In one word I can tell you what’s wrong with the Avenue des Champs-Élysées: cars. (Not to mention motorcycles and trucks.)
This street is marketed as “the most beautiful avenue in the world”, and it really is beautiful except for the fact that there is an ugly ten-lane highway running right down the middle. There are four lanes of moving motor traffic in each direction (moving or creeping, as the case may be, or accelerating wildly when the traffic lights change), plus two lanes of parked cars on either side.
If I have measured correctly, the entire avenue is about 67 meters wide. Of that width, roughly 25 meters in the middle is devoted to motor vehicles, with a 21-meter sidewalk for pedestrians on each side. (Don’t worry, I didn’t measure it on the ground.)
Update 2021: The long-promised bicycle lanes have finally been installed, but opinions differ as to how usable they are. Some say they are too bumpy, because they are still paved with cobblestones. I haven’t been able to try them yet myself, since I have not been able to visit Paris during the coronavirus pandemic.
While the current situation is unsatisfactory, to say the least, I keep reminding myself that for over half a century, from the late 1930s to the early 1990s, it was worse — much worse, since nearly the entire width of the avenue was given over to cars.
By the 1970s, even car-loving conservative politicians couldn’t help noticing that the character of the Champs-Élysées was changing. The grand hotels, luxury boutiques and elegant restaurants began to leave, being replaced by chain stores and fast-food joints.
So from 1991 to 1994 a sweeping rearrangement of the Champs-Élysées was carried out under the direction of the French architect and urbanist Bernard Huet (1932-2001).
Much of the construction work was coordinated by the engineering firm OGI (Omnium Général d’Ingénierie), which summarized the project as follows:
“The rearrangement of the Champs Élysées consisted of restoring the character of a promenade to an avenue which had become an immense open-air parking lot. To do this, the side roads were eliminated, a second row of trees was planted and the entire surface of the pedestrian area was re-paved in granite.” (My translation.)
Planting a second row of trees may not sound like a huge project, especially since it was just a matter of replacing a row of trees that had been cut down in the 1930s to make room for cars, but in fact this turned out to be a long and very expensive project because in the meantime the dirt under the sidewalk had been replaced by a labyrinth of cables, water pipes, gas pipes, sewer pipes and tunnels, all of which had to be found and relocated.
As you stroll along these wide granite-paved sidewalks today, it is hard to believe that for over half a century most of this surface was used for car parking. But it was.
Update 2021: The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has approved a plan called Réenchanter les Champs-Elysées, designed to further transform the Avenue over the next decade by reducing the number of lanes devoted to motor traffic and using the space for vegetation, pedestrians and cyclists, cafés and restaurants, small parks and playgrounds. Zoning changes are also being considered, to promote “a more authentic and more French retail offering, emphasizing French savoir-faire, gastronomy and the art of living rather than large international chains perceived as being sterile and interchangeable.”
My photos in this post are from 2011.
I revised the text in 2017 and added two updates in 2021.
See also: The triumph of cars over people.