When it is time to discuss of what makes a “Grand Boulevard”, it is interesting to get the view of the impressionists, contemporaries of the Parisian Haussmann period, which is traditionally attached to the notion of Boulevard.

Ludovic Piette (a french Painter) was writing to Camille Pissarro [1]:

    I have always loved the immense streets of Paris, shimmering in the sun, the crowds of all colours, those beautiful linear and aerial perspectives, those eccentric fashions, etc. But how to do it? To install oneself in the middle of the street is impossible in Paris.

Pissarro, was lucky enough to have a room with view on the Boulevard Montmartre, allowing him to epitomize the qualities of the “Grand boulevard”:

Boulevard Montmartre by Camille Pissarro (1897)

This 35 meters wide boulevard opened in 1763, pre-date the Hausmann’s work in Paris, but carries most of the features usually attributed to the typical Haussmannian boulevard. It pertains to the orthodox Parisian definition of the Grand Boulevards [5]:

  • The boulevards are linear and offer an open perspective (like the one opened by Haussmann), changing direction only at major intersections
  • Notice the intense level of traffic and how the lamppost are sitting in the carriage way, to not use the pedestrian realm
  • …and how wide is the pedestrian space

Usually sidewalks use around half of a typical Parisian boulevard width, This has not varied since the French second empire (1852-1870). Below is a compared cross section of Boulevard Montmartre in Paris and Broadway Street (at Cambie) in Vancouver [2].

proposed 36 meters wide Montmartre Boulevard, Paris, cross section (top), compared to Broadway Street (30 meters wide) at cambie, Vancouver BC (bottom). Notice how Broadway should have no more than the equivalent of 4 lanes of traffic to fit the Parisian boulevard model. It has up to 7 lanes!

Quality of the Urban furnitures is important and got noticed (many of them has been designed by Gabriel Jean Antoine Davioud):

From a balcony on boulevard Haussmann. Gustave caillebotte (1880)

…But one of the main feature of the Parisian boulevards, is the buzz/energy surrounding them: the gentle crowd, the trees, the play of light, is why people will like to mingle here (last picture in the post also gives a strong incentive to do so!)

Boulevard des capucines Monet (1874)

The above and ample sidewalks provide a fertile ground for the development of coffee patio, in adition of the Boulevard theatres.

Evening on a Parisian boulevard. Georges Stein (1870-1955)

Building form

The formal avenue de l’Opéra opened in time for the Universal exposition of 1878, is an exception. It is bereft of trees (and the sidewalk could have been reduced accordingly) on the insistence of the Opera’s architect, Charles Garnier, this to preserve the perspective onto its masterpiece [6]. The move has been appreciated enough to keep this avenue bereft of trees up to today [11]. Another architect request- to have the street free of urban furniture- has been lost in time…

Avenue de l'opera, Pissarro (1898)

In the Pissarro and others impressionists paintings, ornamental and architectural details of the buildings lining the boulevards are basically absent.

Haussmann designed the Avenue of the Opéra, but it has been built after his 1870’s “resignation”, (associated to the fall of the Napoleon III regime), this between 1876 and 1878. When Haussmann was providing architectural template to the properties developers, the new regime, pressed by the deadline of the 1878’s exposition, had been far less stringent in their building request:

  • They have divided the area in 55 lots, sold in 1876, to almost as many different landowners, required to build in a 2 years time frame to the maximum height authorized by the by-laws, and that all principal horizontal lines in each block should coincide, which ensured that all the windows would be at the same level. Balconies were obligatory [7]. Other pre-existing regulation ensured the aesthetic unity of the avenue.

That is what Pissarro expresses in his canvas, where the militaristic rigor of the buildings is gently counter balanced by the chimneys disorder on their roofs, and colorful shopkeeper awnings at their feet.


