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Paris and London: A tale of two cycling cities

Maria David
11 Feb 2020

Both are improving their cycle infrastructure, and both mayors are up for re-election this spring and have ambitious plans

When leaving the Eurostar terminal at Paris’s Gare du Nord station, a road immediately outside the station leads Boulevard de Sébastopol which has a bike path heading down to the River Seine. To get across the city by bicycle one of the preferred routes is the Voie Georges Pompidou, a traffic-free path along the River Seine. This East-West trunk road, now closed to traffic since 2016, is part of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s plan to make Paris a cycle-friendly city.

Hidalgo, who is running for re-election to Paris City Hall in March has declared a war on cars and sought to cut air pollution from its current unacceptable levels, notably by holding regular car-free days. During the summer months particulate levels can be the highest in Europe.

According to Paris City Hall figures, cars take up 50% of public space but only make up 12% of journeys made in the city. Hidalgo aims to redress the balance by gradually cutting down the number of motor vehicles entering central Paris.

In parallel, under her ambitious 'Plan Vélo' she aspires to make Paris a 100% cycle-friendly city by 2024, through having bike lanes in every street. This would mean an increase on the 1018km of cycleways already created, and constructing more Réseaux Express Vélo (modelled on the Cycle Superhighways in London) and allocating 100,000 extra parking places for bicycles.

Commenting on the mayor’s achievements so far, Christophe Najdovski, assistant mayor responsible for transport said, 'When I think about the mayor’s bold commitment to reduce diesel, making the roads along the River Seine traffic-free, I see that her courage is beginning to bear fruit.

'Since 2014, traffic has reduced by 17% and nitrogen dioxide emissions have reduced by 15%.'

Photo: Henri Garat/Ville de Paris

Audited progress

When Hidalgo assumed office in 2014 she announced ambitious plans to make Paris the European capital of cycling, and create a '15-minute city' in which Parisians can just be a short cycle-ride away from all amenities. This will involve a commitment to invest €350M over six years into cycling infrastructure, as well as providing financial assistance for people to purchase e-bikes.

To date, the mayor’s plans have been slow to materialise. When the campaign group Paris en Selle (Paris in the Saddle) audited the progress made, it found that by 2017 only 4% of Hidalgo’s plans had been implemented. Subsequent to pressure from stakeholders, 56% of 'Plan Vélo' has now been executed.

Critics believe Hidalgo has failed in her plans. Commenting on cycling conditions in Paris, Bettina Fischer, who has cycled around Paris for over 10 years and is a member of the women’s cycling team Donnons Les Elles Au Vélo J-1, told Cyclist, 'Several cycling highways that cross Paris have been inaugurated and there is a real willingness to make the city more friendly for cyclists.

'Nevertheless, the bike lanes are not always reliable and can stop at any time; then you find yourself in the middle of a traffic jammed between cars.'

However, Paris en Selle remains optimistic. Its spokesperson, Jean-Sébastien Catier, told Cyclist, 'Initially plans were slow to start because of obstructions by the Paris Police Department and the Home Office.

'Although the mayor has only done half of what she planned, we still see the glass as half-full since conditions for cyclists have improved, and this shows that the bicycle really has a place on the streets of Paris. Of course, there is still a lot of work to do.'

Recent transport strikes have been a factor in getting more people out on bicycles, with a more than 200% increase in the number of cyclists on the road. Even now that the strikes have finished, many people have continued to favour cycling as their mode of transport.

Given that Mayor Hidalgo will have only achieved half of her original plans during her first mandate, observers question the achievability of her latest objectives. But she insists: 'By 2024, the year of the Olympic Games, 100% of the roads in the city will be adapted for cycling.'

Channel hop

Meanwhile, across the Channel in London, Sadiq Khan, also seeking re-election this year, is keen to address the climate change emergency and transport is likely to be a key issue.

When Khan assumed office in 2016 he pledged to triple the amount of protected cycle routes in London from 63km. To date, there's now 116km, but he his is confident that the target will be reached during the current mandate.

Since 2016, £445M has been allocated for cycling, with money invested in the construction of popular cycleways such as the segregated East-West route between Docklands and Bayswater, and the North-South route between Kings Cross and Elephant and Castle.

However, Khan has faced criticism over the slow development of the cycleway network, particularly as there was a significant underspend.

Opposition by Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea boroughs to cycleways from Swiss Cottage and from Notting Hill respectively have significantly hampered progress, given that London boroughs who are responsible for 95% of the roads in the capital.

According to Will Norman, London's Walking and Cycling Commissioner, a new approach is now being adopted when developing cycling infrastructure.

Speaking to Cyclist, the commissioner said, 'Rather than constantly bashing our heads against that [opposition from boroughs], the way that we are looking at it now is having a pipeline of projects and working with those boroughs who are really keen and share our ambitions, and that’s how we’re managing to meet our targets.'

Ambitious objectives but Silvertown folly

Sadiq Khan also has ambitious objectives for cycling in London, including increasing the amount of protected cycle routes to 450km by 2024, and reducing the number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities to zero by 2041. Last year 70 pedestrians and five cyclists were killed in London.

'No one is under any illusion that that is an ambitious target but it’s the right target to have,' says Norman. 'That is why this is so important and so urgent.'

One way in which the mayor aims to reduce the number of accidents is through the HGV Safety Permit system where lorries of 12 tonnes or more can only enter London when they pass direct safety vision standards - something welcomed by the London Cycling Campaign (LCC).

While LCC recognises the positive work done by Sadiq Khan, the organisation opposes certain plans, particularly the building of a new vehicular tunnel under the River Thames at Silvertown, East London.

Simon Munk, Infrastructure Campaigner at LCC explained to Cyclist, 'Paris is making bolder and better progress, quicker than London is.

'It’s taken Sadiq a long time to get up and running, but a lot of the blame has to fall on the boroughs, especially Westminster who took Transport for London to court, and Kensington & Chelsea who have opposed a cycle lane on one of the most dangerous stretches of road.

'But some of the mayor’s policies lack coherence, like the Silvertown tunnel which goes directly against his environmental pledges.'

Conversely, the mayor claims that since new tunnel will fall within the extended Ultra Low Emission Zone, and it and the Blackwall Tunnel will be tolled this will reduce traffic in South-East London.

This comes against the backdrop of the Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf cycling and pedestrian bridge being dropped, despite the backing by 93% of respondents in a consultation.

'The bridge was prohibitively expensive, with estimates pushing around £0.5bn,' explained Will Norman. 'It was a sensible decision to pause on that and continue to use that money in investing in the cycleways that we know are saving lives.

'I visited Amsterdam and they’ve got a whole number of roll-on roll-off ferries for getting around for pedestrians and cyclists. I don’t see why we can’t have that same service, which will potentially deliver a new crossing. There is no shortage of ambition to continue with this push for cleaner healthier ways of getting around London. It’s urgent and that’s what we’re working on.'

Both mayors have ambitious manifestos, and have had their share of successes and shortcomings. Consideration should also be given to the fact that the Mayor of Paris has a remit over 2.2M Parisians in 20 city districts (arrondissements), an area of 105km². This compares with the Mayor of London who is responsible for around 9M Londoners in 32 boroughs, covering 1500km².