What do U.S. urbanists want to learn from their French counterparts?

Cyclists and pedestrians enjoy a car-free day on Paris's Alexandre III bridge, September 2015. (Delpixel/Shutterstock)

More than 250 years ago, France proved instrumental in delivering a political revolution to what became the United States of America. Now, the European country hopes to revolutionize U. S. cities through a crowdsourced effort prepared by the French-American Foundation.

Last year, the foundation surveyed nearly 3,000 experts in urban development — mayor’s offices, universities, think tanks, philanthropies, NGOs and media houses. The aim was to find out what questions U. S. urbanists had for their French counterparts, posing a simple question: “If you could problem-solve/brainstorm one specific cities-related question with your French counterpart, what would it be?”

Last week the foundation made public the survey’s results, offering a lens on possible transatlantic policy exchanges. Respondents touched on a wide variety of aspects of the French urban experience, both positive and negative.

While some queries were general in nature — “What are the French doing to advance the idea of smart cities?” — others were quite pointed. The U. S. audience wanted to know, for example, how faith groups have responded to France’s refusal to allow conspicuous religious symbols in grade schools and, more recently, the burqa, niqab and ‘burkini’ in public places.

[See: Yes, ‘govtech’ can change the way cities function]

They also asked about community organizers working on black identity in France. That remains a trenchant issue as U. S. cities confront the Black Lives Matter movement and, across the ocean, Parisian suburbs were racked by riots last month after police were accused of sexually assaulting a black suspect with a baton.

On more technical urban planning matters, meanwhile, several responses hinted at French successes. Respondents wanted to know if the new “Grand Paris” model of metropolitan governance in the country’s capital region has any applicability to U. S. metros.

[See: The ‘Grand Paris’ era begins]

They also were curious about how to make “open streets” experiments — such as car-free days on the Champs Élysées and the Paris Plages summertime transformation of the Seine’s riverbanks — into permanent changes.

Transport envy

Bicycle infrastructure, especially bike share, ranked high in the survey results. The small city of Rennes invented modern-day, citywide bike share in 1998, followed by larger cities including Lyon and Paris, where the idea took off and spread worldwide. While bike share has notable successes in the United States, such as New York City’s Citibike and Capital Bikeshare in Washington, the West Coast city of Seattle officially closed its bike share programme this past week.

Survey respondents were eager to learn more about other French successes in transportation, although here there are some major differences. France’s 66 million people are packed into a country the size of the U. S. state of Texas. The United States has five times as many people, but spread over a land area 15 times as large.

[See: On the U. S.-Mexico border, Matamoros and Brownsville plan a binational bike trail]

Nevertheless, respondents hoped to glean lessons from the Paris region’s vast suburban rail network, known as the RER; high-speed trains that connect major cities, known as the TGV; and multimodal stations that serve passengers transferring between one and the other.

The United States has a lot to learn on these fronts. Last year, voters in the state of North Carolina approved a new 37-mile commuter rail line. High-speed rail projects are underway in California and Florida, and could get a boost from President Donald Trump’s soon-to-be announced national infrastructure plan.

As for multi-modal stations, while there are some exciting developments, such as New York City’s new Moynihan Station, there are also flops. In Baltimore, the train station is several blocks from the nearest subway entrance, for instance, while the bus station is three miles from the train station and several blocks from the nearest light-rail stop.

Coincidentally, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh wrote the report’s foreword.

“Having just recently been elected to office, I’ve hit the ground running trying to address Baltimore’s most challenging problems. As such, I am always on the lookout for creative solutions,” she wrote. “While I never discount homegrown answers to these problems, I also want to know the best practices from around the Country and from around the world. When running a City, there is no pride of authorship. I want to know what works and I want to implement what works. Period.”

[See: How Baltimore is using the Sustainable Development Goals to make a more just city]

The French-American Foundation hopes that next steps will be to pair up U. S. and French counterparts to exchange ideas — and ultimately for the policy exchange to go both ways. If all goes as planned, more cafés could be sprouting up on U. S. streets. And perhaps more French mayors will be taking a strong stance in support of immigration.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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