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.
A long-discussed plan to permanently ban cars from the river’s quayside gained approval Monday, after a tough debate.
It’s really happening. On Monday, the elected assembly of Paris voted to permanently ban cars from a 3.3 kilometer (2 mile) stretch of the Right Bank of the River Seine, with a view to turning it into a shaded, grassy promenade and cycle way. Renderings of this beautiful plan have been floating around for some time (and have already been covered by CityLab), but without official approval they always seemed somewhat utopian. Not anymore.
Now the annual summer closure of the Seine quayside to cars is set to go on indefinitely, with the roadway gradually being replaced by bike lanes, benches, and flower beds. Despite the plan’s obvious appeal to the eye, however, the project has only been voted through in the teeth of some remarkably passionate opposition.
It’s not the addition of acres of new parkland, cycling infrastructure and sports facilities that has mobilized opponents per se. It is the permanent removal of the speedy urban highway that currently runs along the bank. Pro-car advocates say this will merely intensify traffic elsewhere and further catalyze central Paris’s conversion into a Ville Musée, a photogenic husk from which all real life and business has been removed. The debate over the future of a narrow stretch of urban riverfront thus became a battleground for the future of the city as a whole.
The key sticking point is that the quaysides are currently key cross-routes for cars. Originally, the lower quays in question were narrow wharfs at water level where barges could load and off-load, overlooked by another tier of street-level quayside up on the embankment. In the 1960s, those lower quays were converted into major thoroughfares across central Paris. This solution allowed the creation of new roads without major demolitions, no doubt considered elegant by the standards of the time and definitely less destructive than many an urban highway of the era.
The opinions of planners have nonetheless long since turned against the idea of turning a central waterfront into an environment hostile to pedestrians, and Paris started closing parts of the quayside seasonally in 2002. They did this during July and August to create temporary artificial beaches as part of the Paris-Plages project, a hugely popular plan that allowed Parisians to lounge right by the water, opening them up to the idea that maybe the city could find better uses for the quay than a mini-highway.
This year, City Hall extended the annual quay closures into September, a far busier time for traffic that Paris’s famously quiet Augusts. There’s no denying that this decision increased traffic on other roads, but the effects have been milder than expected. This September, the number of cars on the upper quayside during the morning rush hour rose by 73 percent compared to the same period last year. That may sound drastic, but it apparently only increased journey time along this stretch of road by one minute, from 14 to 15 minutes. On other, longer cross routes, however, traffic did in fact slow down.
It’s hardly surprising that car commuters noticed and resented the difference. A public survey asked 292 local respondents for their opinion on the pedestrianization plan, and only 45 were positive, versus 219 negative. Fewer than 300 opinions alone may not be weighty enough to effect a policy U-turn, but it was hardly a resounding thumbs-up for the plan.
Still, the Conseil de Paris voted the plan through, and for the administration of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, extended car commute times may not necessarily have been considered an entirely bad thing. Beset with filthy air, Paris is currently undergoing a pretty comprehensive war on pollution, with far better cycling infrastructure, new electric buses, reduced fares for public transit from far-flung suburbs and the staggered introduction of a ban on diesel vehicles. No politician relishes actively antagonizing their electorate, but many drivers commuting into Paris live outside the limits of the mayor’s political reach and don’t vote in city elections. If traffic delays actually discourage driving and encourage people onto public transit in the long run, the positive knock-on effects could easily outweigh drivers’ short-term frustration.
As for visitors to Paris, the new car-free riverbank should be a delight. At the Tuileries end of its 3.3 kilometer length, pedestrians will be able to walk across the Pont Royal bridge and onto another 2.5 kilometer (1.5 mile) long pedestrian promenade on the Left Bank, set up in 2013 on a stretch of quay less significant to road traffic. Paris will be thus threaded through by a newly calmed green seam bisecting much of its heart. The core of a big city should never be lifeless or purely decorative, but the cleaner, greener city that the pedestrianization plan looks forward to will surely attract, not divert, more people from the heart of Paris.