Paris is notorious for snarled-up traffic and cranky drivers – but cars are gradually being edged out as the city steps up a life-or-death battle to cut pollution.
A stroll along the French capital’s grandest boulevard, the Champs-Elysees, has just become possible without choking on exhaust fumes – from May cars are banned on the famous avenue one Sunday every month.
Pedestrians have already reclaimed part of the picturesque Left Bank of the River Seine, where traffic has been permanently banned, allowing restaurants, cafes and art exhibits to spring up.
A 3km (1.8-mile) section of the Right Bank will also become car-free from this summer, and plans are afoot to pedestrianise some historic central districts, with their narrow, cobbled streets and breathtaking architecture.
These are just some of the latest salvoes being fired by the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, in her campaign to clean up the toxic air Parisians are forced to breathe.
A pollution spike last year led to Paris briefly gaining the dubious distinction of having the world’s dirtiest air – with 127 microgrammes of PM10 particulates per cubic metre of air – beating habitual offenders such as Beijing and Shanghai.
On the day in March this measurement was taken Shanghai came in at second place with 106 microgrammes, while London, another European capital renowned for poor air quality, was some way behind on 91 microgrammes.
Levels of benzene, nitrogen oxide and ozone are also routinely far too high, according to Airparif, which monitors the air Parisians breathe.
“Ninety per cent of people in Paris are exposed daily to levels of nitrogen oxides, the worst local pollutants, which are higher than the limits set by the European Union,” deputy mayor, Christophe Najdovski told me. “This is a serious public health issue. That’s what lies behind the very strong action we are taking against the causes of pollution, and in Paris, the main cause is road traffic.”
The authorities reject the idea of introducing a London-style congestion charge zone, where motorists are charged for driving in the city centre. “We see this as a form of social discrimination, where those who can afford to pay can continue to use cars,” says Najdovski.
Instead, the city’s authorities have introduced a low-emission zone, banning lorries on weekdays.
Nine new routes, including the Champs Elysees, are about to be barred to traffic on Sundays and public holidays, bringing to 22 the number of permanent and temporary road closures.
The restrictions have infuriated many motorists, who complain that they cause even worse traffic jams.
“It’s idiotic because cars are being forced out altogether instead of sharing the space with pedestrians. Banning cars on the banks of the Seine makes no sense. In winter, there will be no-one there,” says Pierre Chasseray, head of the lobby group, Forty Million Drivers.
The closures are aimed at pleasing the more affluent residents of central areas, he says, but discriminate against lower-income people living in suburbs, many of whom have to drive to work in Paris proper.
He argues that the entire Ile de France region surrounding the capital “should be given a say in these measures because Paris doesn’t just belong to Parisians”.
Pollution is exacerbated by the fact that France has more diesel cars than any of its European neighbours. Like many other countries, France used to encourage people to buy diesel as a more environmentally friendly alternative to petrol. It reversed the policy after it emerged that the fine particles and nitrogen oxide emitted by diesel engines can penetrate deep into the lungs and blood system, potentially causing cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“Under our anti-pollution measures, we plan to abandon diesel in Paris in the long term,” says deputy mayor Christophe Najdovski. “For now, we need to eliminate or very significantly reduce fine particles, so we’re going to drastically reduce the number of diesel vehicles.”
Diesel cars and lorries made before 1997 have already been banned in Paris. By 2020, only vehicles made in or after 2011 will be allowed.
Last September, the French capital held its first “day without cars”, banning vehicles from central parts of the city, to the delight of pedestrians and cyclists. This year, on 25 September, the authorities plan to extend the ban on cars and lorries to cover the entire city.
The mayor is also trying out more innovative ways to encourage Parisians to end their love affair with fossil fuel guzzlers.
Holding a high-speed car race through the heart of the capital may seem like a strange way to achieve that – but not if the cars are all electric.
Hidalgo recently gave the green light for Formula E – the electric equivalent of Formula One – to be staged in Paris. Crowds turned out to watch environmentally-friendly racing cars whizzing past Paris landmarks.
Some environmentalists were outraged, saying the race was more about speed than curbing pollution. But the mayor contended that such events “will help to dramatically improve the technology needed to make better electric cars”.
Paris has already made big strides when it comes to electric cars. Its popular Autolib rental scheme allows people to rent electric cars by the hour and the distinctive small silver vehicles are a common sight.
The network of charging points is rapidly expanding, and there are expected to be 1,000 by the end of the year. The city also offers generous grants for people to buy electric vehicles.
In addition, the authorities are spending 150m euros ($170m; £117m) to make Paris more bike-friendly, with new cycling routes, lower speed limits for cars – sometimes as low as 30km/h (18mph) – and additional parking areas for bikes.
The struggle against pollution has pitted the mayor against the national government, notably the environment minister, Segolene Royal, who has been more reluctant than the mayor to introduce curbs on drivers, saying she wants to avoid “stigmatising” them.
She has also faced criticism for backing down on a proposal to ban wood fires and wood-fired heating, which contribute substantially to pollution in France. The U-turn is described by Christophe Najdovski, the “pollution chief” of Paris, as a “populist and political decision”.
“A ban may be difficult at the moment but we must help people fit filters to reduce emissions. Saying there’s no problem is hiding the truth,” he says.
“France hosted the climate change conference last year, but we’re still waiting for President Francois Hollande to put the words into action. Unfortunately, he’s delaying.”
More from the Magazine
Cyclists in Paris no longer have to stop at every red traffic light – new rules mean that in certain circumstances they can ignore the signals and keep going. The aim is to make the city’s roads much safer, writes Hugh Schofield.
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