Changing urban metabolism

I’m on my way back from Paris, a city that I’ve visited many times since my first baguette in 1991.

What was different this time is the “life on the streets,” i.e., the density of people, activities and “domination” that Jane Jacobs evoked as the essence of why we choose to live on top of each other: for the joy and connection that we can have in the density of humanity.

These changes are not accidental. In 2007, Paris implemented its shared bike program  to try to move citizens from cars to bikes. (My observation is that any bike that can survive French abuse — “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” — is a bike that can survive service elsewhere.) With COVID, the French mayor — Anne Hidalgo, a politician to watch — radically expanded places and priorities for people, bikes and other forms of “personal transit” over cars, in her quest to make Paris a “15 minute city.”

In my experience, Paris has always been “nice but for the cars” and that has changed now. We walked, biked and marvelled at the calm and joy of the streets, quays, and cafes. Sure, there are still busy boulevards, but it’s so much better to cross the street or just pause without noise, pollution or danger from cars.

These changes are likely to continue, IMO, as I think Parisians may have crossed a tipping point, as pedestrians, bikers and non-automobilistes, in terms of tolerance for cars. People are not stopping for crossing signals. Bikers are going where they want, with or against traffic. Pedestrians are learning (slowly!) to look both ways for bikes that did not exist 10 years ago.

My one-handed conclusion is that a city’s metabolism can change fairly quickly once a critical mass of its citizens sees and experiences an alternative to the old, wrong way of interacting. Cities are for people, not cars.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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