On Sunday, September 27, Paris went “car free” for a day. What happened? Along the Seine in the city center, pollution levels were down by about 40%. At the busy Place de l’Opera, levels were 20% lower, according to The Guardian. Bruitparif, which measures noise, said sound levels dropped by half in the city center. And people danced and rode bikes in the middle of the famous Champs Elysee to celebrate the absence of automobiles.
Officials and environmentalists hailed the event as a success. City mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has made reducing Paris’s worryingly high pollution levels a top priority, said she hoped to introduce a regular citywide vehicle ban. “We might envisage days without cars more often … perhaps even once a month,” she wrote on Twitter.
Paris will host delegates from around the world in December at the COP21 conference, where strategies to keep the earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius will be debated. Paris was embarrassed last spring when air pollution in the city got so bad that the iconic Eiffel Tower was obscured from view.
Since then, the national government and the city have been arguing about how to deal with the problem. As a result, the police refused to allow the ban to cover the entire city. Official intervention at the national level meant only 30% of Paris was off limits to vehicles.
When the scandal broke over Volkswagen’s manipulation of emissions data for diesel vehicles, the French claimed this was typical “German economic arrogance,” although no one mentioned that France has been flouting EU air quality targets since 2005. In a report from 2014, Airparif, which monitors air pollution levels in the city, wrote: “Despite meteorological conditions favorable to the quality of air in 2014, 2.3 million French people are still exposed to levels of pollution that do not respect the rules, particularly in the case of (lead) particles and nitrogen dioxide. Those living in the Paris region and near major roads are the most affected.”
Airparif said pollution levels were up to double those allowed by the regulations. Five pollutants posed problems in the capital: benzene, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and the fine particles PM10 and PM2.5.
A report by the French Sénat, the upper house of parliament, found that air pollution costs France $100 billion a year in negative health as well as economic and financial consequences. It said illnesses created or worsened by pollution included Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, respiratory disease, and some cancers. Polluted air is also linked to fetal development problems, the report said.
The report — entitled Air Pollution: the Cost of Inaction — estimated that pollution caused up to 45,000 premature deaths in France a year, from asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks, lung cancer, and strokes. The Sénat criticized successive governments for a “failure to mobilize” to clean up the city’s air.
Hidalgo has made doing so a priority. City hall launched an ambitious “anti-pollution plan” at the beginning of this year, which included an eventual prohibition of older diesel vehicles, multi-million euro improvements to public transport and pedestrian area projects, and banning all vehicles from the right bank of the Seine from Bastille to the Eiffel Tower.
Christophe Najdovski, deputy mayor in charge of transport, said Paris was lagging behind on tackling pollution and said centralized state interference in the city’s attempts to combat pollution was “an obstacle to modernization. We’re behind on this and we cannot afford to be,” Najdovski said. “We have to change people’s attitudes and behavior. The fact is you don’t need a car to get around in Paris and there is no reason to use one most of the time. You can take public transport, bicycles, and even walk.”
He said young people were slowly changing attitudes. “The young have a different relationship with cars. They are much less likely to buy a car and more interested in car-sharing and similar schemes.” Najdovski, a member of the Europe Ecology-Green (EELV) party, admitted he was disappointed that only one third of Paris was handed over to pedestrians and cyclists on 27 September. However, he said the event was symbolic and aimed to demonstrate that it was possible for people to “move about the city differently.”
Najdovski added: “My dream Paris would be a city without cars. It may be idealistic, but we have to start somewhere. And this is the road we have to go down if we want to have a city we can live in.” Perhaps Paris will be car free again during the climate summit in December?