So Nice in Nice!

I was recently lucky enough to spend some time in Nice, on the Cote D'Azur in the South of France, and was blown away by the way in which this punchy medium-sized city had come on in leaps and bounds in terms of improving its urban realm.  I was last there some 7 years ago when traffic choked the upper half of the city whilst the rest was being torn up to install a hotly debated tramway system.

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The tram system is finished now and has turned what used to be a busy shopping road packed with traffic (think like Regent Street) in to a calm but populated pedestrian space.  It's not noisy, nor sooty (the total antithesis of Regent Street!), there are places to sit and space enough to gather in groups if you're just hanging out.  The trams run every few minutes and a series of separated bike paths connect with the main tramway street where cyclists can ride in safety so long as they keep clear of the tram cars.  A public bike hire scheme ("Velo Bleu") completes the picture, whilst a separated cycleway along the entire length of the Promenade des Angles provides a safe and direct cycle route city "spine".

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Nice has come a very long way indeed since I was last there, and has seemingly taken these changes in its stride.  On my most recent visit it wasn't especially warm, with the wind roaring down from the snow capped mountains behind the city.  And yet the streets were packed with people shopping, eating, talking, meeting friends and generally just watching the world go by. A Nicoise dance crew drew a huge crowd, whilst organised tour parties passed by as they took in the modern art trail.  If ever anyone wanted proof that a more liveable city is a more economically successful city then the proof was there; a gaggle of British girls on their hen night had dressed as French onion sellers, had hired bicycles and were being taken on a cycling tour of the gelato shops of the city.  That's sophisticated urban regeneration in action!



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Someone once said that defining sprawl is like trying to define pornography; you know it when you see it.  The same is also true for successful new city spaces.  When they work, you know it.  Nice works; I was very impressed.

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I'm reminded of my trip to the seaside town of Hastings, last year, where some simple cycling interventions and a few traffic calming measures were paying dividends in terms of encouraging people to return to a resort seemingly past its glory days.  If everything we see between buildings is designed - from the choice of the type of asphalt used, to the very layout of the street - then it is increasingly apparent to me that there is a strong economic argument for creating people-led animated cityscapes.  Built it and they will come, indeed.

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4 comments:

Mike_C said...

Some great photos and an informative post. I was lucky enough to be in Nice in March, though I didn't have the benefit of having been to the city in its less inviting days.

Perhaps that's why I was a bit more critical: I found the seafront too noisy and full of traffic. It seems crazy to have a main artery for the city running along the beach.

Also the walk up to the museums at the top of the hill was sometimes a bit hairy as the pavements disappeared or narrowed to a few inches forcing you to walk on the road.

And though the planners have clearly decided segregated paths have merit, there don't appear to be that many installed yet.

Overall, though, the city centre is pretty much as you describe: safe, busy, vibrant, enjoyable, and no doubt extremely profitable for all the businesses there.

I can't imagine what it would be like with motor traffic roaring through it...

Paul M said...

I spent several weeks in Nice at a language school in September/October 2007 – on garden leave between City jobs, in the midst of the Northern Rock meltdown, which still managed not to spoil my enjoyment of the experience.

The tram lines were still being constructed at that time but the principal shopping avenue they run down was closed to all traffic, which certainly made a difference. You could cycle down it freely as long as you didn’t mind a bit of finger-wagging by a security guard, who never seemed to get stroppy or officious about it however many times he saw you at it.

I found most of the streets which run perpendicular to the Promenade des Anglais fairly relaxed and comfortable, although some of those running parallel in-land could be a bit fraught at times, and the promenade itself is a nightmare. Also, quite a few of the drivers could be quite aggressive, but I found the Nicois rather defensive about that – they are really lovely people but they are now outnumbered and outgunned by wealthier incomers who they feel give the city a bad name.

The principal reason I chose Nice, apart from the weather, was the fact that the airport is only 4 miles from the city centre, and is accessible on an off-road cycle path which runs all the way along the Promenade from the airport to the yacht port where I had rented an apartment. For arrival and departure, with a wheeled suitcase and a wheeled Brompton bag I took the bus, but for weekend trips back home I just rode to the terminal and locked up my Brompton in the secure cycle storage in one of the car parks. The cycle path along the promenade is shared use but as long as you don’t think you are doing the Tour de France it is fairly manageable.

I also rode out either way, to Villefranche sur Mer and to Antibes. Villefranche was reasonably well served with an offroad shared-use path – not great but better than most of those you see in the UK. At least it was free of lampposts and other obstacles. To anyone who was thinking of riding to Antibes I would say – don’t. It is really horrible as soon as you reach the bridge over the Var all the way to Antibes. The road is narrow, there is no cycle path of any description, and the traffic is heavy and fast. Not even the view can make up for this. You can take your bike on the train from Nice to Antibes. Once there, the area around Antibes, Juan les Pins and Cap d’Antibes is scenic and reasonably cycle-friendly.

I flew there with BA. I think they are just about the only European flight operator now which permits you both a suitcase and “an item of sporting equipment” in the hold without charge, and they accepted the Brommie as said item. And they managed not to wreck it on the way.

Andy in Germany said...

The problems with the tram were technical as well as political: the city insisted that they have no overhead wires in the historic centre so the company building the network had to make a safe way for the trams to be supplied with electricity at ground level in the street. It was delays with this that caused the cost problems as much as anything.

Nice had a long way to go to get to this stage: as with a l,ot of France it was pretty car centric and it's taking time to get back to being a livable city again. Hopefully they'll keep going...

Chandra said...

What a great detailed post! Thanks.

The VeloBlue bikes are similar (if not the same exact bike, but painted a different color) to the Velib bikes I saw in Paris, last month. Nice is on my list of places to visit. Perhaps next time!

Paz :)