of people and vehicles of all kinds:

A small bus goes by: Club Reisen Keller

Bus. Japanese.

I’m cold. I order a brandy

A car goes by, its hood covered in dead leaves

A motorcyclist goes by, pushing a very new red Yamaha 125

For the umpteenth time the 79 rue de Rennes auto-driving school car goes by

A little girl with a blue balloon goes by.

He counts buses. Why? “Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: They cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re foreseeable … The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic.” Of course, the interaction of the regular and the anarchic is at the core of the text, just as it’s at the core of the urban experience, then and now. Sit drinking a glass of bourgueil at the Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Sulpice today, and you’ll still see the 86 roll by at regular intervals—except during strikes!

On the other hand, Perec’s description of the square’s traffic may seem a curious streetscape to readers in decades to come. In his Paris of 1974, people share the streets with cars, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, trucks and dogs; there are no signs of the bike lanes and car-excluding bollards that have become hallmarks of Mayor Hidalgo’s efforts to reclaim pedestrian space and reduce car traffic. Similarly, on San Francisco’s Market Street, Manhattan’s 14th Street, or around the Cerda’s superblocks in Barcelona, the preeminence—even the presence—of cars is in retreat.

This may only be the beginning. Even where different modes of transportation interact, the mix of speeds that give An Attempt its texture of controlled chaos may disappear. The mobility chapter of Sidewalk Labs’ master plan for Toronto, for instance, envisions streets separated according to speed of movement, including streets for autonomous vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians moving together at the same clip.

It may well be that, 45 years from now, the mayor of Paris will pick up Perec’s little gem of a book and not recognize the way people move about the city. But some generalizations, viewed here in their specificity, will hopefully still ring true. Perec ends his exercise in exhausting the great capital simply, timelessly: “Four children. A dog. A little ray of sun. The 96. It is two o’clock.”

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CityLab Daily: Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

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What We’re Following

Boxed in: It’s officially the holiday shopping season and that means more delivery trucks on city streets brought on by e-commerce. In the United States, millions of daily packages have not only brought about a delivery truck boom; they have inverted the dynamics for collecting the sales and property taxes that fund state and local governments. Globally, the convenience of the one-click e-commerce model has helped Amazon weave itself into the life of cities. And now, Paris wants to fight back.

Writing in an open letter in Le Monde, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo called Amazon a “creator of precarity, congestion and pollution” and “an ecological disaster.” To rein in the negative effects of urban shipping, she proposed a plan that would charge a fee to e-commerce vendors, and limit delivery times and volumes in certain neighborhoods. While Paris’s share of the global Amazon market is limited, the proposal could become a model for other jurisdictions. The question is: Would city leaders be able to handle it if companies decided to pass such taxes on to their customers? CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan takes a look: Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

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What We’re Reading

Watch four decades of inequality drive American cities apart (New York Times)

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Why Paris Wants to Tax Amazon Deliveries

The French don’t celebrate American-style Thanksgiving. (Or the Canadian one, for that matter.) But that doesn’t mean they entirely miss out on the magic and hysteria of Black Friday sales: There is a huge spike in reduced-price deliveries at the end of the this month throughout France.

Which makes this a very good time for Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo to open a new front in her ongoing campaign to mitigate the damaging effects of 21st century capitalism. In an open letter published in Le Monde, Hidalgo announcing proposals intended to make sure that e-commerce firms such as Amazon pay for the ills they are unleashing. Amazon, she wrote, was a “creator of precarity, congestion and pollution” and “an ecological disaster”; along with other services such as UberEats, the company should be charged a fee for its urban deliveries to offset the problems it causes.

Action was essential, the letter said, to avoid the kind of problems that New York City faces: Manhattan has “become a huge delivery area where anarchic shutdowns block all traffic,” and if nothing was done, then a situation like New York’s, where 1.5 million packages are delivered daily, would become “the nightmare that awaits us.”

The language used here is certainly strong, but Paris City Hall, which would likely re-propose the suggestions in more concrete form if Hidalgo and her administration are reinstated at March 2020’s municipal elections, is indeed picking up on a problem that’s rolling out globally. American cities are scrabbling to manage the sharp rise in retail freight that e-commerce has brought to its streets. In London, which since 2003 has employed a pioneering congestion pricing regime in the city center to control traffic, has seen its streets become even more congested than in the days before the charge, because private cars have been replaced by commercial vehicles, including delivery vans.

