Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
If any city is ready for this “veritable revolution,” it’s Paris.
The Thursday announcement justifiably sent ripples through the automotive and environment world, as it would greatly aid new President Emmanuel Macron’s drive to make France carbon neutral by 2050. This isn’t the first plan of its kind—Norway already plans to phase out petrol and diesel car sales by 2025—but given France’s status as a major car manufacturer and a state with over 66 million citizens, it’s by far the most drastic announcement to date. Achieving this goal—calling it “ambitious” is an understatement—will require not just a slight change of lifestyle, but a massive cultural shift.
But if any city is laying the groundwork for this new world, it’s Paris, where a slew of car-calming, anti-diesel policies is already forcing people to rethink their relationship to cars. This radically different future for cars is surely unsettling for some, but Paris might just know how to ease people into it
That’s because right now, Paris is engaged in a charm offensive to persuade its citizens of the benefits of car-free streets. The unofficial plan is to show people just how much they’ll love going car-free involves extending pedestrian zones out of the core and into hot-spots around town—just this weekend the city set up three new zones where cars are banned on Sundays.
This aggressive push has hit plenty of opposition, but people will no doubt see the benefits when their already-popular strolling spots are made even more vibrant by car-free roads, their neighborhood café terraces spilling over with extra weekend life. With a network of Sunday car-free areas already spread across the city, Paris has promised to establish at least one such area for each of the city’s 20 Arrondissements by 2018. While making local life more pleasant, these zones are also a clever marketing tactic, one that seems to be tacitly designed to win over residents to City Hall’s vision of a predominantly car-free future.
In an ongoing project called Paris Respire, or “Paris Breathes,” the city debuted three new car-free zones on Sunday, adding to an extensive mosaic of areas where non-emergency vehicles cannot enter during certain times; whether that’s once a month, every Sunday, or all summer long. All attractive, walkable parts of the city—current Paris Respire locations include parts of the village-like, eminently strollable Montmartre and Marais neighborhoods—these zones make sense for a city seeking to cater to pedestrians.
Paris’s City Hall wants to roll out car-free zones like these much further and more permanently, and that’s no secret. Paris Transit Commissioner Christophe Najdovski has announced to newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that the city plans to open a car-free Sunday zone in every one of Paris’ 20 Arrondissements between now and 2018. The city announced Wednesday that a brand new stretch of the Seine quayside will see cars barred for a month this summer. For the first time, the riverfront between Bir Hakeim Bridge, which lies just upstream from the Eiffel Tower, and the border of the city with the suburban neighborhood of Boulogne-Billancourt, will allow only pedestrians and cyclists from the 23rd of July until late August. When it reopens, cars will be permitted in just one lane instead of the current two.
Meanwhile, the city’s third annual car-free day, due October 1, will for the first time cover the entire city right up until the Boulevard Périphérique beltway. With these measures coming so closely clustered together, it’s impossible not to see the direction the wind is blowing. They will still always remain controversial with drivers and require a degree of public lobbying to ensure their success. That’s why the Sunday car-free zones are so useful. By bringing specific attractive, walkable zones to life on the weekend, the Paris Respire zones provide Parisians with a charismatic window into their city’s possible car-free future. They act as policy spearheads and publicity campaigns for the car-free city.
The locations of the new zones bear this out. All are in neighborhoods that already attract weekend strollers, often with narrow, crooked street plans ill-suited to cars at the best of times. The neighborhoods in question are Southern Paris’ Butte-aux-Cailles, a village-like hill scored with dense streets that, in its former, grimier days were a major setting for George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London.” Another centers on some narrow streets in the gentrifying working class north-eastern area of Belleville, while the last one surrounds the nearby Bassin de la Villette, a canal basin whose broad flanks are already thronged on the weekend as it is.
This process is by no means without resistance. Drivers advocates have a point when they suggest that the city’s strident tone on such issues forces them into a hardened, defensive position when their current car-dependent habits are the product not of selfishness but of previous official policy failures.
The strong mandate for Mayor Anne Hidalgo nonetheless gives Paris City Hall a strong hand to push through bold policies, making it singularly well placed to adapt to today’s national policy announcement. Likewise, the city’s unusually narrow borders mean that they don’t have to accommodate the wishes of people who live in the more sprawling and thus necessarily more car-dependent suburbs. The city may be pushing forward its car-calming, pro-pedestrian policies in a calculatedly piecemeal fashion, but at present their gradual approach toward the almost car-free city that Paris must ultimately become seems singularly effective.