Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In

Paris Is Great — But the Green Mobility Revolution Is Happening All Over Europe

The green mobility revolution is happening in Paris — and Milan, and Seville, and Brussels.

12:00 AM EST on January 10, 2024

Cities don't have to be Paris to be walkable.

Editor's note: This piece was originally published in Scott Shepard's "The #CitiesFirst Newsletter," which you can check out on Medium.

The world has experienced fundamental changes over the past several years, and especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic. This is especially true when it comes to urbanism and mobility. One of the cities that epitomizes this transformation the most is Paris. What has occurred in the “City of Light” is nothing short of phenomenal, and all in a relatively short period of time. However, while Paris is now seen as the standard by which other cities are to be measured in the media when it comes to green mobility, especially now in the run up to the 2024 Olympic Games, there’s more to the story. That is, the real transformation of cities and their mobility patterns are taking place on a much broader scale and across multiple European cities, and all at the same time for a variety of reasons.

Active Mobility in Paris

Paris: Redesigned Through Centralized Planning

Before we move on to a review of what other European cities are doing with regards to green mobility, let’s better understand why Paris still matters. For context, this is the city that revolutionized the implementation of centralized, top down urban planning & design through the work of Baron Von Haussman under the edicts of Napoleon III in the mid 19th century. And this was done all in the name of power and control, by introducing a series of radial boulevards and roundabouts throughout the medieval urban fabric. Next, Le Corbusier, the famed Swiss-French architect & planner had plans to reboot Paris even further, through his plans for the Radial City (Ville Radieuse), which if built would have been the ultimate manifestation of 20th century modernism, complete with freeways, segregated land uses, and high rise apartment blocks throughout the city center.

The Étoile around Arc du Triomph, as redesigned by Haussman

Now, Paris is radically reducing its auto-dependency through the 15 Minute City concept along with the research of Carlos Moreno and supported by Mayor Anne Hidalgo. This has been manifested in multiple ways, such as extensive cycle networks, new green spaces, and other regulatory measures such as e-scooter, SUV, and flying taxi bans. However, all of these interventions follow a consistent thread in Paris of top down centralized urban planning, and are aligned with significant political, cultural and even military upheavals. Having understood the context of Paris, it is now important to compare how other European cities have responded to the pandemic, and seized the opportunity to reconfigure their public spaces and mobility patterns.

Milan: Tactical Urbanism to Reconnect the Core

In the course of a few years, Milan has rapidly become a leader in sustainable, green mobility and urbanism. However, Milan historically has one of the highest car ownership rates in Europe and ongoing challenges related to traffic congestion. These ongoing challenges speak to the auto centric of the city, and how during the 20th century urbanism was beholden to conventional urban planning strategies. However, Milan has implemented a comprehensive urban plan (Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan, or SUMP), to promote sustainable modal shift away from the automobile to shared and active modes of mobility. The plan also helps to reduce traffic in the city center and frees spaces for walking and shared mobility. Uniting public institutions, transport companies and civil society in decision making such as Agenzia Mobilità Ambiente e Territorio (AMAT), Regione Lombardia and the Commune di Milano, the plan features new service delivery models and a number of interconnected elements. These include sharing mobility schemes, a congestion charge and pedestrianization.

City Center and Pedestrian Zone, Milan

While certain urban design measures were launched before the pandemic, the most ambitious scheme of all in Milan was the transformation of 250,000 square feet of parking into public space. This intervention has become one of the hallmarks of tactical urbanism, and is seen as a case study for countless other cities to follow. This large-scale reinvention of its public space began in 2018, but took on greater meaning during the height of the pandemic, as new outdoor spaces became essential lockdown escapes. And as a result, the city is looking to expand this to a wider pedestrian zone in the city center and fashion district.

Bike MI cycle share scheme, Milan

In addition, with the recent announcement of the Milan public tender for shared mobility providers, there are to be 16,000 bicycles (5,430 from the Bike Mi station based fleet) and 6,000 scooters for a duration of 3 years to different operators. The individual proposals had to include a fleet made up of 2,000 scooters and 2,000 bicycles, of which at least 1,000 were pedal-assisted, at least 150 with child seats and at least 15 cargo bikes. For both scooters and bicycles, the collection and release of vehicles will be permitted only in the parking areas for bicycles and in the mixed parking areas for bicycles and motorbikes, while only for electric scooters the collection and release can also take place in the parking areas for motorbikes only. The selected operators also have the obligation to create, at their own expense, 100 public parking areas for bicycles and scooters open to the use of all, identified by the Municipality of Milan, and to join the Maas platforms accredited by the Administration. This shared mobility public tender demonstrates the commitment that Milan has made to sustainable modal shift and the overarching goal of 30% reduction in single car journeys as mandated by AMAT.

Seville: The New Cycling Hub of Europe

Seville, Spain is another example of a formerly car-centric city that has undergone a rapid transformation since the pandemic. As recently witnessed at the EU Urban Mobility Days event hosted in Seville by the European Commission and the Spanish Presidency of the Council of EU, an historic joint European Declaration on Cycling was announced during the very same event. While this is of utmost importance across the continent and impacts all Europeans, it is even more impactful that the declaration was made in Seville. Until recently, Seville had few cycle lanes and a nascent metro system. However, much change has taken place in the city recently with regards to green mobility and urbanism.

