Socialist Paris mayor takes her anti-car crusade to the streets

Vehicles sit at traffic lights as the Arc de Triomphe stands beyond in Paris on Jan. 25, 2017.


By RUDY RUITENBERG | Bloomberg | Published: November 23, 2019

Paris isn't Copenhagen, but the French capital's Mayor Anne Hidalgo is on the case.

As Parisians grumble about traffic jams and disruptive construction works, the mayor is unapologetic about remodeling her transport system on that of the Danish capital, the world's most bike-friendly city. Chasing away cars from some Paris streets in favor of bicycles and buses "is the way we have to go" to cut pollution, boost the quality of life and help businesses, Paris's first woman mayor, 60, said in an interview last week.

Hidalgo's vision of a greener, more livable city will face a test in municipal elections in March. The Socialist mayor, who hasn't said if she'll seek a new term, should be able to fend off challengers including governing party member Benjamin Griveaux, mathematician Cedric Villani and the Republicans' candidate Rachida Dati, polls show.

While her plans have enraged cab drivers, car owners and political opponents and made her the butt of satirical shows, surveys find a majority of Parisians support her transportation policy in a city where only one in three households owns a car and some roads date back to Roman times.

"There's a card to play in terms of the environment and sustainability, and Anne Hidalgo has understood this well," said Jean-Philippe Dubrulle, director of studies at French pollster Ifop. "Hidalgo has an anti-car policy, and there are fewer and fewer drivers in Paris."

Outside Hidalgo's city hall runs a bike lane completed in September that now carries thousands of cyclists every day between Bastille square, site of the prison stormed during the French Revolution, and Concorde square, where King Louis XVI was beheaded. The city says bicycle rides in the city on average rose 54% in September from a year earlier, while motorized traffic is falling about 5% a year.

Hidalgo was elected in 2014 on a platform dubbed "Paris that dares" and a promise of 10 billion euros ($11.1 billion) of spending, including on affordable housing, education and public transport. The most visible elements of the city's plan have been an overhaul of seven main squares and the closing of a part of the Seine River's banks to vehicles, drawing vociferous complaints from drivers.

The mayor added hundreds of kilometers of bicycle lanes -- although missing a goal to double the length to 1,400 kilometers -- and redid major junctions such as the Bastille square to add walking space and greenery. Hidalgo, who gets around in a Renault Zoe electric car, occasionally turns up for the opening of a new stretch of bike lane on one of the city's Velib' shared bikes.

The mayor's decision to close part of the Seine River banks for motorized traffic triggered a legal challenge, with an initial court defeat followed by victory. The drivers' lobby "40 Millions d'Automobilistes" called on members to flood city hall phones in protest. Now, Hidalgo wants to go further, turning the center of Paris into a pedestrian zone, ridding the city of diesel cars in 2024 and all internal-combustion engines by 2030.

Paris, which ranks fifth globally in terms of hours lost by commuters to congestion, has embarked on a "remarkably aggressive policy" of adding to public spaces, according to traffic-analysis company Inrix. While that makes the city one of worst for car drivers, it gained five rungs to the eighth spot in this year's Copenhagenize Index of bike-friendly cities.

Hidalgo has raised mountains of debt to pay for her plans, saying low interest rates make this a good time for cities to borrow for the future. In 2015, when Paris hosted the COP21 climate conference, the city issued its first green bond, raising 300 million euros and using the proceeds for projects including expanding a tram line, adding bicycle paths and green areas and installing less energy-hungry public lighting. The 1.75% bonds that mature in 2031 now trade 16% above face value.

The city borrows to make "investments for growth but also to improve the living environment," said Nicolas Miloikovitch, an analyst at Fitch, who this month affirmed the city's AA rating, with a stable outlook. "The risk profile allows the city to refinance at quite favorable rates. We don't see the capacity to reimburse the debt as a problem."

The mayor has kept an election promise not to raise local taxes, even as the amount of government aid declined. The city expects debt of 5.9 billion euros at the end of 2019, having added about 2.2 billion euros since 2013. Hidalgo's final budget sees debt rising to 6.14 billion euros in 2020.

Hidalgo's plans haven't been without hiccups. The renewal of the Velib' bicycle-sharing plan was a flop, leaving dozens of stations devoid of bikes. The city's makeover has aggravated Parisians, with 78% saying in an Odoxa survey that there are too many public works, including the Bastille square -- to be completed this month. Affordable housing remains an issue and a potential vulnerability for candidate Hidalgo, if she runs, with home prices rising 22% in the past five years.

Still, her vision of a greener city appeals to investors, who look beyond the congestion and temporary disruption, said Nicolas Beaudouin, a partner at KPMG Paris. The consultancy's annual monitor of the most attractive cities for international investment found Paris ranking second behind London, climbing 10 rungs since 2012.

"A greener city, transport, those are elements that resonate and to which investors are sensitive," Beaudouin said. "Citizens' concerns are more micro. The macro effects play in favor of Paris. There is political leadership that knows what it wants and which goes in the direction of a smart city, a green city."

Green parties have done well in recent elections, "and to say that Anne Hidalgo hasn't taken green measures is difficult," Ifop's Dubrulle said. "There's a core group of voters who are satisfied. Hidalgo will capitalize on her results as mayor."


Bloomberg's Caroline Connan contributed.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo at a news conference in Paris on Jan. 17, 2017.