The traffic on the Grand Boulevards (boulevard des Italiens, des Capucines et Montmartre) is qualified of “intensive” by the Paris Prefecture in 1904, while the one on the 30 meters wide Boulevard Haussmann, (depicted by Raffaelli below), is qualified of “active” by the same source [3][9]. This, in addition to the facts that it is in the immediate vicinity of the most used -by far- railway station of the time- Gare Saint Lazare[10], and nearby department stores, are the reasons why we see a street much more dominated by pedestrian activities.

Boulevard Haussmann, Raffaelli

Obviously, public transit is the source of numerous complaints (which the subway, to be open in time for the Universal exposition of 1900, is promised to resolve! [8])

Boulevards des italiens, Pissarro (1897)

Most of the carriages seen in this picture and others are fiacres, (carriage for hire which has been replaced by taxis), and “omnibuses” (which has been replaced by buses). Private carriage was a rarity so street parking was not a problem. In those days (1891), it was counted 45,085 vehicles of all sorts in Paris but number was growing much faster than the population and was reaching 65,543 in 1906 (automobile accouting for a mere 4,077) …The Prefecture of Paris was numbering fiacres at 15,775 (today, there is roughly the same number of taxi!) and 2,572 tramways and “omnibus” [3], the equivalent of bus, already carrying in the vicinity of 220 millions passenger circa 1865 [7]…The 3 horses omnibuses seen in the Pissarro painting are the largest of the days (2.45m by 8 meter long including horses: they are considered “monsters” by the witnesses of the days [3][4]. Capacity number are, of course, irrelevant.

The other Boulevards

The impressionists like Degas, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir…, dedicated numerous painting to the Grands Boulevards in the immediate vicinity of gare Saint Lazare (all the canvas presented so far has been drawn in a 10-15mn walk from gare Saint Lazare, which itself has also been the attention of Monet among other). This railway station was also the termini of train from the Vexin français -area around Pontoise– where most of the French impressionists have elected residence at one moment of their life, and this fact can explain why this little area of Paris got far most attention than others…

Nowadays, the probably most photographied avenue is the Champs Elysees. in the XIX, it is pretty much out of reach to most of the people. Even the fiacres are rare, and traffic seems dominated by the much more exclusive landau transportation mode. Notice how the horses manures are speedily removed in the Jean Béraud‘s canvas below:

Champs Elysees - La modiste, Jean beraud (1900)

The Parisian lower class can be found around the Boulevards exterieurs (around 40 to 45 meters wide). Boulevard Clichy is one of them. Edgar Degas lived and died there but this boulevard didn’t inspired him, at the difference of Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh and Pierre Bonnard, which we choose, for its naturalist qualities, to illustrate this boulevard:

Boulevard Clichy, Pierre Bonnard (circa 1900)

The Boulevard exterieurs, marked the limit of Paris before its amalgamation with neighbor suburbs in 1860 at the initative of Haussmann, and have been opened in 1864. They eventually were synonym of life condition that the Haussmann contemporaries were trying to escape (Signac, Vuillard will paint the Boulevard exterieurs under snow, which, by its rarity, in some sort represent an escape of the usual condition).

The large boulevard median was not to separate traffic directions, The 2 ways seen in the painting was existing on both side of the Wall of the Farmers general which has been destroyed in 1860: A canvas of Pissarro better illustrates that fact (the street on side of the median will be converted to one way traffic much later)

Boulevard des Batignolles, Pissarro (1878)

The circulation on the Boulevards exterieurs was considered as active in 1904. As the canvas represents, the type of circulation is much more different than the one seen on the Grand Boulevards, and if there is nowadays no more cabs in Paris than it was fiacres more than a century ago, those are now more evenly spread on the whole Paris area, making them looking rarer.