Plaza de Espana, Seville

As of 2023, Seville has quickly taken the lead in Europe regarding the reconfiguration of its public spaces for pedestrians and users of shared and active modes. Seville is now working to promote car-free zones and encourages cycling as a primary type of transportation. The city has also made progress with its transition into green initiatives and is currently prioritizing new urban strategies for progressive mobility and is now one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world.

Metropol Parasol, Seville

Seville also currently features one of the most ambitious car free, pedestrian city center zones in all of Europe. The Pedestrianization Plan of Seville in 2018 describes how the city over the period of a decade completely shifted its focus from car-based mobility to public transport and active modes starting with the central avenue corridor. In fact, 2009 was the formative year for Seville, as that when access by motor vehicles, including public services such as taxis and buses were forbidden and replaced by a tram. Together with the process of pedestrianization, an action plan related to sustainable mobility and urban collective transport was carried out including the implementation of a bike network and a public bicycle loan system.

Brussels: A Rejection of Brusselization and Mid Century Modernism

Regarding 20th century urbanism, Brussels unfortunately became known as one of the most auto centric cities in all of Europe. In fact, there was a term used recently for this phenomena, as it was coined as “Brusselization”, or the the indiscriminate and careless introduction of modern high-rise buildings into gentrified neighborhoods” and has become a byword for “haphazard urban development and redevelopment. While no means a term of endearment, it was a signifier that the city had lost its way and became beholden to mid century modernist urban planning principles (e.g. Robert Moses). Therefore, the challenge for the Belgian capital was to rediscover its roots, and place greater emphasis on walking, cycling, and other shared modes that contribute to a green mobility transformation of the urban core and surrounding districts and nodes.

Grande Place, Brussels

The 1958 World’s Fair served as the catalyst (or nadir) for this haphazard and indiscriminate urban development, at the expense of its centuries old tradition of Belgian town planning and commercial market square urban core frameworks. What has occurred since the mid 20th century in Brussels started as a slow process, then leading to a rapid reconfiguration of the core into one that marginalizes the automobile, thus helping to stitch together the urban fabric and into a coherent sense of place. Since it was first created, the Brussels Region has instigated a major policy of participative and integrated urban renovation, through ‘district contracts’, which have been applauded internationally.

Mont Des Arts, Brussels

In 2022, Brussels made a clear break with automobiles through the implementation of the Pentagon mobility plan, with the goal of slashing transport emissions, reducing traffic and improving residents’ quality of life. The plan fits into the region’s Good Move Plan to reduce car traffic by 24% by 2030 and is designed to prevent cars from crossing the city center, instead diverting them to the ring road. A handful of streets will ban cars all together and become pedestrianized.

In support of the sustainable mobility plan and policy goals, Brussels also recently announced in late 2023 a public tender for shared mobility providers, equally ambitious as that in Milan. The tender calls for a total of 8,000 self-service scooters in Brussels. Alongside scooters, the call for applications made it possible to designate 3 operators for shared bicycle services (3 x 2,500 bicycles), 2 operators for scooters (2 x 300 scooters) and 2 cargo bike operators (2 x 150 cargo bikes). In addition, 1,000 dropzones have been implemented by Bruxelles Mobilité and the Brussels municipalities with more to be added, and no user will be able to lock their vehicle at the end of their journey if they do so outside a dedicated dropzone zone. This investment in shared mobility infrastructure is a signal that Brussels is serious about sustainable modal shift and encouraging a green mobility revolution, at the ground level.

Conclusion

If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that change is constant. However, in the change, it should be considered that there are lessons learned in the domain of green mobility transformation across all cities, especially ones that have not until recently been thought of as cycle or pedestrian friendly. Paris is and will continue to dominate the headlines and news cycle for some time to come, especially leading up to the 2024 Olympic Games. For many good reasons, Paris deserves the attention it has received. But if we dig a little deeper, we’ll discover a range of other cities across Europe that have seen a much more impactful net positive transformation in the urban fabric and built environment, and just since the pandemic. Those are the cities we should be giving more attention to in the coming years ahead, and the best is yet to come.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

Friday’s Headlines Are So Fresh and So Clean

The only thing Americans love more than a car is a clean car.

February 23, 2024

CalBike: Tell the Legislature Hands Off Active Transportation Funding

Calbike has an action alert that allows its members to write directly to legislators with their feelings on whether or not the ATP funding should be restored before the legislature votes on the budget in June.

February 22, 2024

Oakland Rips Out Protected Bike Lane on Embarcadero

The city and the councilmember who represents District 2 complain about lack of resources for safety projects, but somehow they have the resources to rip out protected bike lanes.

February 22, 2024

Talking Headways Podcast: The Annual Yonah Freemark Show, Part II

This week, let's talk about transit funding in general and the Roosevelt Boulevard subway in Philadelphia, specifically.

February 22, 2024

State DOTs Spend Even More Money on Highway Expansions Than We Thought

Advocates knew states would go on a highway widening binge when the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed — but they didn't know it would be quite this bad.

February 22, 2024
See all posts