These days, when I go online, it seems nearly impossible to avoid bad news. Between Covid, the U.S. election, the response to the BLM movement, and many other raw subjects, it’s tough to remain positive. My post this week is an attempt to avoid the merde and focus on man’s ingenuity, daring, and capacity for improving human life. My subject is Le Boulevard Périphérique, the first superhighway to encircle Paris. In addition to providing an efficient means of circumnavigating the city by automobile, the Périphérique creates an overcrowded, noisy, and polluted barrier that separates the Paris we tourists see from its outlying, poorer neighborhoods. As with most thoroughfares, the route has evolved since its inception, keeping pace with man’s changing needs. Last year, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo proposed a 10-year plan to transform the congested causeway into a tree-lined green belt. What follows is a bit of the Périphérique’s remarkable history.
From Ancient Fortification to 8-Lane High-Tech Byway
Boulevard Périphérique is said to be the most traveled autoroute in Europe. The 8-lane highway offers four lanes in each direction with no shoulders to assist a stranded motorist. The speed limit is relatively low, 45 miles/hours, but for the uninitiated, the crowded voies can be a challenge to navigate.
Construction of le Périphérique began in 1956 and took 17 years to complete. The highway follows the path of ancient walls and a dry moat that were built in 1841 to protect Paris from invaders. This fortification, known as the Thiers Wall, at one time marked the outer boundary of Paris.
Constructing the new beltway presented many engineering challenges. For example, the road bisects the Bois de Boulogne, a massive park on the city’s western edge, so architects designed a tunnel to route traffic under a small lake and avoid the roots of prominent trees. The highway also crosses the ancient Batignolles cemetery so special measures were taken to elevate the road and shield gravesites from excessive noise. The complexity of the project as a whole, however, is mind-boggling. Engineers tried to limit the disturbance to densely populated areas while designing intricate interchanges with and around pre-existing streets.
The first section of the beltway opened in 1960. The entire 34.5 kilometer loop was finally closed in 1973. The project required 81 bridges, 110 km of guardrail, 40,000 square km of anti-noise barriers, and 35,000 lights. The total cost was 2 billion francs. Today, close to 100 cameras monitor vehicle speeds, automatically issuing tickets after detecting a violation. There are 166 emergency telephones, one every 500 meters. 750 sensors are embedded in the road surface, monitoring traffic levels, vehicle occupancy rates, and average speeds.
A Legendary Motorcycle Ride
If you obey the traffic laws and aren’t fighting rush-hour-like conditions, it takes roughly 30 minutes to circle Paris on the Périphérique. In 1989, however, an ambitious and fearless motorcyclist decided to establish a speed record for the famous Parisian roadway. Nicknamed the Prince Noir, the faceless daredevil filmed his trajectory which indeed broke all records, clocking in at 11 minutes and 4 seconds.
The identity of the rider remains a mystery to this day. Motorcycle enthusiasts refer to the Black Prince as Pascal and over the years theories have abounded regarding his identity. Some have dared to claim that they are the notorious motard. However, others in the biker community have poked holes in such declarations, proving them false and lampooning the imposters on social media.
If you watch the film of the Black Prince’s harrowing journey (embedded below) you’ll understand why the motorcyclist has failed to reveal his identity. The ride took place a little after 7:00 am on a Sunday morning, but there was already substantial traffic on the well-traveled artery. It’s evident that the Black Prince endangered not only his own life but the lives of others as well. Happily, no one was hurt but authorities are unlikely to forgive a man who averaged a mind-boggling 113 miles per hour, weaving between trucks and cars, on a moderately busy city thoroughfare. From the comments I’ve seen on multiple online forums, the French people hold an equally harsh opinion of the dangerous escapade.
