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Shared Spaces and Slow Zones: Comparing Public Space in Paris and New York

This is the first part of an article by PPS Intern Clémence Morlet – a planner and transportation engineer recently graduated from the Ecole des Ponts in Paris where she studied and worked on transportation projects in the Paris region including the Grand Paris Express subway lines and bus rapid transit systems. She turns her attention now towards a comparison between transportation policies in New York and Paris to show how these global cities can learn from each other and create more (and better) spaces for people.

Everyday, high-density global cities are home to millions of pedestrians in their streets. Paradoxically though, many streets and transportation policies continue to place more space and importance on cars rather than people.

In Paris, where I hail from, almost 60% of journeys are exclusively pedestrian (this is without any consideration of walking as a part of a multimodal trip). New York City, which is more than four times larger than Paris with relatively low-density & little public transit in outer boroughs compared to Paris, still has a pedestrian mode share of 34% for all trips citywide ahead of car (33%) and transit (30%). Furthermore, 53% of Manhattan workers who live in Manhattan use no car, bus, subway or train in their everyday trips but instead walk, ride a bicycle or motorcycle, take a taxicab, or work at home. Having experienced this for myself in both cities, I decided to compare the two: How do they support this large pedestrian population and decrease auto-dominance in public space?

Since his first election in 2001, the current mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë has been fully committed to a reduction of exclusive car-allocated public spaces in Paris.

Paris streets before after copy
Starting in 2012, the Pedestrian Paris Initiative has been aimed at shifting the focus from other modes of transportation to pedestrians in order to enhance sustainable mobility and the urban experience in Paris. This municipal program is changing Paris streets by freeing and activating the public space through wider sidewalks, reused former parking strips in adding café terraces, benches, greenery, fountains, or bike racks to enhance street activities and uses. ‘Pedestrian Paris’ has also focused on new and fairer mobility rules between motorized vehicles, public transportation, bikes, and pedestrians, implementing lower speed limit areas with new bicycle and pedestrian street rights.

map_paris english

The Pedestrian Paris Initiative was followed by a street-sharing action plan launched in 2013 with quantified and short-term targets to extend 20 MPH zones, create new shared spaces, and implement specific rights for people on bikes and pedestrians. In practice, a shared space has to be opened to any modes of transportation under a 12 MPH speed limit with pedestrians having priority over any other users. Pedestrians can circulate on the pavement if they do not stand and bikes can circulate in both directions in every street with free right turns (at crossroads with traffic lights).

Does NYC have equivalent urban policies? In New York City, two measures of note are the Plaza and Neighborhood Slow Zone Programs. The Plaza Program transforms underused street spaces, mostly dedicated to cars, into pedestrian public spaces, while the Slow Zone Program reduces the speed limit from 30 to 20 MPH and adds safety measures within residential areas.

Both programs have points of comparison with the systems in Paris. The Plaza Program tends to increase pedestrian-friendly street space. However, it creates exclusively-pedestrian areas but no mixed-use street spaces. The Neighborhood Slow Zone Program tends to calm down traffic in residential areas but does not make the pedestrian a top priority street user or change the car-dominance atmosphere of the place.

NYC before after copy

I think it’s interesting to compare the slow zone and shared space policies as ways to create multi-user streets. Could those new spaces witness a shift away from standard traffic codes towards a safer and more livable street code to regulate urban mobility behaviors? I think so!

What do Paris shared spaces and NYC slow zones look like? At first glance, a shared space and a slow zone have major similarities. In NYC, Paris-style road marks are stenciled with speed bumps and chicanes. But what about the atmosphere? A visit to the first NYC slow zone (Claremont zone in the Bronx) reveals a large majority of inhabitants and store owners do not even know the neighborhood specific speed limits, cars still drive too fast, and I did not notice any people on bikes in the streets.

Paris shared streets copy

In Paris, the local association’s involvement through street activities and events in the newly shared spaces indicates a better understanding of the area’s potential for pedestrians, inhabitants and passers-by. However, it seems more complex to consider shared spaces on their own. Indeed, shared spaces are often implemented within or next to a major urban redevelopment. For instance, the newly refurbished Place de la République has been commercially activated by the area. This leads me to wonder: what is the role of the shared spaces around it in spreading the positive impact? Secondly, many shared spaces are located in streets where there were already a lot of pedestrians and bicycles all day. The new rules mainly regulate mobility behaviors with more official rights and spaces for pedestrians and people on bicycles.

Bronx slow zone copy

Beyond this first glance, shared spaces in Paris and New York’s slow zones differ from each other in many aspects showing that both cities are not at the same step towards a street-sharing plan we can accept. In the second part, I will explore how each city implements their programs, community involvement, and what the next steps should be!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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