Greater City Providence

Paris: You are responsible for all users who are lighter than you are

Streetfilms takes a look at how Paris is rethinking their streets. A big part of it is changing the equation from moving traffic, to moving people. The rules of the road are that you are responsible for all users who are lighter than you are; trucks responsible for cars, cars for bikes, bikes for pedestrians… As in other parts of Europe, Paris is looking to slow traffic and make streets more livable. This includes streets with 30km (18mph) and 15km (9mph) speed zones. For contrast, the speed limit in Providence is 25mph.

Paris is also utilizing shared space zones, what the Dutch refer to as a Woonerf.

Woonerfs were popularized in the Netherlands in the 1970’s as a reaction to the growing dominance of the automobile over bicycles. During the first few years after World War II, Dutch transportation engineers began to emphasize relocating bicycles onto separate paths to accommodate the growing number of vehicles on the streets. This created a backlash, and the country soon moved in the opposite direction. Motorists were now forced to make accommodations for everyone else. The intent of this new approach was not to make cars disappear, but rather to integrate motorists and other users of the street into a shared space.

While the Woonerf was originally designed for residential areas, Paris is utilizing shared spaces in the city center, including areas that are designed to mix pedestrians, bikes, and buses. And StreetsWiki lists Commercial Street in Provincetown as an example of a Woonerf.

Commercial Street in Provincetown is open to all modes, yet pedestrians and bikes dominate | Photo (cc) muckster

Here in Providence our streets came together in the age of pedestrians and horses. Autos are late to the scene, but we’ve embraced a culture where our roads are for cars, and other modes are secondary. In Paris they are moving back to moving people, making consideration for modes, and valuing the safety of the most vulnerable modes, in the process making a more livable city.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • No doubt cars are the primaries here in Providence. When even your police don’t know to stop for a crosswalk you have a serious problem.

    This is all a culture change and one of the things that compound the problems we have in Providence is the parking issue.

    If you could solve the parking issue you’d solve the pedestrian and bicycle issue. And there is a solution it’s just going to cost a bit of cash. Put it this way, the solution I’m proposing means that parking for cars costs more than $25 a year. How about $25 per month to start.

    Just near me there are five parking lots. Horrible waste of space. Build one of those automated parking garages, return the other lots to space for development.

  • The concept that you are responsible for any mode of transportation that is lighter than you seems so obvious, but I doubt that anyone here ever thinks of it. The city and/or state should start a public awareness campaign to emphasize this.

    The change of street surfaces is also obvious. Asphalt bumps, tiny roundabouts, and neck-downs have been installed is some residential neighborhoods, but are clearly lacking downtown. Perhaps the city is afraid of an all out confrontation with the motoring community. Changing or rough surfaces does slow car traffic. I remember when Pine Street was the last Belgian Block street left downtown. How much Belgian Block is buried under asphalt in Providence?

    The costs of building garage structures, in particular public ones is a stumbling block since Providence never developed a parking authority. One approach for funding might be to tax all parking spaces, though this would involve General Assembly approval and likely loud protests by drivers who see their mode of transportation the only legitimate one. Until there’s a comprehensive and frequent public transportation system with hours of operation that extends well beyond commuter times, perhaps the driving constituency is right.

  • It isn’t such a foreign concept. I think Matt will tell us that motorboats must make way for lighter boats like sailboats; when you ski you are responsible for the safekeeping of all the skiers below you, etc. It certainly makes perfect sense that the heaviest vehicles have the most responsibility for keeping the roads safe. That includes buses and bus drivers, btw, who I have found to be singularly menacing on Providence’s streets.

    and I’m not sure where Tony P is but i don’t know who parks for $25 a year downtown. When I had an office downtown and a space in the Westin Garage, and then in the Parkade, it was well over $60/month to park, and that was with a years contract and it was five years ago+. Anyone who says that parking lots aren’t making money and can’t be taxed is either dumb or a liar. 🙂

  • Thank you for this post! It will help everyone understand that I am not advising anyone to jump in front of moving traffic. And I expect pedestrians to be considerate enough to not jam up cars just because they can.

    Bad old days: Wanna cross the street? Whoa. Cars come balling along here. Wait till the coast is good and clear, or wait for a walk signal, and even then you better watch the hell out.

    Good new days: Crossing the street is like merging into foot traffic! Cars just ease along here, so don’t be a jerk and force a driver to make a needless stop, but know that when a driver sees you in time to pause a bit, you can cross safely.

    I would not want to make downtown car-free. Until a street gets so crowded that people are simply running out of space (Times Square NY for example), access by car and handy short term parking are good things.

    Please: No public money for parking infrastructure! If there is any money for infrastructure, spend it on spiffy new transit and then we won’t need all that parking anyway.

  • Jen, on the water, it’s actually the other way around. Generally, the pecking order is biggest to smallest. Sailboats come before motor boats. Personal watercraft (basically jet skis and jet driven boats) are at the bottom of the pecking order. It has to do with the ability to get out of the way the fastest. A large tanker can’t exactly change course as easily as a 17′ Whaler. Man-powered boats are a special case because they are the smallest, but can’t get out of the way as fast.

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