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Public Spaces

Sustainable streets: Can DC match the excellence of Paris?

Janette Sadik-Khan has had a profound impact as Commissioner of New York City's Department of Transportation. The city that never sleeps has been transforming its streets into a more sustainable mold. Since her arrival, NYC DOT has added buffered bike lanes, express bus lanes, public plazas and much more. While these bold ideas are overdue for a city in which 54% of households do not own cars, the ideas are not new. European cities like Copenhagen and Paris have been shifting towards sustainable streets for some time.

Rue Leon Jouhaux in Paris. Image from Google Street View.

Streetsblog reported how Paris has dramatically reduced car ownership this decade. Mayor Bertrand DelanoŽ, realizing congestion pricing was considered politically untenable, focused on altering behavior by transforming the streets.

In 2002, (DelanoŽ) launched Quartiers Verts ("Green Neighborhoods"), an initiative to improve pedestrian space and reduce traffic in residential areas. The administration anticipated especially strong opposition to the parking policies in the plan—higher rates, a reduction in the amount of on-street parking, and the elimination of free parking altogether. To counteract the expected outcry, the city tied those reforms to the introduction of residential parking permits, which are now available for a nominal yearly fee.

DelanoŽ's next major initiative—Espaces Civilisťs ("Civilized Spaces")—took aim at Paris's most car-friendly boulevards. The first such project, on Boulevard de Magenta, trimmed a six-lane road down to two traffic lanes and two bus lanes, with the remainder going to sidewalks and street trees. This substantial redistribution of space did not happen overnight. Launched in 2002, Espaces Civilisťs yielded its first finished boulevard in 2005. About half a dozen such transformations have been completed so far, with plans for another on the way.

The brief slideshow above, made from Google Street View screen captures, highlights Paris' wide plaza-esque medians, bus and cycle lanes, reduced curb parking, extensive cross walk striping, mixed pavers, and willingness to program public space rather than simply plant ornamental trees, grass and the occasional statue. I did not cherry pick streets in the Parisian museum or government districts for the slideshow. Nearly all intersections of Boulevards and Avenues in the city center are ripe with grandeur. In fact, Paris boldly devoted the median of Boulevard Pereire to 5 tennis courts end to end!

DC presently falls well short of Paris' comprehensive screetscapes. Perhaps it is not fair to compare our city, only recently on the rebound from the 1968 riots, to an iconic European city often described as a giant open air museum. However, when I walk downtown and see ornamental trees, modestly landscaped narrow medians or major intersections without public space, I wonder if we've set the bar too low. Will DC just settle for matching the low standard of American cities' streets, or will it take the real risks to become world class?

Paul Sieczkowski writes about transportation, development, and making our communities more walkable. He works in Rosslyn for a targeted marketing firm and lives in the Mount Vernon Triangle where he is Editor-in-Chief of neighborhood blog The (Mount Vernon) Triangle


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Why not have the lofty goals? But DC is never going to be in Paris' league without more metro lines.

Paris has 14 lines and hundreds of stations -- with a "long" walk to the metro being 500 meters.

My house is a 1.4 mile hike from the metro and the bus comes once an hour during non-peak times. Urgh.

We never have the money to build anything.

by mike capitol hill on Dec 30, 2008 4:21 pm • linkreport

Monsieur Delano√ę and Ms Sadik-Khan never met the Maryland congressional delegation.

by Steve on Dec 30, 2008 4:30 pm • linkreport

I remember Paris having large sidewalks (with cafes!), but in most of the pictures you posted, the sidewalks looked very small (and were crammed next to the street car parking). Do you think they reduced the width of the sidewalks on these streets to make the space in the median nicer? Would it be smarter to do it the other way around, with larger sidewalks connected to pedestrian public space, pushing bikes, busses, and cars respectively further towards the middle?

Since L'Enfant's plan already provides "parking" (and by "parking" he and the city planners meant park land, not space to leave a vehicle) on most major avenues in DC, perhaps this wouldn't be too politically difficult.

by ObliviousScout on Dec 30, 2008 4:53 pm • linkreport

If I lived in a country that chronically had an unemployment rate over 10%, I wouldn't have a car either!

by Economic Geography on Dec 30, 2008 5:00 pm • linkreport

And how nice it must be that you could still get from point A to B to C to D... without one!

by NikolasM on Dec 30, 2008 5:06 pm • linkreport

@ObliviousCount - I think you could certainly find streets with very wide sidewalks for cafes in Paris. Other than sneaking in a streetscape near the Moulin Rouge I tended to avoid the tourist boulevards like Champs-√Člys√©es for these screen captures.

