Lessons for car cities from 19th century Paris

This post is based on a PechaKucha talk I will be giving next Monday night as part of Launceston Architecture Week.

Big cities, and old cities, and especially big old cities, can’t use cars for much of their transport. The best way they have of moving millions and people to work every day, is with trains. And if voters who drive are outnumbered, the popular thing for mayors to do in these cities, is to reallocate road space from that minority and reassign it for walking and cycling.

But most of the world’s cities aren’t anywhere near as large as New York or Paris. Their daytime populations can bring their cars with them to town. The result may be unhealthy, polluting, non-inclusive, bad for businesses, expensive, dangerous, etc., but its what voters are used to, and want their mayors must perpetuate to be reelected.

If I were the dictator of this small city I live in (Launceston, Tasmania) I would be the first to give this city back over to bikes, as it was from around 1890 to 1950 (see old photos below). But Launceston doesn’t have a dictator. It is governed by its 50,000 voting age citizens, most of whom drive.

Fellow drivers, we own sociopathic machines. They have doors designed to hurt others, not the people who carelessly open them. They have airbags on the inside, instead of the outside. They are rulers without souls of a man/machine system, that most of us have acquiescence to.

The only reason you haven’t yet killed somebody with yours, is non-drivers have been bullied out of your way.

In the early 1800s, Parisians were being bullied off of their streets as well, at that time by horse-drawn carriages. They came up with the novel idea of mid block arcades. These were so pleasant for strolling, that strolling (or flaneuring) became a national obsession, that eventually led to there being proper footpaths out on the street.


It’s natural, that while cycling is a marginalized mode, that we see it retreat to the margins: former industrial rail routes and former docks. These are as derelict as the centers of Paris’s city blocks were, before they were developed into arcades. But they are the natural routes cyclists gravitate toward, to avoid being killed by motorized traffic.


Here are a few of the 82 cyclists killed on England’s roads so far this year, to September. The total deaths per kilometer cycled is more 3 times higher in England than Holland, where all ages ride and no-one wears helmets.

So isn’t the solution to simply ban cycling? No, that would be even more deadly. Statistic from Denmark tell us cyclists, on average, live 7 years longer, even accounting for crashes.

The answer has to be, to make cycling spectacular, but in places where it doesn’t impact voters who drive. We need to gradually upgrade off-road bike routes, until they’re as inviting of cycling as the arcades of Paris were inviting of strolling.

And because car driving voters won’t pay for this, we can start by leaving that up to cyclists.

Various case studies show cyclists prefer to live near safe bicycling routes. Rezoning industrial land next to bike routes will let developer infrastructure contributions from cyclists’ new housing pay for upgrades to bike paths. If authorities don’t demand car parking, under bike riders’ housing, there’ll be a rash of development, and funds for great bike infrastructure.

Who might want to move? Well, people confined to mobility scooters would be prime candidates, along with students, and the actively ageing. But you know cyclists don’t belong to any demographic, or ideology. We are just people.

We’ll also be relocating so we can live in more bike friendly, and wheelchair friendly, apartments. This building in Copenhagen shows that multi storey apartment blocks can be accessed via ramping balconies that really are streets in the sky. They run directly out of the bike paths at ground level.

I personally feel as though architecture has been stale ever since the wheels fell off of the enlightenment project, and that the possibilities presented now, in the new age of bicycle transport, are the most exciting things for this profession since Le Corbusier was designing buildings for cars. Bike parking and bike access aren’t things to add on. They are to be taken as generators of concepts.

I suspect having an intentional cycle-space layer will be key to any city’s ability to participate in the world’s knowledge economy. One of the reasons I cycle is to enjoy more meetings in my work day, and more chance encounters. Meeting is the lifeblood of knowledge centers, and bikes allow more of it.

As docks move to deep water and manufacturing moves off to China, cities are left with networks of land they would dearly love to make sites of knowledge production. It’s just a happy coincidence that these can be sites for bike transport arteries, about which forward thinking people can organize their existence.


  1. Colin says:

    If there aren’t enough cyclists to vote for reallocating road space from cars to bikes, why will there be enough cyclists to warrant BOD? Won’t developers go for the biggest market (drivers) every time?

    • Steven says:

      Developers also like niche markets, especially ones that don’t require car parking, and that are likely to attract incentives in the form of tax breaks and higher density allowances. Like TODs, BOBs don’t need to cater for 51% of voters, the way road design must. (Readers, truly, “colin” is not my own alias).

    • Colin says:

      For developers to aim their developments at the 1% or so of the population that cycle they’d need some pretty big incentives. I see the opposite – even in the inner-city of Sydney along major cycling routes and where public-transit is comprehensive and excellent, councils that attempt to limit off-street parking are fought by developers who always demand more.

    • Steven says:

      What has started to happen in Portland, is small boutique developments are getting higher site yields (more profit) by using proximity to bike infrastructure to make a case for no on-site parking. What you’re talking about is people wanting the right to park on public land, i.e., getting a freebie. Well anyone will try that on.

    • Colin says:

      I’m not sure you’ve understood my point – I’m talking about  Australian developers fighting off-street parking maximums imposed by councils. IOW, developers here want to build more parking than councils allow. It seems it’s exactly the opposite in Portland/San Francisco, where some developers want to build less parking than the local government requires.

    • Steven says:

      sorry, I did misunderstand. And I must admit, it does come as shock that developers are fighting maximum limits for off-street parking. Practicing architects I know who are working in Sydney tell me the opposite story.

  2. Crippsy says:

    And what a bloody fantastic talk it was too!! Very engaging and interesting. Shame poor old Chris Morgan had to present after you!! You set the bar very high!

    Plus it takes skill to make a paper plane while presenting!!

  3. Peters says:

    Can’t see the figures.

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