Thursday, December 04, 2008

Streets like Paris, eh?

So I'm sitting in this windowless room in the belly of the local transportation bureaucracy: sixth floor, city-county government center. CDOT offices. (Charlotte Department of Transportation for you non-geeks.) It's only 8 a.m., so I'm pretending to be awake. And I start to notice what's on the walls:

A white board with markers and erasers. Above it a clock (analog). A calendar. A poster of the 2004 Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization's Thoroughfare Plan.

Then I spot a print of Gustave Caillebotte's 1877 "Rue de Paris, Temps de Pluie" with people in umbrellas crossing a rainy street (copy above). A print of a Monet scene of a railroad in the snow in Paris. A poster with a photo of the Pont Alexandre III over the Seine. And a Michelin map of the city of Paris.

Do you realize how significant this is?

Let me explain. Charlotte is not Paris. Our traffic engineers (including the NCDOT folks) move traffic. They value speed, efficiency and "safety," not beauty or the value of the experience. Limited access highways through historic neighborhoods would be just fine by too many of them.
Paris is a city with high-volume, high-speed and beautiful boulevards that retain fabulous street life alongside the traffic. Walking down a Paris sidewalk is a magnificent experience. Even the traffic islands are magnificent. They don't have Independence Boulevard or South Boulevard. They have true boulevards. I have said for years that our traffic engineers and transportation planners needed to visit Paris and bring home what they learn.

But CDOT has been changing. It redesigned the city's street standards. It pushed the City Council to adopt a Bicycle Plan. I was there this morning to hear about its proposed Pedestrian Plan. (More on that at a later date. It will be discussed at a City Council Transportation Committee meeting Wednesday (Dec. 10) at 2 p.m., Room CH-14 of the Gov Center).

The windowless conference room, I'm told, has been dubbed "the Paris room."

Someone at CDOT gets it.


Anonymous said...

Paris is also around 2,000 years old. There's been a city of some sort on that site since Julius Caesar, not yet an emperor, conquered Gaul. So they do have a bit of a headstart on us when it comes to being a city and moving lots of people around. Also, Paris is a national capital; Charlotte is a regional capital, and not a very big one at that. And Parisian streets are also infamous for hosting fast and loose driving, with not nearly the number of traffic lights as we have here. You try driving around the Arc de Triomphe during a busy time; something like that here would never be allowed as it's unsafe as heck.

Anonymous said...

Forget that Paris is an ancient city. It was almost entirely rebuilt in the 1800s, and that was the 'golden age' of city design. Chicago's magnificent lakefront was from that era too.

Paris has a breathtaking layout and it is incredibly mathematical. Everything lines up. The sight lines are breathtaking.

However, don't forget Charlotte has Myers Park, one of the most beautiful near-center-city neighborhoods in the United States. And a lot can be said for the streetscape on Dilworth's streets, too.

EP said...

It's interesting that this is the topic of your blog today. I have been thinking all week about how wonderful it would be if Charlotte would start building civic squares (akin to Potsdamer Platz in Berlin). These are roadways which are part of the transportation fabric but are more often used for public gatherings, markets. Although they may seem quite grand, they are usually no larger than the footprint of a Walmart, and are able to strike much more civic pride than a Walmart.

In fact, I was at Cotswold last night day dreaming how different that shopping plaza would be if the parking was offsite or below ground, and the existing lot was a grand market or civic square.

Oh well, like you said, we're not Paris.

Anonymous said...

Mary, both Tom Cox and Harvey Gantt explicitly and repeatedly cited Paris as model for Charlotte, so I doubt local planners missed that.

And that beauty you cite was a by-product of Napoleon III via Georges-Eugène Haussmann creating streets wide enough to march armies around on and shoot down when the poor set to rioting.

The old Paris streets were wonderful for urban warfare, big wide Blvds. not so much. Cars had nothing to do with.


Anonymous said...

Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (Canada) has better looking downton streets and city parks than Charlotte. They have only 35,000 people there too. Charlotte is a traffic (and therefor urban) disaster and always will be. In the final analysis CDOT is a group of engineers with the soul of a lugnut.

Anonymous said...

Mary, shouldn't you start doing some worthwhile writing in order to justify your job prior to the next round of layoffs? This has to be some of the most insignificant stuff you have ever focused on.

Your supervisors are likely having to list their employees based on value to the company. You want to be high up on that list when they start cutting the fat.

This type of stuff seems very marginal.

Anonymous said...

Seems absolutely irrelevant and unrealistic in terms of CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA.

Tajblues said...

CDOT is riding the fence, working on street guidelines, sidewalks, and bike plans while still maintaining that traffic should move at rapid speed through and around an urban center. Wake up folks, all urban centers have bad traffic; and the traffic is even worse if you have to commute to and from the burbs. Charlotte is not Paris, nor an urban failure. It is a city with things in the right direction with the exception of a few road project blunders. I look forward to seeing how trasit shapes the landscape in years to come.

Russell said...

I've read every comment on here now. And not one of you gets it. You cite the city designers of the 1800s.

In reality, the reason Paris works is because the RER and Paris Metro bring all the suburban dwellers to the city everyday.

Without the public transportation, the city would have endless and unceasing gridlock, not to mention an enormous lack of parking.

The Post World War II infrastructure planners, made the transportation network in Europe relevant and practical. Until Charlotte (and most other U.S. cities) learn that public transit is the way, things will remain as they are.

Anonymous said...


Good insight on the importance of transit, but the subject was walkable streets. What good is a great mass transit system without walkable areas between the stations?

grvsmth said...

Paris has its share of ugly, unsafe, sprawly roads. I've never been to Charlotte, but I've seen parts of Raleigh that aren't too different from what you see along the Boulevard Peripherique.

The magnificent experience of Parisian sidewalks can be compromised by their frequent narrowness and the fact that they sometimes have cars and motorcycles parked all over them. Here's what you'd see today if you went to where Caillebot painted that scene. The vaunted Champs-Elysées can be a hellish pit of entitled motorists.

It's only in the past few years that this has begun to change, and it's largely due to Paris's current Socialist (and openly gay) mayor, Bertrand Delanoë and his Green deputy mayor Denis Baupin, who have had the courage to turn one of the major riverfront highways into a "beach" and install separated bus lanes on most of the major boulevards - and were overwhelmingly re-elected this year.

It's true that Paris beats Charlotte hands-down for walkability. And it's good that Charlotte planners are paying attention to the good parts of Paris. But it's not as extreme as you make it out to be.

Also, what Russell said.