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.
Pro-car protestors publish Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s direct telephone number. But that doesn’t mean she’s prepared to listen.
If you’re sick of Paris’s traffic jams, go ahead and tell the mayor directly. That’s the gist of a motorists’ campaign launched Monday, which shared Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s direct phone number in a bid to encourage protestors to jam it.
Working under the hashtag #disleaAnne (“#tellAnne” in English), the motorist pressure group “40 Million Drivers” plans to do to City Hall’s switchboards what they say the administration has done to the roads: clog them up. Their goal is to ensure the mayor can no longer ignore their calls, and, more generally, force her to the negotiating table over the future of Paris’s streets.
The spat—and the distinctly personal assault on one figure—is a sign of how heated the city’s debate around cars has become. The invective has unquestionably come from both sides. Striking an anything-but-conciliatory note, last week Hidalgo suggested that some of her detractors were “big machos,” while others came from the “fachosphere”—the sphere of the extreme right.
So why all the hubbub? In recent years, Paris has adopted some of the most systematically anti-car policies of any major world city, with a pro-bike, pro-pedestrian ethos that has so far has only been surpassed by smaller cities like Copenhagen. Older cars have been banned from the roads during weekdays, part of an ongoing plan to remove more polluting vehicles from the city. The lower quays of the Seine, until recently one of the busiest east-west routes across the city, have been pedestrianized, while the Rue de Rivoli, the next major east-west axis to the river’s north, is due to have its car lanes reduced as well.
Car space is being slashed in many major squares, while car-free days have been introduced annually as a form of publicity campaign for a future without automobiles. The overall, frankly declared goal: to reach a point where the city is essentially car-free—a potentially reachable goal in a country which plans to ban gas-fueled cars by 2040.
The backlash has been spirited. Commuters have complained that the closed routes along the Seine have left other roads crowded and excruciatingly slow. What’s more, they feel they’ve been demonized by the city when some of their daily habits—such as driving heavily polluting diesel cars—have been actively encouraged by past national governments. They’ve been going to Twitter to share horror stories; some have talked of needing 15 minutes to drive 200 meters along the Left Bank, while others recount being stuck in jams next to empty cycle lanes.
There does seem to be some tentative backing to these claims. Across the Paris region, congestion apparently increased 8 percent between 2015 and 2016, though given the size of the region and the fact that the quayside was only fully barred to cars last autumn, the exact causes aren’t instantly clear.
Are these discontents right to complain? To an extent, yes. Mayor Hidalgo isn’t entirely wrong to suggest that some of her harshest critics are from the aforementioned fachosphére—but certainly not all her critics fall under that umbrella.
Hidalgo’s suggestion that critics of anti-car policies are essentially trolls—or at least dominated by them—reveals something about City Hall’s attitude. This is a battle where the pro-driver camp is not to be accommodated, but reduced by attrition. If Hidalgo and her transit commissioner Christophe Najdovski have been ignoring motorists’ groups, it’s probably because they have zero concessions they’re prepared to make.
It might seem remarkable that she would play a role in setting up this battleground. The city can maintain this stance because many motorists who use Paris’s roads don’t live within its narrow limits and, thus, don’t vote in mayoral elections. Suburbanites aren’t being entirely disregarded, however. The support that Paris City Hall has shown for the huge public transit expansion across Paris’s suburbs shows that the city is far from indifferent to the needs of people living beyond the city core. It’s just that, while most cities have to balance the needs of people living in the city core to cut pollution with the needs of others to use their cars, Paris’s narrow boundaries mean its mayor doesn’t have to walk a tightrope on this issue.
Indeed, the mayor’s job is to represent her electorate. Hidalgo is able to go tough on cars for the simple reason that she has the electoral mandate to do so, even if her electorate’s support for her policies is by no means unanimous. The response to criticism has thus been not to cave, but to push even further with pro-bike, pro-pedestrian policies, including plans to expand the car-free zone along the riverbank.
This might be painful for some, but so are the deadly long-term effects of air pollution. It will be fascinating to see if this week’s campaign creates a mutual softening of tone on both sides of the debate, or if the trenches only end up getting dug even deeper.