The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is digging up streets to build dozens of miles of bike lanes. She has also made a major urban highway pedestrian-only in an effort to combat climate change.
After record-high temperatures last summer, Hidalgo, who is up for re-election next year, doesn’t believe the city can wait any longer to enact eco-friendly changes. Hoping to make Paris a leader among environmentally conscious capitals, the mayor has earned as many supporters as she has detractors with her sweeping transformations.
Given that the city resembles a vast construction site with more than 8,000 projects underway, the quintessential romantic city is looking a bit unappealing. Yet with historic squares like Madeleine, Bastille and Nation made more welcoming to pedestrians, the future does look a bit greener.
Visitors and residents can now ride for miles along the riverbanks, shielded from passing cars by large granite separators. Cyclists can also travel across the city from Concorde to Bastille on the new bike paths as the mayor aims to add 600 miles of lanes by next year. Still, not everyone is happy.
“There are fewer cars, but there is more congestion, and that can affect pollution levels,” said Paul Lecroart, an urban planning expert at the Paris regional planning agency.
Hidalgo is determined though. “There’s been a very violent reaction at times,” Hidalgo said. “Part of it has to do with being a woman. And being a woman that wants to reduce the number of cars meant that I upset lots of men. Two-thirds of public transport users are women.”
“What we’ve undertaken is a whole program of adaptation, of putting nature back in this city,” she added. “We’re trying to build this around the individual. But change is difficult. We can’t live as before. There’s been an acceleration in climate change.”
Hidalgo’s war on traffic is not sitting well with taxi drivers or some commuters. Many blame her for worsening congestion. “She’s a hysteric,” said Hamza Hansal, who owns a fleet of 10 cabs. “Nothing but bicycle lanes and construction sites. Total chaos. Such BS. Traffic jams 24/7.”
Others have criticized the city’s debt, saying environmentalism is an elitist concern. Yet the reality is that car ownership is declining in Paris. Only 35 percent of households have a car, down from 60 percent in 2001. In addition, the city is in eighth place in the list of bike-friendly cities, up from 17 place in 2015.
As next year’s election nears, Hidalgo, a socialist, has a substantial lead in the polls over her nearest rival, Benjamin Griveaux, the candidate of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, though it should be noted that Macron, a liberal, was once a socialist as well.
Hidalgo’s supporters seem to understand the need for change even if it’s uncomfortable at times. “On cars, she’s pretty tough,” said Darnaud Guilhem, a professional gardener. “But I think she’s right. She’s causing some teeth-gnashing. But Paris, with all this traffic, has become nearly unlivable. She’s going in the right direction. Pretty farsighted.”
Hidalgo is also planning “urban forests” along the riverbank and in front of the some of the city’s most celebrated spots, like the Opera Garnier, the Hôtel de Ville and the Gare de Lyon train station as well as a possible green corridor across Paris if she wins a second term.
Leo Fauconnet, an urban expert with the Paris region’s planning agency, said, “We’ve got a proactive policy, compared to other cities in the world.”
Hildago also hopes to change the effects of mass tourism, which has resulted in working-class families leaving areas like the Second Arrondissement, which has lost 10 percent of its population since 2015. Paris is now the world’s third-most expensive city.
“Paris can’t just be a city for winners,” Ms. Hidalgo said. “The role of politicians is to regulate. And to stop this city from being one only for the winners.”