On average, Amazon now delivers around 250,000 packages a day in Paris, a number that rises tenfold in the days around Black Friday. Hidalgo’s proposal would limit deliveries to inner Paris neighborhoods to specific times, with a maximum number of deliveries capped for each area. Each of these deliveries would come with a surcharge payable by the company who sold the item delivered. If Amazon and other companies decide to pass this burden on to their customers—and it would be hard to prevent them from doing so—city leaders could be blamed for making shopping less affordable in what is already one of the worlds’ costliest cities.

The Paris City Hall proposals came out the day after the campaign group Attac, which lobbies for more stringent tax controls on multinational companies, released a report on the downsides of Amazon’s French operations. The report, supported by environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth and trade union Solidaire, details a litany of undesirable economic and environmental impacts associated with the company. The group claims, for example, that Amazon has made 57 percent of its French gross revenue untaxable, for example. Its overall global operations create more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire nation of Portugal, the report says, and the company’s ability to suppress competing businesses means that its American operations destroy two jobs for every one they create. The French report joins several new stories about Amazon’s labor practices and worker safety record in the U.S. that also focus on the price that we really pay for the convenience of online shopping.

Amazon has challenged the Attac report, saying that it is “contains many factual errors and [much] unfounded speculation.” Their own figures show that the company will have created 9,300 jobs in France by the end of 2019. While the company didn’t directly refute the report’s criticism of their emissions record, it nonetheless highlights its Climate Pledge, which aims for carbon neutral deliveries by 2030 and carbon neutral operations by 2040. Amazon also says that its current global order of 100,000 of electric delivery vehicles is the largest yet made by any company.

Such progress still lags behind that of some more-proactive companies currently working in France. The French postal service, for example, is already in the process of switching to electric and natural gas vehicles and bikes for the final mile of its deliveries, and by 2024, La Poste promises that its deliveries within Greater Paris will be entirely carbon neutral.

How important will political pressure from the city of Paris be when it comes to influencing the business practices of a retail goliath like Amazon? The company accounts for 17.3 percent of France’s e-commerce market and earned €6.6 billion ($7.3 billion) in revenue in the country in 2018. That falls short of the market dominance the company enjoys in the somewhat less populous U.K., when its income for the same year reached £10.9 billion, or in larger Germany, where it earned €16.9 billion. When compared to the enormity of of Amazon’s global operations, Paris’ proposed taxes would be like a gnat bothering an elephant, especially when you consider that Mayor Hidalgo’s policies only cover the 2.2-million-person historic nucleus of greater Paris.

What makes Hidalgo’s proposal of greater potential concern for online retailers is the possibility that it serves as a model for other jurisdictions. Based on media coverage so far, that could happen. One can easily imagine a similar call to tax e-commerce deliveries in the U.S. sparking a flurry of objections; in France, however, the Paris pushback was generally reported with subtle but implicit favorability. The right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro for example, had its own report this week on the higher prevalence of accidents in Amazon’s U.S. warehouses. If the company has influential cheerleaders in France, they’re currently keeping pretty quiet.

Given Amazon’s global market share, Paris’ plans hardly pose an existential threat. But in a climate where the environmental and economic effects of e-commerce are coming under increasing scrutiny from both legislators and the public, the city could be a trailblazer in the movement to rein it in.

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Airbnb’s Olympic Sponsorship Deal Isn’t Playing Well in Paris

Looking back, the International Olympic Committee’s announcement Monday that Airbnb will be the chief sponsor for the Games until 2028 was probably not ideally timed. The IOC announced Airbnb’s starring sponsorship role in the five summer and winter events for the next nine years on the very same day that Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris—the host city for the 2024 Summer Games—promised a referendum on limiting the home-rental giant’s activities in the city if re-elected in March 2020. The following day, Hidalgo deputy Ian Brossat appeared at the European Court of Justice, to defend its decision to fine a Paris Airbnb host who is challenging their decision as unlawful.

