Pedestrians walk along the Champs Élysées during a car-free day. Jacky Naegelen/Reuters

In four years’ time, the ban will get tighter still.

If your car was built before 1997, don’t even think about driving it into Paris after this month. From July 1, the French capital will ban vehicles older than 19 years from driving in the city on workdays. Motorcycles will face yet tighter restrictions, with a driving ban on all two-wheeled motor vehicles made before 2000. Anyone caught driving an older vehicle will face a fine whose potential severity ranges from modest (€35) to biting (€450). While these vehicles will still be allowed on the roads before 8 a.m. and after 8 p.m., and without restriction on weekends, the new rules represent some of the toughest restrictions on drivers yet introduced by a European city.  

The new ban may be strict, but it sits quite comfortably among a host of emissions-slashing rules brought in recently by the city of Paris. Following huge build-ups of pollutants during winter 2014, the city introduced temporary car bans until levels started to abate. After some demonstrable success in improving appalling air quality in this way, Paris has gone on to introduce occasional periodic driving bans for such hotspots as the Champs Élysées. What’s more, the upcoming ban on pre-1997 vehicles will be further tightened in the near future. In 2020, any car made before 2010 will be banned from daytime driving, while the weekday ban will also be extended to 24-hours.

It may be tempting to paint Paris as a lone eco-warrior, fighting pollution levels that at times have been among the worst in the world. But the new ban rests substantially on anti-pollution action taken at the national level in France—action that has actually been watered down thanks to pressure from Paris’s mayor, among others. The upcoming old-car ban in fact relies on a new national system of classifying cars according to their emissions levels. Starting July 1, French cars will be grouped into six categories depending on the degree of pollution they create. Drivers can then apply to receive a display disc for their windshield. Such discs (which are free for the next 6 months, and €5 after) won’t as yet be compulsory across France, though drivers of zero and very-low emitting vehicles will get some occasional perks (such as priority parking) that make applying worth their while.

The new windshield discs will, however, be obligatory in Paris, where the most polluting of the six categories (all vehicles registered before December 31, 1996) will face the weekday ban. If anything, the new categories could have been tighter. Originally, the national plan was to divide cars into four categories rather than six, in order to place restrictions on the most polluting fourth. In Paris, this could have meant up to 10 percent of the city’s private vehicle fleet being forced off the roads, a radical change liable to cause an uncomfortable backlash. Mayors from Paris, Versailles and Grenoble thus petitioned (successfully) for the diluted, more nuanced system being brought in this July.

The new rules will still affect up to 30,000 vehicles currently registered in Paris. The moves won’t be popular with everyone (and will likely affect people on lower incomes more) but Paris’s political structure has arguably helped it achieve greater acceptance. As a mayor governing only the 2.2 million citizens living in the historic core of Paris’s wider metro area, Anne Hidalgo is answerable to an electorate who already rely substantially on public transit and who suffer more than most the long-term effects of car commuter-related pollution. It may be a jolt for older vehicle owners, but Paris seems to be ready for change.

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