Life outside the Boulevards

We couldn’t close this chapter, without mentioning what was the life condition outside the Boulevards in the Haussmann century. Charles marville‘s photographies illustrate what Paris was looking before Haussmann:

rue Tirechape - Charles marville (1858-1878). This street is not existing anymore

[1] Mon cher Pissarro – Lettres de Ludovic Piette à Camille Pissarro, Ludovic Piette, Paris 1985

[2] Broadway Street, Vancouver: cross section from beyond the B line, City of Vancouver 1999. Notice it is not the worst configuration found but the existing one…the proposed introduction of a LRT makes things worse with proposed sidewalk as narrow as 2.70m in the 1999 study. Currently Boulevard Montmartre, Paris, has been one way since 1951 but is considered to be reversed back two ways, and it is this configuration which is presented here. You will notice the bus getting out of its lane to avoid a cyclist – that is per design: Bus+bike lanes is the modus operandi in France, wholly supported by the Green councilors of Paris, at the very much difference of Adriane Carr in Vancouver (her position on the topic being summarized here)

[3] Etudes sur les transformations de Paris et autres écrits sur l’urbanisme, Eugène Hénard, 1903-1909. as reedited by éd. L’Équerre, 1982.

[4] The longest carriage is 20 meters, it is used for beam transportation by carpenter: it s then considered as an exceptional convoy[3]

[5] There are several Boulevard denominations in Paris, the grand boulevards being the ones built in replacement of Louis XIII city’s wall, according to the 1676 Pierre Bullet’s plan under the Louis XIV reign)

[6] The perspective has also been obtained by the leveling of an hill, the buttes des Moulins, which will have provided a convenient pretext to a slum cleansing operation in the whole Opera area.

[7] The autumn of Central Paris: the defeat of town planning 1850-1970, Anthony Sutcliffe, MacGill-Queens’university press, 1971

[8] It didn’t, and remarkably enough, Louis Dausset, on budget Committee was stating as soon as 1909

    “When we built the Metropolitan and encouraged the development of trams, we gave our citizens and visitors a taste for moving around…So underground transport does nothing to reduce surface movement in Paris; on the contrary, it multiply it” ([7] citing C.M. report no 128, 1909).

Among Haussmann’s achievement was also the reorganization of the Public transit services, with the creation of the Compagnie Generale d’Omnibus created at the occasion of the universal exposition of 1855, this on a model not much different of the one used by Seoul, Korea.

[9] To give some substance on the level of Traffic, around 10,750 horses drawing vehicle/day has been counted on the Boulevard des Italiens in 1840 ([7] citing L’œuvre du baron Haussmann, Louis Reau, 1954)

[10] the Compagnie de l’Ouest very quickly developed suburban services from gare Saint Lazare. In 1869, It was by far the busiest railway station of Paris, handling 13,254,000 a year-more than 80% of them being commuters. The other 6 Paris termini together handled no more than 21,417,000 ([7] citing La gare du Nord, René Clozier, (a priori a PhD thesis of 1940))

[10] In his book, “L’assassinat de Paris” (1977), Louis Chevalier mentions that trees has been removed of Avenue de l’Opéra in 1955. Archive photography doesn’t confirm that. What is more probably is that the sidewalk has been reduced in 1955.

Park Avenue

May 21, 2010

Avenue [ˈævɪˌnjuː] from the old french arrival, has eventually got a different meaning in english, as well as in current french, due to the current usage we give to it nowadays.

Here after is a very simplified history of it:

XVIII century

At the eventual difference of other roads or streets, avenues were usually work of urban planning, and primarly designed as radial promenade at the edge of the city with function to great in a ceremonial way the arriving visitor

Avenue du Mail, Rennes, France. concept plan from the XVIII century. the leisure aspect is the dominant factor, at the expense of the mobility one. credit photo (1)


Though that not matching to the original vision, the primary promenade function is still well respected.

The same location at the turn of the century. The leisure aspect of the promenade is still well alive

XX century

The advent of the automobile and other social change will involve deep cultural shift:

  • Urban people will eventually prefer spend their free time elsewhere than lingering on the street becoming less pleasant due to the surrounding roaring motors and gas smell (we don’t speak to much pollution those day).
  • the free space is then occupied by the new mobility device

With the advent of the automobile, the promenade change of function! (it is still Avenue du Mail, lately renamed Mail Francois Mitterrand, Rennes France)