DC has extremes like impressively landscaped area around Union Station and the Capitol Building while also featuring very subpar public space in non-gentrified areas like the intersection of NJ and Rhode Island. What I find most eye opening however is the wide gap between a residential boulevard in Paris versus revitalized business corridors of DC like New York Ave NW and Connecticut Ave NW. That prompted me to wonder if DC isn't daring to be world class and write this piece.

Back to the question of wide streets or wide sidewalks... While I certainly don't like very narrow sidewalks, I think I prefer the wide median for public space. I prefer retail butting up against the sidewalk rather than buffered behind landscaping like at several new buildings on Mass Ave NW. Although there are clearly good and bad applications of either style. My guess is that DC gov't prefers to have the individual properties pay for the ongoing maintenance of the landscaping thus limiting their interest in grand public medians.

by Paul S on Dec 30, 2008 5:19 pm • linkreport

Southwest DC will soon be home to a brand new street: the extension of 4th Street from M St. to I St. The developer, Vornado, has said that this is a fascinating opportunity to build a new street in Washington, DC. No idea on the details, but be sure that I will be asking about it soon. The street is due to be delivered in March, 2010. Let's see if they go the easy way, or if they try to set a new standard that can be copied on the soon to come new Maine Ave (with the Waterfront Project).

by Glenn on Dec 30, 2008 5:58 pm • linkreport

Economic G - Wait a few months, you'll have your chance.

by tt on Dec 30, 2008 6:06 pm • linkreport

What goes unsaid is that the mayor of Paris has chosen to throw "crumbs" (i.e., a few lanes here and there devoted to cyclists and buses) to "the masses" so as to free up the roads for the priviledged few.

Frankly, I much prefer our much more egalitarian roadway system here which does not discriminate against the average person. French gasoline prices are 3 times what they are here. Crude oil goes for the same price in the world market for the French as it does for the Americans. I.e., the "cost" of the gasoline is essentially the same ... it's the taxes which make the price of gasoline so much more expensive in Europe than in the U.S. It's one of many ways that a scarce resource (roadways) get allocated to those who can afford it. (Other methods include high property taxes on automobiles and extra taxes for larger cars.) It wouldn't do much for encouraging the mobility which a growing country, such as the US, requires. It's based on a model that assumes "we have a set and limited resource and need to allocate it to the highest bidders" ... unlike our model where we instead work to make mobility (and the opportunities and feedoms it affords) available to all. As Dave Murphy aptly wrote earlier today, without the mobility of the car we wouldn't have had the mixing of races, ethnicities, etc. that have allowed our melting pot to melt. Where he errs is in thinking the job is done. He's exhibiting the same mindset the French do when they worry about allocating "what is" vs. working at making more available to everyone.

It would be a terrible model to follow for our great nation.

by Lance on Dec 30, 2008 11:05 pm • linkreport

jeepers! only recently on the rebound from the 68 riots??

talk about setting the bar low.

by Peter on Dec 31, 2008 12:45 am • linkreport

Ah, America's highways, where citizens of all races and classes come together to honk at each other and make obscene gestures from behind the windshield.

In fact it's exactly backwards to say that the highway network had any integrative effect. By contrast, urban rail networks actually do involve people of diverse backgrounds traveling in the same vehicle, sitting and standing quietly together. If you see that as a republican virtue, then it's the subways and streetcars that promote it best.

The French actually have the right idea to tax the hell out of automobile use, some of those taxes go to provide excellent rail service. It's unfortunate that so many Americans think they have to drive everywhere.

by Steve on Dec 31, 2008 12:46 am • linkreport

Lance - Way to chime in on how the government of the United States is more egalitarian than the government of France.

And if you believe that all mass transit is a dead-end that can never be convenient, practical, or popular, I'm sure that in your opinion restricting automobiles is a deathblow to the mobility of a culture. France must be a miserable prison for those not wealthy enough to drive a car, confined to walk their neighborhoods.

