A woman relaxing on the banks of the Seine in summer 2016. The wall behind her contains a major road tunnel, closed to traffic last autumn. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

The City of Light surrendered its streets to the private automobile in the 1960s and ‘70s. Today, under siege from smog and traffic, Paris is leading some of Europe’s most aggressive efforts to fight back.

It’s rush hour in Paris, and here on the banks of the Seine during an early March evening, it’s easy to see why drivers are grumpy.

Last September, the lower quays of central Paris’s two-tiered Seine embankment closed to all motorized vehicles, limiting drivers of the double-decked waterfront highway to the upper quay. Now, at 6 p.m., the upper quay is packed with cars creeping home to the suburbs—still moving, but in a viscous molasses-like flow rather than a steady stream. Meanwhile the lower quays, now reserved for bicycles and pedestrians, are all but empty, with just a cyclist here, a skater there. The landscaping that will eventually turn them into a lush succession of lawns, copses, and flowerbeds is only beginning to emerge, so the quayside still looks like a road—a road you can’t drive on.

The closure seems to visually troll the commuters above with its flagrant emptiness. If the tired suburbanites trapped in traffic above protest that their journey home is getting longer to make space for the odd rollerblader, right now, it’s hard to blame them.

Paris City Hall hasn’t shut down the quayside without good reason, however. The move is part of a concerted effort to reduce the number of private cars on its streets. Not only is Paris clearing cars from its quays, it’s banning the most heavily polluting vehicles from the city altogether, having created a system of shields detailing a vehicle’s age and emissions that all cars must display or face a fine. Already it has instigated alternate driving days or total driving bans during pollution peaks. Moving in from the river, Paris will slash the number of lanes on other major axes and turn whole neighborhoods into car-calmed, pedestrian- and bike-dominated zones. It is already in the process of redesigning seven major squares to reduce vehicle lanes and parking while increasing pedestrian space and greenery.

These are the kinds of measures you’ve been hearing about for years from bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen (metropolitan population 1.28 million). But Paris is different: It’s a vast metropolitan region with over 11 million inhabitants who are frequently, albeit not exclusively connected by a network of car-intensive arteries. On this scale, this kind of automotive regulation is something entirely new—and impressively strident.

The Seine’s Lower Quay — then called the Voie Pompidou — in 2008, before cars were barred. Jean-François Gornet/Flickr

Paris is doing all this because it needs to. The French capital’s reputation for beauty and charm may still be repeated to the point of cliché, but during the 1960s and ‘70s, this city—like so many others—was profoundly reshaped by car-centric planning. The postwar automotive boom turned the city’s quiet avenues into gasoline-filled arteries, flattening historic buildings and throttling the city core with a beltway that has become a byword for congestion and pollution. That inner Paris survived this onslaught in largely good visual shape is remarkable.

Equally remarkable is the fact that Paris has managed to muster a political movement limiting the future role of cars. It’s a fightback that authorities in London or New York would no doubt struggle to replicate. The story of how Paris let cars eat it away—and then bit back—is worth a closer look.

This is Part 1 of CityLab’s report on how the battle over the streets of Paris shaped the modern city. In Part 2 next week, we’ll look at the debate over the future of the controversial highway that surrounds it—and the fate of the increasingly strained Paris metropolitan region.

“Under the Cobblestones, the Beach”

That the streets of Paris have become a contentious issue should come as no surprise. In few other major cities have the streets been a more central political flashpoint.

The very look of modern Paris itself was created by a desire to control the street plan—and the people who used it. Baron Haussmann’s massive demolition and rebuilding campaign on the mid-19th century eliminated the crooked medieval alleys and created a city of broad boulevards; one justification was that wider streets were harder to barricade, thus reducing the risk of popular insurrection against the state.

An engraving showing the Seine in 1870. On the right is the broad sweep of Boulevard Saint Germain, an avenue smashed through numerous small streets and alleys by Baron Haussmann. Look closely at the river and you will see barges landing on the lower quays. (Wikimedia)

Haussmann’s new streets have nonetheless been barricaded many times—in 1870 during the Paris Commune, during the 1944 Liberation of Paris, and during the Events of May 1968, when left-wing demonstrations and general strikes ground the city to a halt. Linking car policies to revolution may seem like a stretch, but there are clear echoes. The barricades of 1968 sought to sabotage both the role of the streets as sites for through traffic and the state control that the street plan represented. Classic 1968 slogans such as “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“under the cobblestones, the beach!”) suggest that stripping away urban infrastructure could also liberate citizens from social control, allowing a freer, more carefree mode of life to (re)emerge.

