Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s reelection manifesto calls for a green revamp of the Boulevard Périphérique, the city’s car-clogged inner ring urban highway.
By Feargus O’Sullivan
Like so many cities, Paris is girdled by beltways — several of them, in fact. The innermost and most notorious one is known as the Boulevard Périphérique, a 22-mile-long ring road completed in 1973 and built in part upon the footprint of the city’s historic walls. The traffic-clogged urban highway plays a major role in Parisian mobility, but it’s also a prime contributor of pollution, both atmospheric and aural, as well as an all-but-impassable barrier severing the historic city from its inner suburbs. Last year, Paris deputies proposed downsizing the Périphérique, removing vehicle lanes and dropping speed limits to transform the road from a smog-spewing limited-access highway into a tree-lined “metropolitan avenue.”
Now, as Mayor Anne Hidalgo seeks reelection, she has adopted and doubled down on that plan and is giving it some extra post-pandemic flourishes. Preparing for the delayed second round of Paris’ municipal elections on June 28 — in which she is the front-runner — Hidalgo released a “Manifesto for Paris” on Tuesday, detailing a vision for the city co-written with her newly-allied running partner, David Belliard of the Green Party. Promising to place ecology “at the heart” of city policy, the manifesto proposes several policies to boost environmental and social sustainability, including a 30 kilometer-per-hour (18.6 mph) speed limit for all of Paris Proper and means-tested benefits to help families pay for childcare. Parking spaces would be cut in half, and the city’s new temporary cycle lanes and pedestrian streets — introduced to help manage the coronavirus crisis — would be made permanent. In keeping with Hidalgo’s well-known pursuit of progressive car-mitigation polities, she’s now proposing to slash speed limits on the Périphérique to a mere 50 k/ph (31 mph) — extremely low for a fully segregated highway — and setting a lane aside for public transit, zero-emission vehicles, and car-poolers.
Further into the future, Hidalgo’s current deputy, Jean-Louis Missika, also announced that 100,000 newly planted trees will flank the beltway, and pedestrian crossings and traffic lights will ultimately be introduced in sections of the road that aren’t tunneled or elevated. A road that has long functioned as a rampart separating Paris from its suburbs will thus be transformed into something calmer, slower, greener, narrower, and altogether less hostile to people without cars.
A similar proposal was released in February (albeit with higher proposed speed limits). That plan outlines in more detail what will happen and when. By January 2021, the beltway will face the same restrictions on more polluting cars as Paris Proper does. By 2023 the lane for clean, public and car-pooled vehicles will be in place, supervised by sensors that can detect the number of occupants a vehicle has and dispatch fines to lone drivers. Diesel vehicles will be barred from the beltway by 2024, while access will be granted to low-emission vehicles only by 2030
Meanwhile, the road will be ringed by a new screen of trees. Of 170,000 plantings proposed for all of Paris by Hidalgo and Belliard, 100,000 are destined for the Périphérique. Planted to help screen surrounding areas from noise, some of these trees will be concentrated in mini-forests around exits, a few of which will be buried and thus provide a further fresh area for planting. Crossings for pedestrians will be installed and complemented by new footbridges, which will also ferry bikes across the road on a series of new long-distance suburban bike tracks. This network is now being referred to, in a term combining the French words for bicycle and metro, as the “Vélopolitain.” Once all these changes in place, the beltway will no longer resemble a highway at all.
Mayor Hidalgo’s ongoing pursuit of bike, pedestrian, and transit-friendly policies has helped make Paris something of a standard-bearer in the global war on cars, but that hasn’t prevented her latest proposals from stoking local controversy. Newspaper Le Figaro’s video channel has wondered aloud if Hidalgo is an extremist, while Pierre Chasseray of the French Automobile Association told online magazine Autonews that the plan “has no other objective than to please a very small minority of fundamentalist environmentalists who would like to put Paris in a glass case.” The director of France’s National Scientific Research Centre noted that, unlike banning cars altogether, the speed limit reductions would not actually improve Parisians’ health.
For a mayor who has made a public commitment to increasing equity, the plans do pose questions over who stands to benefit most from them. Suburban commuters are particularly likely to object to a slower Périphérique. While the suburbs surrounding Paris have a very broad class mix, some of Greater Paris’ poorest citizens — including those who commute by car — live beyond the beltway and use that artery daily. As the city continues to cautiously reopen from coronavirus restrictions, Parisians can expect increased anxiety about using trains and subways, making driving more appealing to those who have cars. With suburban rail systems extremely busy, their needs are being placed second to the green aspirations of a niche group of wealthier people living in the central city, some critics insist. Joelle Dago Serry, a businesswoman appearing on a panel for BFM radio, said that with Hidalgo, she saw “a contempt for the suburbs from this mayor that I’ve never seen before,” showing herself happy to leave suburbanites on packed RER trains “like animals.”
At the same time, these very same systems linking the city with the suburbs are undergoing major expansion, and poorer citizens are also more likely to suffer from the beltway’s pollution, because they are more likely to live in the lower-income neighborhoods that flank it.
Both the beltway and the entirety of the Parisian electorate responsible for choosing the mayor lie within the borders of Paris Proper, so the controversy may not affect her reelection changes. Hidalgo and Belliard’s Socialist/Green Alliance is currently polling 40.1% of all votes (ahead of nearest rival, Rachida Dati of the right-wing Republican Party, at 22.7%); should that lead hold, the reduced speeds and green priority lane could be city policy by the beginning of July. Some of the more sweeping changes could take more time. Talking to BFM, Jean-Louis Missika sketched the schedule for introducing crossing and traffic lights as “not tomorrow, but soon.” So far, Hidalgo looks set to soon receive the mandate that will set these proposals in motion; pushing them through may still require spending some serious political capital.