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Paris's Groundbreaking Car Bans Face a Backlash

Mayors of neighboring cities say they’re suffering from plans to turn a major roadway into a car-free zone.

Charles Platiau/Reuters

If there was any doubt that Paris is on the front line in the battle against urban car congestion, this week confirms it.

On one hand, locals are preparing for the mid-January arrival of one of the strongest car-control measures yet: a weekday driving ban on cars built before 1997. On the other hand, the city’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo, known as a promoter of pro-green policies, is facing a fierce backlash against one of her key anti-pollution measures: banning all cars from a central section of the right bank of the Seine. On Wednesday morning, 168 mayors from the Greater Paris region condemned the move in an open letter to Le Figaro, demanding its repeal. So is Paris taking a step forward or a step back?

Both upcoming laws impose tighter control on cars than you’ll find in almost any other city. Paris’s new emissions control system will require all cars driving inside the Boulevard Périphérique beltway between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to display one of five special badges detailing its age and the emissions category it falls into. One badge, for example, is for cars constructed after January 2011 that perform to the top two tiers of the European Emissions Standards. Large trucks in the same category, meanwhile, must conform to the top tier and have been constructed since January 2014. Older cars, trucks, and motorbikes constructed to lower emissions standards are grouped in subsequent categories, until they reach cars built before 1997 or motorbikes built before 2000, which aren’t eligible for a badge at all. Any vehicle caught driving in Paris during work hours without a badge faces a €68 ($72) fine, rising to €135 ($143) for trucks.

This kind of system is possible without a five-tier system above it. The idea, though, is to classify all cars from the outset so that the weekday ban can be expanded over time to include the higher categories. To soften the blow for older car owners, the city is granting a €400 (£424) contribution toward upgrading their cars to a less polluting model.

It’s too early to see how much kickback there will be against that law, which was officially introduced in July with an agreement not to levy any fines until January 16, 2017. Paris City Hall insists that only 1 percent of drivers will be affected, suggesting that the law change is mainly about introducing the principle of the weekday driving ban, in order to tighten it further later with less resistance. If their estimates are correct, January 16 may end up passing fairly quietly.

The same cannot be said for Hidalgo’s ban on cars along the Seine’s right bank. Voted through after a tough debate in September, the car-free embankment has proved to be the most contested policy of Hidalgo’s mayorship so far. Wednesday’s letter condemning the plan comes from mayors outside Paris’s official limits who represent commuters, and from a few mayors within Paris who say through traffic has merely been displaced onto other roads in their jurisdiction.

“The aggravated encumbrances [of the road closure] lead to a deterioration of the daily life of tens of thousands of people who only want to continue their professional activities,” the letter reads. “Closing the banks has, thanks to a domino effect, consequences far beyond the official city limits, consequences which neither the state nor Paris City Hall wants to recognize.”

Their anger isn’t entirely unjustified. Certainly, closing the cross-town mini-highways that used to occupy the right bank has increased traffic on other major through-routes. Average early-evening journey times across central Paris in the area have increased by nine minutes, according to one source. Official sources insist that these delays are no more than were expected, while congestion reduced somewhat in October. That, of course, is part of the problem for suburbanites. One reason for the road closure was to make driving through Paris less attractive, cutting the number of cars in the city and encouraging a modal shift to public transit. The (very) early signs suggest this might be happening, but it’s not surprising that the people being discouraged from using the roads don’t like it.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that part of the conflict comes partly from a lack of an overarching body covering all of Greater Paris. While some mayors of inner Paris boroughs signed the letter, the great majority of mayor signatories represent commuter towns. Their immediate concern is making their voters’ commutes a little easier, not improving the air quality in a district they don’t represent. For Hidalgo, the situation is the opposite. Angry commuters and their representatives can make her life difficult to an extent, but they aren’t the voters she has to answer to. This places inner and outer Paris in an inevitable stand-off, at least when it comes to roads.

Developments elsewhere in Paris’s transit network could help bridge this divide. A massive expansion of the Metro system in the suburbs should ultimately attract many car commuters onto transit and break down the city/suburb division at least a little. Meanwhile, Paris Transit authority RATP made its fare system more suburb-friendly last year by slashing the cost of monthly travel passes for people on the fringes of Greater Paris. Moves like these could make some anti-car policies seem less aggressive. In the meantime, Paris’s ongoing move to reduce car traffic looks less likely to be a relentless march forward than a dance made up of steps both forward and back, of progress and reaction. Hidalgo’s response to the mayors’ letter could provide a clue as to how elaborate that dance is going to become.

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