Without the ability for the races to mix using cars, the only place for a car-owning Frenchman to meet other ethnicities(races which aren't even recorded on government records, to ensure their status as permanent underclass) would be the parking lot of the local sept-onze, an employment agency that matches needy workers up with backbreaking labor for long hours, in exchange for a wage that doesn't even cover an automobile. Oh, and they get *NO HEALTH INSURANCE AT ALL*.

We certainly value your input Lance. Next time you're in France, I hope you choke on your Camembert as you're pondering the car-ownership rates necessary to create the term "melting pot" in the 1700s.

by Squalish on Dec 31, 2008 3:01 am • linkreport

"it's the taxes which make the price of gasoline so much more expensive in Europe than in the U.S. It's one of many ways that a scarce resource (roadways) get allocated to those who can afford it."

Those taxes help subsidize an excellent public transportation system which allows for lower income residents have the mobility they could only dream of here. To say nothing of the cost savings from not having to repair the endless roadways or the fewer lung diseases from reduced emmisions.

It's completely fair to compare our city to all others, it has things I wouldn't change for anything, like wonderful alleys, and little gardens on the back streets of downtown residential neighborhoods, yum.

by Thayer-D on Dec 31, 2008 7:00 am • linkreport

Lance the egalitarian! This is the same guy who wants to push non-car-owners out of the city:
Parking minimums do not increase rents. What they do is limit the number of (cheaper) units without parking available for purchase/rent by those wishing to economize on that aspect of "living expenses".

by tt on Dec 31, 2008 8:33 am • linkreport

Anyone who even pretends that French race relations are even a minute fraction of what they are in America are kidding themselves.

There is alot of truth to whoever mentioned the car/transit phenomenon. I would extend it to this- the urban transit systems certainly are better in France, whereby minorities are pushed out into the suburbs (a sort of reverse of the American traditional model). So they have no better access to the core urban transit and must pay inflated prices to use a car.

Then again, they may not need cars since the unemployment rate for new entrants to the labor force is high due to structural incentives for employers not to hire new employees.

Even just a few summers ago there were race riots outside France that we have not seen since the 1960's.

The French concept of equality is nothing more than the stroke of a pen. America favors freedom instead, which tends to lead to a greater deal of equality in the long run.

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 9:13 am • linkreport

While I agree with you in your characterization of how minorities are disadvantaged in France, what do you mean when you say "America favors freedom?"

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 9:27 am • linkreport

First, look at the mottos: "Life, Liberty, Property" vs. "Equality, Liberty, Fraternity"

But details. It's mostly economics. France places more weight on economic equality as an end. For example, it has very strict standards on minimum wage, vacation time, benefits, etc. etc. etc. all in the effort of making sure that everyone gets a certain amount of income. (meaning salary/wage + benefits)

In addition it is harder for French firms to fire employees.

So comparatively, America allows more freedom for employers to hire and fire, for employees to work at a wider range of salaries (higher minimum wage+benefits is essentially strongly discourages the hiring of low-wage workers).

That's the generally accepted reason why France has a natural rate of unemployment usually in the double-digits while America is closer to 5%, barring times of economic expansion or contraction.

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 9:40 am • linkreport

Plus they have very odd laws which essentially maintains a 'colorblind' society whereby they don't really recognize race (you're not Black or White or Muslim, only "French")

But what that does is, for example, bans Muslims wearing headscarves so that the secular state is preserved. It's a sort of passive marginalization through the stifling of free speech and religion.

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 9:45 am • linkreport

Cavan, The world turns on money. Political freedoms mean little without underlying economic freedoms. For example, all races have for over a century been considered equal "by the stroke of the pen", however it took affirmative action to bring real equality about ... to give economic freedom to minorities which in turn has been make possible the political freedoms legislated so long ago.

by Lance on Dec 31, 2008 9:50 am • linkreport

I'm not going to go down the road of arguing the meaning of "freedom" because it's not really in the scope of this blog. But since you said "economic freedom" I understand that the word was used in the context of a libertarain view of freedom. Thank you for the clarification.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 9:58 am • linkreport

What other kinds of freedom are there?