The remains of barriers left after the crushing of the 1871 Paris Commune on the Rue de Rivoli, a street partly remodeled by Haussmann. (Public domain)

While its initial framing was radical, we can see the promise of the slogan played out in current city policy. The Seine’s lower quays were first closed in 2002 to create a (temporary) beach; the Paris Plage started its monthly August occupation of the riverside highway with deckchairs, boxed palm trees, and sand.

Conservative forces (albeit conservative with a decidedly small “c”) also joined this revolution against cars. The Green movement developed early and strongly in the city because it grew almost seamlessly from campaigns for historical preservation.

“We’ve been active in Paris politics for over 30 years now,” says David Belliard, a Paris city councillor who leads the Green group in the city assembly. “But campaigns to preserve Paris’s architectural coherence predate that by a long time. There are so many sites in the city to which people are attached—not just locals but people from all over the world. Even in the 1970s, when city policy was all about cars, there was still strong resistance. The Lower Quays on the Seine, for example, had been car-free up until then, and there were people who fought their transformation.”

Boats on the quay next to Paris City Hall in 1932. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Indeed, the city has been agonizing over modern threats to its character since at least the 1960s, when Jacques Tati’s witty satire Playtime presented a nightmare Paris (actually a huge expensive film set) of antiseptic modernist architecture, automotive chaos, and concrete banality. For French musicians associated with the hippie movement, the paradise that they, like Joni Mitchell, protested had been paved to put up a parking lot was not uncommonly an urban one now buried under concrete and asphalt.

These objections did little to halt the takeover of Paris’s streets by cars. Under President Pompidou, the city built wider, faster roads along the Seine and in the cavity created by the demolition of the Les Halles produce market. The Tour Montparnasse arose, a skyscraper whose notoriety has overshadowed the no-less dramatic demolition and reconstruction of the area surrounding it. Meanwhile, the external border of the historic city was ringed with a broad beltway, the Boulevard Périphérique, fully completed in 1973. This beltway would conduct traffic not just around the city, but act as a form of vast roundabout for vehicles on journeys across France.

Paris’s Boulevard Périphérique, showing the city “gates” where cars can access the inner city. The roads outline corresponds almost exactly to the border of Paris Intramuros, the city’s historic heart. (Tibidibtibo/Wikimedia)

Such grand constructions were in keeping with what almost all planners thought was necessary for a modern city at the time. In fact, by contemporary standards, the Parisian solutions were rather elegant. By taking over the lower quays of the Seine, which hitherto had been a waterside offloading point for river-borne barges, the city was able to thread faster lanes through the city with a minimum of demolition. Knocking down the Les Halles market—a hugely unpopular move—succeeded in clearing space for a major road tunnel that streamlined access to the city core.

The Boulevard Périphérique’s construction also avoided much demolition because it was built on the site of 19th century fortifications, demolished in the 1920s and only partly filled since with temporary buildings. Compared to London’s contemporary (and partly aborted) plan to smash elevated highways into its core, the Parisian solution was almost delicate.

That doesn’t mean it worked. Now flanked with busy roads on both its upper and lower quays, the Seine’s banks became synonymous with fetid air, screeching brakes, and honking horns. And while the void left by the demolished fortifications made a tempting site for a beltway, it was far closer to the city’s heart than you would expect for a cross-country through-route, throttling inner Paris with a choker of cars and providing an impassable barrier that not only perpetuated, but actively encouraged, the notorious disconnect between Paris and its so-called suburbs.

Le Smog

A haze of pollution hangs over the Eiffel Tower in December 2016. (Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes)

It’s no wonder that the city is now trying to cut the number of vehicles. The city’s air quality, especially during wintertime bouts of intense smog, is among the worst in Europe. According to Paris Transit Commissioner Christophe Najdovski, 90 percent of Parisians living within the city limits experience polluted air on a daily basis, while up to 4 million people across the wider metro area experience poor air quality. Motor vehicles create the bulk of this problem, producing 66 percent of Paris’s nitrous oxide emissions and 56 percent of its particulate matter.

That the Gallic car-fighting efforts have been partially successful of late is due in part to the capital’s unusual boundaries. The official city contains 2.2 million residents, while the wider metro area holds 11.8 million. Its frontiers—which frame an area referred to as Paris Intramuros, or “Paris between the walls”—have not expanded since 1860, meaning that even some historic, densely built neighborhoods are deemed suburbs. This means the electorate Paris City Hall has to cater to are all inner-city dwellers, relatively few of whom rely on cars for daily transit. The commuters most affected by car-calming policies cast their votes in suburban municipalities. And they are not happy.

