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Don't Sacrifice Place For Cars: How The French Get Cities Right

Tom Condon

May 15, 2011

We've learned a great deal about food, wine and fashion from the French. So far, so good. Now we should take a close look at French cities. We need a Julia Child of urbanisme, French urban planning and design.

I'm just back from a nine-day trip to France. Regular readers of this column may recall that I did this last year and wrote about how well roundabouts smallish traffic circles that operate without signals control traffic at intersections in much of France. In case you missed it: Roundabouts handle more traffic capacity more safely and use less pavement than traditional signalized intersections. Why this country doesn't build more of them remains a mystery.

And in urban areas in France where there are street lights, they tend to be on poles on the side of the street, with smaller versions of the larger lights at eye level so they can easily be seen by drivers waiting next to them.

These example lead to my point: Where French and U.S. cities differ is in how they accommodate the car. The automobile was the 20th century's great plot twist, the invention that changed how people live. Cities across the globe had to retrofit themselves for cars. How they did it how far they went had a profound effect on the subsequent health of the city.

Hartford, hardly alone among U.S. cities and not the worst, nonetheless went way too far. It allowed itself to be walled in half by one huge and partly elevated interstate highway, and then cut off from its major natural resource, the Connecticut River, by another highway. In addition, once-pleasant pedestrian streets were widened and coarsened, and hundreds of buildings were torn down for roads or surface parking lots.

Subsequently, the city always has to fight the effects of this decision, and still has heavy highway gridlock at rush hour.

Most French cities didn't go nearly this far; the French view the city as more important than the means to get there and park. I visited the city of Bordeaux this year. The city is highly congested for autos; driving there is not for the faint of heart. But out of the car my little group had a van it's easy to get around, because the city is easily walkable and because it has a new tram and bus system that is popular, efficient and omnipresent. The trolleys are beautiful.

Also, most of the major parking garages are underground, with LED signs on nearby streets telling motorists how many open spaces are available. The result is a dense city of mid-rise buildings, for the most part, with shops and restaurants on the first floor and apartments above them. There is a 1.2 kilometer pedestrian street, Rue Sainte-Catherine, full of life and business, like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. The result is a 24-hour, bustling city.

I again visited Toulouse, whose brick buildings are the color of rose wine, and again found it a remarkably vibrant city. It is the home of Airbus and a host of other aerospace industries and so has prospered in recent years, and invested in museums, monuments and public spaces. The metropolitan region has 1.1 million people, about the size of Greater Hartford, but about 450,000 live in the city itself, if Wikipedia is correct, with most others in the inner suburbs. The result is a healthy, jostling, lively place. I could not believe how many people were out walking on a recent Saturday. In Greater Hartford, I'm pretty sure, the same number of people were out driving.

In the U.S., driving is a sound economic decision, though it gets less so as gas gets more expensive. In France, where gas was over $9 a gallon and the streets are mostly narrow, not driving often is the more sensible choice. Most French drivers own small cars and use them sparingly. Doesn't that strike you as a good idea?

The French are probably right to make driving less appealing. La fete est fini, when it comes to cheap gas. Fossil fuels are getting harder to find and extract, and their combustion is contributing to climate change. Also, healthy cities put people together, and sometimes they start businesses, create art, what have you.

The French did some of the same dumb things we did, such as building high-rise slums in the postwar years, and have their own issues. But they have gotten a lot about cities right. Creating more density and mass transit, with less deference to the car, would be good for U.S. cities, and is beginning to happen.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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