This awkward convergence is perhaps not the sort of publicity either Airbnb or the IOC were seeking. And it got worse: On Wednesday, France’s hotel association announced that they will “suspend their participation” with the Olympic Games in protest at the choice of a sponsor who “does not respect the rules.” An event intended to showcase the strengths of contemporary Paris has thus already sparked a heated debate over Airbnb, tourism, and exactly who runs the city.

The strength of the backlash might seem surprising. The IOC says it chose the partnership because it would make the Olympics “more feasible and sustainable.” Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, meanwhile, pointed out that the company’s participation would “reduce the cost for the Olympic Games organizers and all the stakeholders…[and] minimize the need for (new) construction” by unlocking the potential of existing homes for short-term lets.

This argument won’t wash with Mayor Hidalgo, however, who has already written to IOC President Thomas Bach to “alert him to the risks and consequences” of choosing Airbnb as a sponsor, reports Le Monde. Her letter states:

Airbnb is a factor in the increase in rental prices and the worsening of the rental housing shortage, penalizing all Parisians and in particular the middle classes…The consequences are sometimes measured at the scale of [entire] buildings and streets—in cases when whole neighborhoods aren’t affected, generating nuisance for residents, destabilizing local trade and competing hard with the traditional hotel industry.

The scale of Airbnb’s presence in Paris has also been criticized by local housing activists Droit au Logement (“Right to Housing”), which estimates that among Paris’ 60,000 Airbnb listings, over 85 percent are for entire apartments. While apartments are not supposed to be rented on the site for more than 120 nights per year, the association says that only 50 percent of listings have the city registration number that would make monitoring this possible.

Meanwhile, in a phenomenon that might reflect correlation rather than causation, rents appear to be rising faster in areas with especially high concentrations of listings. Rental housing is not the only area of real estate where concerns are being raised. Among the city’s political class, there’s a new buzz-phrase for this: the double effet Amazon-Airbnb (or “Amazon-Airbnb effect”), in which retailers killed off by online shopping are transformed into vacation properties.

Despite having all this disruptive activity ascribed to it, Airbnb looks set to pay no more than €150,000 in French taxes for 2018. This is especially frustrating for French hoteliers, whose businesses surrender a far greater proportion of their revenue to taxes.

The city has not been inactive in trying to turn this situation around, and Paris already levies fines against Airbnb hosts who break local rules. With a maximum fine of €50,000 permissible for landlords who rent homes for more than 120 days, the city convicted 150 rule-breaking hosts last year. If Hidalgo is re-elected (and current polls suggest she will be), the referendum she proposed looks set to tighten this further. Implementing it should prove interesting: Allowing Parisians to “define the right conditions of use for Airbnb,” it would collate all votes into a single result, but allow residents to make neighborhood-level decisions on how they want Airbnb to operate in their immediate backyard.  

This admittedly sounds a bit fiddly, and could lead to a mosaic of different conditions from street to street that could be very hard to police, or just stay abreast of. On the positive side, however, it would mean residents vote only on conditions that directly affect them. This would prevent people in areas unpopular with visitors from approving pro-Airbnb policies that would not affect them directly. It could also give out-of-the-way parts of Paris a way to attract more tourists: They might approve more home-sharing-friendly local bylaws rejected elsewhere in the city. The choices that would be on the ballot, and the exact units of space that each micro-ballot would cover, however, have not yet been detailed.

Should this vote go ahead, it would not guarantee tighter conditions for Airbnb in Paris. Still, seeing the company assume such a prominent sponsorship role for the 2024 Games complicates efforts by local leaders to rein in a business they see as damaging to the city’s livability. The Olympics could give Airbnb an unprecedented platform to promote itself in Paris—but it may also attract new scrutiny and resentment from Parisians who seem increasingly fed up with its effects.

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Can the Paris Metro Make Room for More Riders?

After five years of unprecedented passenger growth, the Paris Metro system is now perilously close to full. According to data from transit authority RATP released this week by newspaper Le Parisien, the French capital’s subway saw its annual ridership leap between 2013 and 2018. Rising from 1.76 billion to 1.84 billion trips annually over the period, the system is now hosting a remarkable 217,837 extra trips every day compared to 2013.

Some lines are more packed than others: Paris’ Line 13 is now the fifth most congested in the world, surpassed only by two lines in Sao Paulo and two in Buenos Aires—both cities with notably lower per capita spending on their public transit systems. So what can Paris do to ease the flow?

