FEARGUS O’SULLIVAN Apr 12, 2017
The suburbs of Paris, home to over 10 million people, are not as universally loved as the central city they surround. The city’s Boulevard Périphérique beltway is a big reason why.
Walk towards the orbital road from the Porte de La Chapelle at rush hour and you feel like you’re a witness to a city engaging in an architectural and infrastructural race to the bottom. Elegant Haussmann-era buildings along the roadside give way abruptly to modernist boxes. Then the beltway’s tangle of lanes appears, an Amazon of asphalt, exhaust fug, and slow-moving metal. For pedestrians, the route north seems impenetrable, and the patchy provision of sidewalks and noise might rob anyone of the desire to forge on.
Such a scene is common in the suburban transition zones of cities in the U.S. and Europe. But in Paris, it comes as a particularly cruel shock to witness the harmonious city end so abruptly. It’s no wonder that visitors driven into the city from Charles de Gaulle Airport often sigh with relief at the sight of their first corner café, their first wrought-iron balcony.
The Périphérique, the frontier of Paris Intramuros (or “behind the walls”), has had a vexed role in story of this city since it was completed in 1973. The traffic-choked 35-kilometer ring is one of the busiest in Europe, carrying more than a million vehicles a day. It serves as an essential artery for urban Parisians—and a formidable physical and cultural barrier cleaving those 2.2 million residents from the sprawl beyond.
The division is somewhat misleading: There are many architectural and demographic similarities between neighborhoods on either side of the central city’s limit. It’s the planning of the metro area around the beltway’s axle that effaces these connections and leads to a fragmentation both of transit and of residents’ identity.
This is the new battleground on which Greater Paris needs to combat its domination by cars—both by transforming the beltway and expanding the public transit network beyond. As the first part of this series explored, the French capital is engaged in an ambitious effort to tame car traffic and bar heavily polluting vehicles in the inner city. Led by charismatic Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has pledged to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, Paris’s battle to go car-free has captured much international attention. But as bold as these moves have been, they are also very limited in scope and comparatively easy to implement, given the inner city’s small size and single-authority control.
The real war on cars will be waged in the banlieues, the sprawling and surprisingly diverse suburbs of Greater Paris. Plans to transform the Boulevard Périphérique and expand mass transit deep into these politically fragmented areas require sign-off from more political bodies and demand a coordinated approach to the entire region’s mobility needs. If they work, they could help correct a planning mistake that has led to social segregation and a sense of disconnect between different communities in the city that is unparalleled elsewhere in Europe.
If they fail? Expect worse traffic, more angry suburban drivers, and continued political fragmentation.
The Myths of the Banlieue
Before we discuss the changes Greater Paris is trying to make to its transit networks, it’s important to realize the kind of place they’re dealing with.