City Infrastructures and City Dwellers: Accommodating the Automobile in Twentieth-Century Paris

By Flonneau, Mathieu | The Journal of Transport History, March 2006 | Go to article overview

City Infrastructures and City Dwellers: Accommodating the Automobile in Twentieth-Century Paris


Flonneau, Mathieu, The Journal of Transport History


Today, as public opinion and municipal leaders seek to limit the impact of the automobile in Paris, it may seem contradictory to assert that the French capital played a unique and pioneering role in the development of the automobile. This article aims to demonstrate that Paris was, however, quite receptive to this modernity, at least until the 1970s, when a radical change in perceptions occurred. Later, it would even be claimed that the car had been imposed by a lobby, not accepted by those living in the city. Refusing the traditional interpretation of the classical historiography, which focused only on the conflict, this article presents the widespread and enduring acceptance of the automobile by the metropolitan society. By striving to unravel this paradox through an analysis of how Parisian automobility developed, the ambivalence of its modernity is revealed. Thus Paris, Benjamin's 'capital of the nineteenth century' and Harvey's 'capital of modernity', was also capital of both technological and societal innovation throughout much of the twentieth century.1

At first glance, the enduring centrality of Paris has never been challenged, even as its surroundings grew into an urban area numbering several million inhabitants. We might ask, however, if the century of the car never really called into question this centrality. Indeed, it would appear that the ways in which Paris exercises its centrality have profoundly co-evolved with 'Grand Paris', to use a term from the 1920s. Thus, as mechanised modes of mobility became more widely available, enabling the city to spread out and suburbs to appear, the socio-spatial order governing the population-or, as some would argue, the 'urban segregation'-was partially modified. 'The sedentary city gave way to the mobile city,' and the wealthy population became part of an unheard-of 'game of ever greater distances', based upon 'the differentiate d mastery of means of transport'.2 Among these means of transport, by revolutionising mobility, the automobile took its place, slowly at first, then in a massive way, beginning in the 1950s. However, the automobile also led the other urban networks into a profound reappraisal of their logic by imposing on them not only a new rhythm but also, sometimes, a new layout and a new flexibility. Even the Paris Métro, which long preceded the mass use of private cars and which was originally conceived for a walled city,3 was pressed to undergo a much needed modernisation at the beginning of the 1960s.

Although this automobile revolution is well known from an industrial point of view, its consequences on the Paris space have yet to be elucidated.4 Methodologically, it is to be expected that reflecting on the impact the automobile has had on the city should lead to observation of the traces left by this new way of getting about. Therefore it is reasonable to think in terms of 'infrastructures', as these constitute the emerged, public and collective side of the individualistic 'iceberg' that the automobile is. But even though a given public works project carried out in a given place does come within a process involving the polis, this subject is not a priori as easily interpreted as other forms of urban policy. Whether we focus on the politicians and their intentions, or on the 'ordinary citizens' and the reception they gave such projects, a clear public policy is, until a very recent period, surprisingly absent. This lack, certainly problematic,5 leads the historian to realise first of all that emphasising a political history of the automobile6 is not necessarily the same as revealing a history of the politics of the automobile; even greater effort must then be deployed to unearth the debates and track the conflicts that may have been faced by the numerous people involved, even if some of these actors are regarded as unusual or insignificant in the canons of political history.

By studying the history of the transformations of the Paris road network as it is reproduced in the reports of the prefecture and the debates in the town council, we can estimate the weight of the automobile in the polis, even if technical reports make not the slightest mention of the word automobile.

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