An Audacious Mayor’s Plan for the Future
Last year, Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, announced an ambitious plan to place ecology “at the heart” of city policy. There are many components to the mayor’s “manifesto”, including drastic changes to the Périphérique. Before the onset of the Coronavirus, which has stifled people’s autonomy, the urban beltway served 1.1 million vehicles each day. Bottlenecks were prevalent and persistent. Pollution soared as drivers oscillated between sprinting to the next backup and idling in place. A longtime advocate of reducing dependency on automobile transportation, Hidalgo maintains that a greener periph will not only improve the health of 400,000 nearby residents but also eliminate a geographical barrier that separates central Paris from surrounding communities.
In order for the plan to become a reality, Hidalgo first had to win re-election. In June, the 61-year old socialist did so handily, earning herself another 6-yr term in office. One of the first changes to go into effect will be to slash the speed limit to 30 mph. This sounds drastic for an 8-lane highway, but the lower speed discourages the accordion-like behavior of drivers. This, in turn, cuts down on pollution without altering the effective throughput. One of the lanes in each direction will serve public transit, zero-emission, and rideshare vehicles only. By 2023, this lane will have embedded sensors that detect the number of passengers and issue fines to non-compliant vehicles. By 2024, diesel-powered cars and trucks will be banned from the route.
The eco-friendly project seeks to transform two of the existing eight lanes into a green space that serves bicycle traffic. The city intends to plant 100,000 new trees along the route, concentrating small groves near exchange ramps. By 2030, the number of lanes devoted to traditional, single-passenger traffic will be half of what it is today. Finally, new crossings for pedestrians and bikes will dot the route, opening the flow of non-polluting travel options between Paris and its
A Conservative or Liberal Vision
The project is not without its detractors. Critics claim that the entire plan has been envisioned by the self-serving socialist elite of central Paris. Comfortably situated on the inside of the Périphérique, these residents have little need for efficient transportation routes in and out of the city. Working-class families in the suburbs, they argue, are the ones who will suffer as their affordable travel options diminish. Yet, proponents point out that 2030 is also the expected completion date for a widely expanded metro system known as the Grand Paris Express.
In 2009, conservative president, Nicholas Sarkozy, tasked a team of architects to come up with an ambitious plan that would integrate Paris’ suburbs with the city center. After years of study and refinement, the Metropole of Grand Paris was officially signed into existence in 2016. In addition to improving the quality of life for working-class people, Sarkozy wished to bring the country in line with the environmental goals outlined in the Kyoto Treaty. The Grand Paris Express will greatly increase transportation routes in the expanded metropolis, thereby cutting down the need for single-passenger transit outside the Périphérique.
When completed, the new metro will be the largest public transportation system in Europe. 200 new kilometers of track along with 68 new stations will house automated trains running every 2 to 3 minutes. State-sponsored funding will commission local artists to decorate the terminal walls. Furthermore, the new stations will be surrounded by housing developments, recreation facilities, office space, and parkland. I’m sure there will be plenty of controversy and course correction along the way. How these projects will be financed, when the world is facing a sweeping economic downturn, I don’t know. Despite the inevitable quarrels to follow, I find it heartening that there are still societies on our planet where both conservatives and liberals dare to dream big for the benefit of all.
- Le Monde, A Paris, « transformer le périphérique en six ans, c’est jouable »
- Ville de Paris, 40 propositions pour transformer le périphérique
- Sortir A Paris, LE FUTUR PÉRIPHÉRIQUE DE PARIS : UN CHANTIER POUR LES JO 2024 ?
- Metropole du Grand Paris, Carte Interactive
- France Culture, Une brève histoire du périphérique
- Paris Unplugged, Les fortifications de Paris
- Paris Unplugged, 1960 – La construction du périphérique
- WordPress blog, Un prince noir pas très clair
- Videos de Police, Le Prince Noir du Périph, la véritié 22 ans plus tard
- MotoMag, Le périphérique a 40 ans, le Prince Noir a 25 ans (vidéo)
- Bloomberg, Paris Speeds Up its Pursuit of a Slower Beltway
- The Atlantic, Paris Is About to Change
- The New York Times, Remaking Paris
- RFI, Hidalgo re-elected as Paris mayor as greens claim key cities
- The Parisians, An Adventure History of Paris, by Graham Robb