Julien Costatini, lawyer for the advocacy group the French Association of Citizen Drivers (FFAC), says that Paris City Hall is overlooking the difficulties of navigating the city once you pass the borders of Paris Intramuros. “Instead of making public transit more attractive, the city is forcing people away from cars. As things stand, transit in Paris Intramuros is very efficient, but when you cross the Périphérique it’s a different matter.”

The Boulevard Périphérique during Climate Day in November 2015, when cars were barred from the road to mark the opening of the COP21 climate talks. (Reuters/Benoit Tessier)  

Paris is working on improving suburban transit. The Grand Paris Express, an expansion of suburban metro lines, is in progress, and the city is also weighing schemes like new gondola links. But as Costatini notes, these are still unfinished, while the city’s anti-car measures are already in place. Hanging over this process is a sense of city-sponsored divide-and-rule that needlessly pits different social groups against each other as enemies.

“The idea of inevitable conflict makes me sad,” Costatini says. “Before I got involved with the FFAC, I was pretty much your classic dumb driver. Since I started activism, however, I have been in touch with far more cyclists and motorbike riders and my behavior and attitude on the road has changed. We need to break down this attitude where cyclists are eco-terrorists and drivers are just dumb machos. We need to find a way to respect each other, and right now I don’t see the city helping with that.”

The city, as you would expect, disputes this. It offers drivers of older, more polluting cars financial incentives to buy cleaner new ones, while the metro area’s public transit authorities charge the same cost for a travel pass covering the entire region as they do for one covering only the city center. “Studies show that the ‘suburbanites’ who drive cars are by no means all poor,” says Najdovski, the city’s transit commissioner, who insists that the affordability of public transit dispenses with the idea that poorer suburbanites with dirty old cars are being victimized. “Maintaining a car has a cost, in both Paris and the suburbs. Lone drivers in private cars do so because they have the necessary resources. Others, who can’t afford them, have already become accustomed to using public transport, which is much less expensive.”

Furthermore, pollution affects millions of people beyond the city border, says Amélie Fritz, head of communication at city pollution monitor Airparif. “We still have a problem with five major pollutants at the heart of the Paris agglomeration, but also along major transit routes. Pollution isn’t a problem that simply stops at the border of the city.”

Airparif’s maps bear this out. This plan shows the heaviest concentrations of NO2 across the Paris region. While Paris Intramuros has the highest concentrations, there is also a clear problem in the area called the Petite Couronne, the “Little Crown” of four urban regions that directly encircle the historic city and contain the densest suburban populations.

NO2 pollution across Greater Paris. Source: Airparif

There is one area where the FFAC have a strong point. Air pollution has actually been going down across the city for a while. According to Airparif’s figures, 2007 saw 44 serious pollution peaks. By 2016, this number had dropped to 19. This is thanks not to city legislation but stiffer vehicle emissions standards introduced across the E.U., which has historically lagged behind the U.S. in this department. Speed limits and restrictions on traffic are also helping.

One factor hasn’t helped: the “dieselization” of the car fleet, a policy that until recently was actively promoted by the French state. Thrifty diesel-powered cars have long been popular in Europe, in part because their carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions are relatively lower than gasoline-powered cars. But diesels tend to emit higher amounts of smog-forming pollutants.

Airparif

Paris’s measures, however, aren’t solely about reducing pollution across the city as a whole. They’re also about reducing concentrations around major routes, so that nearby residents don’t have to pay with their health to keep people who live elsewhere mobile. The diagram below, showing a diagram of the Seine quayside, shows how intensely local air quality can be. Preliminary studies show that, even on the upper quays, pollution is 10 percent lower on the riverside than it is on the land side of the road. Walk down to the now pedestrianized lower quay, and pollution levels drop by a quarter. Even in a city where E.U. emission controls are driving down pollution, city-specific laws may still be needed to both push the reduction further and sweep away its more noxious concentrations.

Airparif

It’s not yet clear if the closure of the lower quays has reduced pollution nearby; figures will be released next month. But, unless you’re a grumpy commuter trapped in traffic nearby, it feels nigh-on impossible to disagree with the city’s decision to close them. Walking the quayside at sunset, almost nothing seems more beautiful than the parade of grand honey-colored buildings lining the banks, or their wild cubist reflections on the wind-whipped river. The last of the evening sun floodlights the rooftops and a small group of young people are drinking beer and laughing, not so loudly that they disturb a nearby man daydreaming on the quayside, absent-mindedly poking the water with a stick. In ten years, a visitor will struggle to believe that cars were ever allowed to dominate this space.

In the shorter term, however, Paris’s crusade against driving will continue to inspire fierce debate. The city’s next phase involves the suburban highway that girds the historic capital; in ten years, it, too, may look very different than it does now.

Next Week: Part 2

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