XXI century

Another relative cultural shift appears in the 80s, eventually learning of the american experience: it appears very apparent that the adaptation of the European city to the car has no future: and a better use of the scarcely city’s available real estate need to be devised. the LRT, trams in Europe, will be part of the solution, and the large French avenues, will be ideal Right of Way candidate. The vision of the future century is then eventually represented by this artist rendering:

the future Starsbourg tram, line F, riding on what used to be a parking lot...at least in the recent history. credit photo (5)

One will note, it is pretty seldom to see modern tree lined trams, eventually for the following reasons:

  • the tree roots system could compromise the integrity of the trackbed
  • the tree branches could interfere with the overhead wires
  • the falling tree leaves could grease the rails, compromising the acceleration/braking capabilities of the train

In the Strasbourg F-line case, those aspects are mitigated by the integration of the bike path along the tram ROW. the integration of the bike path is an addition to the late LRT project.

Obviously, the vision is a significant progress on the current situation, in the sense it returns to a pleasantly greenish aspect of the avenue.

The park and ride model

Where we should not give more credit to the french than they deserve is here:

  • In most of the case the space allocated to the automobile traffic is not compromised, and the Strasbourg example shown above is basically no exception to the rule: while that the parking space is removed at the benefit of the trams, there is no reduction in automobile traffic lanes benefiting then of a freer flow, since not impeded by car looking for or negotiating parking spot
  • there is no increase of space for pedestrians, and the leisure and social interaction aspect, like lingering on the street, is not part of the picture either

The removal of parking space could be considered as a progress, but usually, a french tram projects barely means reduction of parking space either, but rather relocation of it according to the well known park and ride model.

The picture below feature one P&R in Bordeaux having 603 stalls [6], more than at the Canada line Bridgeport one [7]. Bordeaux has 14 other structures like this along its 3 trams lines…

park and Ride in Bordeaux, france. Notice the state of the track's lawn as soon as you get out of Downtown. credit photo (6)

One can clearly suspects that the motivation to introduce trams in the french cities has not been to challenge the general car centric culture, but was more guided by more pragmatic space constraint requiring a P&R model in order to preserve good vehicular movement on the city arteries and accessibility of the city to an ever greater number of people, including by car.

In that aspect, it has been a more successful model than the US one, eventually due to the greater scarity of

  • downtown parking stall
  • road access


  • the preserved heritage specificity of the European cities could have contributed to maintain the attractiveness of their downtown in despite of access impediment
  • the short length of the European trams line, typically not venturing much farther than 5km from he town center, allow for short trip time, in despite of relatively low average speed [4], the later allowing good integration in the urban fabric

All those factor, in addition of social one going beyond the scope of this post, could have saved the middle size European city to know the fate of their American sister cities, in term of Downtown life.

But, if one considers the public transit market share in 14 french urban areas with LRT; 11% (for weekday trip) [8]; it is hard to speak of a successful strategy, to be emulated.

At the end of the day, the avenue original vision, which cheer size was to provide “park” space for people, devoided to be “park” space for transportation device, has not been restored. Indeed it is now used to “segregate” space according to transportation modes (in a vision where “lingering” is also a “commercialized” activity at the benefit of the sidewalk coffees).

It is a progress on the dictatorship of the automobile reign, and it is possible that the LRT has been an ingenuous tool to legitimate the displacement of the cars toward the outer edge of the city, but is the result the most efficient allocation of the city surface space? or in other term, is it the best we can do?

[1] from archives municipales de Rennes, France

[4] Average speed of european trams is usually below 20km/h, 18.5km/h in the above mentioned case of Bordeaux

[5] from Tram-Train/Tram F, Strasbourg-Bruche-Piémont des Vosges, June 2008

[6] Picture and number from le tram de Bordeaux”

[7] Bridgeport park has 600 stall for Canada line rider according to Translink

[8] Transportation mode share of 14 metropolitan area with tram in France, from “Les deplacements a Nantes metropole Etude N 80, decembre 2009, Insee Pays de Loire, France citing “enquêtes nationales transports et communication 1993-1994, transports et déplacements 2007-2008″, Insee, SOeS and Inrets.