Next time you're involved in a debate about whether we should consider taking one lane of traffic on a busy street and setting it aside for buses, show them some pictures of Paris today. Almost any boulevard, in fact. Here's Boulevard Raspail:
Lots of traffic in two lanes, and a lane reserved for buses and two-wheels conveyances. Yes, the bus lane is empty at the moment, but this demonstrates the great and damnable paradox of bus lanes: If buses are moving well, and carrying more people than the car lanes, the bus lane looks empty most of the time. Only a failing or obstructed bus lane looks like it's full of buses. That's why bus lanes such a hard sell in cities run by motorists who want to do the green thing but still form their impressions from behind the wheel of a car.
But in the last two decades, while a few American cities have had long arguments about converting single lanes to bus-only, Paris just did it. Not here and there. All over the city. Name your favorite Paris boulevard, and it probably has bus lanes now.
One key to the Paris project is that these are not just for buses. They can also be used by taxis and all two-wheeled vehicles. This is a manageable range of vehicles that all serve urban mobility more efficiently than the private car, and that don't usually generate enough congestion to plug the lane for any length of time. Now and then, something else shows up in a bus lane, such as here on Blvd. de Clichy in front of the Moulin Rouge.
What about smaller streets? Surely when you just have two lanes of traffic, you'd never take one of them -- half of the entire capacity of the street -- for a bus lane, would you? Of course you would. Have a look at Rue du Faubourg St. Denis, climbing the gentle grade from Les Halles to Gare du Nord.
Without that barrier in the middle, you could have striped this one-way street as two traffic lanes plus a parking/delivery lane on each side; in fact, if I probe my dim memories of living in Paris in 1986, I think that's what it was. But they not only carved out a wide bus lane but also a solid median curb to protect it. (These curbs are sensible because motorists know not to drive over them but emergency vehicles still can.) The resulting wide bus lane is important because it's shared with two-wheeled vehicles -- bicycles and motorbikes and scooters, and these need the ability to pass the bus without interacting with parallel traffic.
Here's Rue du Faubourg St. Martin, the southbound partner of the northbound Rue du Faubourg St. Denis above. Here, the bus lane is on the left, and stops are in median islands. Looking north:
[Update Note also that the bus lane (technically a bus-taxi-2 wheel lane) is quite a bit wider than the bus. There´s enough space or cyclists to pass stopped buses. Note also that Paris stop spacing is quite wide, I´m guessing around 400m, so you don´t see as much of the leapfrogging problem -- where the same bus and bike have to pass each other repeatedly. ]
(If any French readers have access to section drawings of this street or similar ones, I'd love to publish a few just to show how the available width has been apportioned.)
It's also increasingly common, on larger boulevards, to see separate bicycle and pedestrian spaces in addition to the bus lane. Typically, the large boulevards have always had small frontage roadways on each side used for accessing on-street parking. These roadways now also serve bicycles, and are connected by appropriate bike-only segments. There is still a sidewalk/footpath for pedestrians as well, against the building face, though nobody worries much about enforcing ped/bicycle separations.
The truth will sound silly, but it's striking how green these signals are. It's simple: the default setting for pedestrian signals is green, and they turn red only when your safety requires it. (In Sydney, where I currently live, the opposite rule applies. There, pedestrian signals are always red, but if you push a button and wait patiently, often for a nearly complete cycle of the signal, wondering if you've submitted an application to some bureaucrat who will get to it after his lunch break, you'll finally get green for a few seconds. But don't blink or you'll miss it and have to start again.)
The scourge of two-step signals for crossing major boulevards remains:
The sign means that you'll have to wait for one signal to cross to the median, and then another signal to cross to the far side. A pain, but then again, signaling the two phases separately gives you more opportunities for signals to be green. This is useful if, like me, you're willing to cross on a red if it appears safe. That way, you still get the assurance of the green for half of your crossing.
Last year when I passed through Paris, I encountered a funny bit of sculpture in the Rue du Chat qui Peche ("street of the fishing cat").
"La rue est à nous" -- "The street is ours."
Those words are at least as old as the French Revolution, but they've never been truer in Paris than they are today. We are a long way from the Paris of the 1970s, when planners imagined freeways on both sides of the Seine, and new extra-wide bridges for more car traffic. Today, Paris is for human beings, but you don't become human in this city until you get out of your car. As soon as you do, the street is yours.