Lance said it best. You can be nominally free and equal, but what good is it if you have legal barriers up against the opportunity to make your life better?

But let's let the people decide, not just us bloggers: There's a reason why Europe has a declining population and America's is still growing. It has everything to do with immigration. The immigrants see how backward we are with our lack of public sector spending and non-free healthcare and 'unprogressive' blah blah blah but still pick America over Europe at such a rate that they're hemmoraging population and we have a build a fence just to keep the flow regulated.

Or do all those people just not know what's best for them.

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 10:03 am • linkreport

I expected that some amount of debating the French way of life would occur...

But does anyone have opinions about how to make our avenues grander? Or will the content to set the bar at a relatively conservative level such as this:

View Larger Map

by Paul S on Dec 31, 2008 10:03 am • linkreport

Yeah, the French way of life and governing philosophy is probably a little beyond the scope of this blog, but when it comes to the built environment and physical transportation systems, they have us beat by miles.

Their total system, of Metro, RER, and SNCF puts DC's transit network to shame. Hell, any one of those three systems would put DC's network to shame - the second best network in the US!

by Alex B. on Dec 31, 2008 10:19 am • linkreport

Political freedoms mean little without underlying economic freedoms.
Lance said it best. You can be nominally free and equal, but what good is it if you have legal barriers up against the opportunity to make your life better?
What about the economic freedom to build a building without the nanny state telling you what to do? These libertarians love the "economic freedom" that lets a rich corporation give an unemployed worker the choice between poisoning and starving. But their love for economic freedom suddenly disappears when a rich homeowner might be forced to look out the window at an apartment building.

by tt on Dec 31, 2008 10:37 am • linkreport

But their love for economic freedom suddenly disappears when a rich homeowner might be forced to look out the window at an apartment building.

What, is this a straw-man contest now or something?

The regulation of direct externalities is a far different affair that the hiring and firing of employees. It's sloppy logic to compare the two.

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 10:44 am • linkreport

Once again, I think we're wading into territory that is outside the scope of this blog. We know that will lead to a flame war without discussing fundamental urban fabric. I hope we can all agree to lay off this one.

by Cavan on Dec 31, 2008 10:56 am • linkreport

So, when you look at something you don't like on your neighbor's property, you have suffered an externality effect worthy of government regulation. But when I can't get a job that won't kill me because my starving neighbor is willing to work in a poisonous atmosphere to feed his kids, there's no externality there.

This sort of a-la-carte libertarianism misuses an intereesting, although in my opinion deeply flawed, economic theory and turns it into an excuse for the enhancement of class privilege.

by tt on Dec 31, 2008 11:00 am • linkreport

I agree. The picture Paul S posted should feature much wider medians, grander, wider, and taller trees (right, not just the ornamentals). Benches in the middle too.

by Jazzy on Dec 31, 2008 11:06 am • linkreport

What's your point? There's costs in everything. I may derive a cost or benefit from the type of clothes you wear. That's an externality.

Fortunately we have a set of guidelines to limit where government can and cannot occur.

If you believe in the tenents of the Enlighenment, "Life Liberty and Property", how does that justify the regulation of how you use your land?

by Economic Geography on Dec 31, 2008 11:10 am • linkreport

tt, Thanks for aptly illustrating why economic freedom is the fundamental basis for all liberty and justice. If you don't have the economic freedom to take a job that won't kill you, then you don't have freedom ... irrespective of what 'rights' and avenues of redress that the law otherwise gives you. And to get that economic freedom, you to have the largest possibility of options available and open to you ... You don't need the government limiting your options to only those accessible by means of mass transit and your feet. The long and short of it is that it isn't 'the corporations' responsible for your eating or not. It is you and you alone. And you don't need your government standing in the way of you providing for yourself.

by Lance on Dec 31, 2008 11:15 am • linkreport

Thanks Jazzy. I agree. I think we should strive for a higher standard with our truly key avenues like Pennsylvania, Mass, Connecticut, New York Ave NW, and Georgia. What I pictured above would be suitable for New Jersey Ave NW or Sherman Ave.

by Paul S on Dec 31, 2008 11:29 am • linkreport

@Paul S.

