Treading lightly: Paris goes car-free to cut pollution


Paris is the host city for a much-anticipated international climate summit starting in two months, but France’s capital is often plagued by smog. On Sunday, the traffic-clogged metropole took a small step towards a greener commute.

Under a clear blue sky, Parisians stepped out into their streets and boulevards Sunday unhampered by rushing traffic as the city of lights went car-free for the day, an effort to cut down on pollution two months ahead of a UN climate summit.

The move affected automobile traffic in the city centre from 11 am (0900 GMT) to 6 pm, although emergency vehicles and some taxis were still allowed to circulate. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has long been committed to decreasing the city’s environmental impact, said she wanted to show how the French capital could function without cars.

Along the city’s storied avenues and alleyways, the usual honking of cars and buzzing of scooters was absent on Sunday as Parisians strolled through the city. “It’s a great way to sensitize people to the issue of pollution,” said Monica Petit, 50.

“The French are still not sensitive enough about the environment” agreed 23-year-old student Severine Leduc. “The Greens haven’t had such an impact on the public discourse as they have in Germany, for example.”

Another student, 23-year-old Jean-Roland Vincent, said he didn’t own a car, preferring to use online car-sharing services when he wanted to leave the city. “For me, having a car is not necessary.”

In comparison to much of the European Union, the growth rates of passenger vehicle use in France has been low. Paris, in particular, has placed a concerted effort on reducing the number of cars in the city, including installing bike- and car-sharing programmes. Hidalgo has said that 40 per cent of Parisians own a car, against 60 per cent who did so in 2001.

That effort is set to expand, with the reach of bike lanes slated to double by 2020. Although Paris still lags behind many European metropoles in terms of bike commuting, city officials expect bike traffic to increase from 5 to 15 per cent of total commutes in the next five years.

Hidalgo’s ambitions, which have occasionally met with resistance from automobile lobbies and conservative politicians, include subsidizing fuel-efficient vehicles and eliminating diesel engine cars altogether. Plans for more pedestrian areas and more greenery are also under way.

But the plans are not without sceptics, especially in light of the emphasis placed on cleaning up in preparation for high-profile climate talks. Many diplomats and activists see the COP 21 UN climate summit, which starts November 30, as a crucial opportunity to hammer out a globally binding agreement on curbing carbon emissions.

“Paris will never be a green zone. This is nothing more than an action in view of the COP 21,” said Andre Clogenson, 36.

Nevertheless, with Paris struggling to keep pollution at bay, city officials have had to implement emergency car bans when particulate levels in the air reached dangerous amounts. In March, a 24-hour ban, affecting automobiles bearing a licence plate ending in an even number, went into effect after a week of heavy smog.

Airparif, a company that measures pollution in France, said at the time that there was a high level of particulate matter in the air and put the city’s pollution index at 78 out of 100. The same index was forecast to be 4 on Sunday.

With pollution, traffic and a younger generation that has become accustomed to relying on car-sharing apps and public transportation, Hidalgo hopes going car-free will eventually win over even the critics.

“A great bonheur de vivre, the Champs-Elysee without cars,” the mayor proclaimed, tweeting a photo of the avenue pocked with flaneurs. “To the joy of the pedestrians and cyclists!”