The overcrowding issue is in many ways a success story, since the city’s flagship policy has been to discourage car use. While Paris has witnessed a steady drop in driving over several decades now, its current administration has been particularly intent on reshaping Parisian mobility habits, and can claim responsibility for some of the ridership spike. Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s campaign to overhaul the city’s transit system has been contentious at times, but with current polls showing her on course to be re-elected in the next municipal election coming up in March, she seems to have retained overall support for her program.

Transit is nonetheless a significant talking point for the upcoming mayoral elections. Green Party candidate David Belliard is promising to go Hidalgo one better and “free Paris from cars;” maverick outsider candidate Marcel Campion, meanwhile, is calling for the creation of another beltway in a tunnel beneath the current one.

In this somewhat fractious climate, remedies for the current subway crush are now being explored, and this Tuesday, an ambitious solution was proposed at a city council meeting: the construction of new Metro lines that would almost entirely encircle the city.

If you are a Paris-watcher and think that idea sounds familiar, you’d be right. Paris is indeed already in the process of constructing a grand orbital Metro line, along with three other new lines and two extensions of existing links; the mega-project, dubbed the Grand Paris Express, is due to open in stages between 2020 and 2030. This major extension will mostly run through Paris’ vast suburbs, making it easier for residents of outer Paris to connect with each other without having to travel into Paris itself.

But the new Metro lines now under discussion would be different. Forming a backwards “C” shape, the link would be made up of two lines totaling 40 kilometers. Much of it would cleave closely to the line of the Boulevard Périphérique—the city’s automotive beltway—and lie within the boundaries of Paris Proper, but it would also reach out beyond in its eastern section to connect the fast-gentrifying inner suburbs of Montreuil and Pantin. This, it is hoped, would alleviate pressure in central Paris in much the same way as the Grand Paris Express: By intersecting with the three busiest existing Metro lines, it would remove some of their habitual users and ensure that these lines reached the city center somewhat less packed than they are currently.

Such a project is very loosely estimated to cost between €5 and €10 billion and would take 15 years to complete. Proposed by communist member of the Council of Paris—who co-operate on a minority basis with the administration of socialist Mayor Hidalgo—the proposal also faces long odds, politically. At present it is likely to stand more as a possible future solution rather than a plan to be immediately adopted. Valerie Pécresse, president of the Paris Region, has promised to veto any new transit links that do not lie within her suburban constituency. And it would be hard to secure another massive funding round before the Grand Paris Express is even running.  

In the meantime, transit officials are working on cheaper, quicker means of easing congestion. Among the options: automating all trains, making trains larger, and bringing in experts from Japan (a nation that knows a few things about stuffing more people into trains) to help redesign access to platforms.

The first option is already in progress. Most Metro trains are currently six cars long, a length that could feasibly be extended to eight cars. Such extension was due to be adopted next year on Line 14, allowing each train to transport up to 1,000 passengers. The RER commuter rail network, a vital link between the inner city and the suburbs, enlarged its capacity in 2017, when it introduced double-decker trains on Line A. This capacity upgrade will extend to RER Line B in 2025.

Additionally, train frequency could be increased if lines were fully automated, something that has been the case on the axial Line 1 since 2012.

Other ideas involve getting more riders off the train. Paris has been trying hard to encourage more commuters to cycle, creating incentive schemes for battery-boosted e-bikes, a mode of transit that is perhaps more suited than regular bikes for commuting across long distances. There is also much talk—but as yet not a whole lot of action—of promoting remote working to lessen the volume of commuters on the rails.

Changes like these would help grease the rubber-tired wheels of the Paris Metro. In a city that is pushing hard to remove private motor vehicles and replace them with greener modes, however, it seems likely that the city will indeed need to invest heavily in expanding the network if it is really going to tackle transit congestion.

Paris is by no means alone among Europe’s megacities in this. London is constructing the major new commuter link Crossrail and pumping $2 billion into new trains; Moscow is on course to deliver all of its 76 planned new subway stations by the end of 2020. The scale and cost of such projects might raise eyebrows in transit-challenged places like the U.S., but in a world moving—fitfully—away from private cars, the assumption that subway systems mainly completed in the last century can meet today’s needs will start to look increasingly naive. That new orbital line might be a good idea after all.

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