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.
To emerge from its toxic fug, Paris is enacting what could be the most drastic anti-pollution measures seen in any major world city.
When it comes to city pollution, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is clearly ready for battle. Speaking to the French press Sunday, Paris’ first female mayor announced what could be the most drastic anti-pollution measures any major world city has implemented yet: By 2020, no diesel fuel at all will be burnt within Paris. Regular cars will be banned outright from its more polluted roads, which will be open solely to electric and hybrid vehicles. Meanwhile, the city’s most central districts (the first four arrondissements) will be barred to all but residents’ vehicles, deliveries, and emergency services, transforming Paris’ Right Bank core into a semi-pedestrian zone. As a counterbalance, the number of cycle lanes will be doubled by 2020, while the city will fund an extended electric bikeshare scheme to encourage more people to get on two wheels. “I want us to be exemplary” Mayor Hidalgo has declared. She seems to be putting money where her mouth is.
If these plans sound drastic, it’s because the problem is, too. Central Paris is still traffic-snarled and often overlaid with toxic fug, evidence of a pollution splurge that the French press claims reduces the average Paris metro area citizen’s life expectancy by six months. In the past year, Paris has already taken some unprecedented measures to combat the problem. During a pollution spike this March, the city went as far as banning cars with odd-numbered license plates from entering Paris proper in a bid to cut city traffic. Coupled with free public transport, this measure had a perhaps surprising effect: It actually worked, with nitrogen dioxide and particulate levels dropping hard—by as much as 30 percent in places.
Since coming to power in March, Hidalgo has kept on a roll with anti-pollution measures to back up this tough stance. She’s already started getting rid of city buses that run on diesel, a particular national bugaboo in France because previous state policies heavily promoted its use. Now its greater particulate and nitrogen dioxide emissions have provoked an official backlash, and Paris wants engines burning the fuel off the roads. It’s only fair to point out that by creating 25 percent of Paris’ particulate pollution, road transport is just one source of the city’s problem. Another substantial chunk—23 percent in total—comes from heating with wood fires. You might expect the city to deal with this problem first—and in fact, they have. As of January 1, 2015, all wood fires will be banned within Paris proper.
There’s no denying that the plans will make it harder to get around Paris in a private vehicle. Not only will Paris’ heart become impenetrable to outsiders’ cars, major thoroughfares designated “pollution canyons” (including the Champs Élysées and the Rue de Rivoli) will be barred to all but ultra-low emitting vehicles. Perhaps predicting protest, Mayor Hidalgo has suggested as-yet vague exemptions for poorer households who use their diesel cars only occasionally, as well as exceptions for weekends.
Cyclists and electric-car drivers stand to benefit. The proposed doubling of cycle lanes across the city will be planned especially to benefit longer-distance commuters. The new lanes will make it far easier to cross from the suburbs into Paris proper by providing new routes across the Boulevard Périphérique beltway, while there will also be new east-west and north-south protected cycle arteries. Such measures might seem unthinkable in more car-dominated cities, but as Paris officials have pointed out, the proportion of Paris proper residents who don’t own a car is rising fast. In 2001, the number of car-free Parisians was at 40 percent. This year, their number has risen to 60 percent. Paris’ government may be speeding in a new direction, but they seem to have the wind behind them.