You posted a picture of Mass & New Jersey, it's worth pointing out that two or three blocks up (as in Northwest) Massachusetts Ave is probably the worst intersection in DC. Fix that, and you've gone a long way to promoting walkability in NoMA

by Steve on Dec 31, 2008 11:41 am • linkreport

"a-la-carte libertarianism"

I like it.

There is a "libertarian" position out there that the government needs to appropriate money from the populace (money that they earned) by force to build roads at all costs, ensure as much free parking as possible, and encourage driving as the sole driver of economic growth. It's a ploy by organizations like the American Petroleum Institute to protect their investments. They're the ones that fund the bought-and-paid-for 'libertarian wisdom' coming out of the right-wing thinktanks, the ideological whores who will justify anything(torture, police-state, empire) with intellectual credentials, & turn it into a talking point for a price.

by Squalish on Dec 31, 2008 1:06 pm • linkreport


This is a really nice call to action. It highlights what we should be aiming for with all the talk of making DC "world class." And yes, for many neighborhoods and many residents, 1968 was very recent.

That said, we're to the point where "good enough" avenues aren't enough. Just one point of comparison with Paris - I can't think of a major DC avenue that has the mature tree canopy that even a typical Parisian avenue would have.

I think it's time for the rebalancing of our public space away from purely automotive uses. But that would require a motivated DDOT, in collaboration with NPS (I assume the Park Service would have a say in changes to the L'Enfant avenues...). It would be nice to have Sadik-Khan here.

The NCPC plan calls for some similar actions for a few key "avenues," - reconnecting Constitution to its pretty belvedere on the Potomac; marking the terminus of Virginia Ave NW at the Potomac with something commemorative; decking & boulevardizing E St NW; restoring Maryland Ave SW (by burying the train tracks). Some really neat (& expensive) ideas.

But a lot of the NCPC's ideas, while good, seem to revolve around grand processionals more than around spaces (ie, a continued emphasis on movement over livability). I prefer your focus on these avenues as a kind of collective front stoop for their neighborhoods.

What I'd suggest is most missing from DC's street life is surprise. Walk around Montreal in the summer, say, or any great European city, and you'll come across festivals, outdoor concerts, really good street performers, etc. Perhaps this is only anecdotal, but I rarely "happen upon" such stuff in DC except on the Mall itself. It's all the more remarkable because our layout would seem to really lend itself to lively public uses along these grand avenues and at major points of connection.

by Jad on Dec 31, 2008 3:21 pm • linkreport

@Steve - yes, I live right by the intersection you allude to. It's a mess. From a practical perspective I don't know if it's worth making a major overhaul to this intersection until it is determined whether I-395 will be truncated to Mass Ave.

That said, my choice of photo was not to harp on that specific NJ/Mass intersection. It was merely an example to show a recently redesigned streetscape that settled for being average rather than ambitious. Obviously we can't afford to be ambitious everywhere. There has to be prioritization. I would be happy with that sort of median on Sherman Avenue or the rowhouse enclaves along New Jersey Ave. But I think we should be aiming higher on the grand avenues that cut through commercial districts such as Mass or Connecticut.

by Paul S on Dec 31, 2008 4:26 pm • linkreport

@Jad - Thanks for your support. Regarding your point on trees I agree that developing a mature tree canopy does take time. But a landscape architect at a recent ANC meeting I attended did say that many DC projects, public and private, are often settling for ornamental trees that will never grow large.

Thanks for reminding me of the NCPC plans. I agree with your assessment that these plans are more focused on grand processionals than around spaces. Decking and burying infrastructure will be monumental expenditures. While what I'm proposing also has costs they should be within closer reach. It's mostly paving, landscaping, benches, bike racks and reclaiming curb parking or a lane or two of road. While times are tight in this economy it would be outstanding if the city could focus these sorts of improvements for one 1 or 2-mile stretch of an avenue per year. Alas this may be a cause without a champion.

by Paul S on Dec 31, 2008 4:45 pm • linkreport

Very nice piece. This is about what I now call "complete places" rather than "complete streets" and is the first of 4 or so fundamental and foundational principles of my coming (sometime next week), 2009 DC Transportation and Mobility Vision Plan (formerly called Transportation/Transit Wish List)

by Richard Layman on Jan 2, 2009 3:41 pm • linkreport

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