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.
The city vows to fight for its plans to pedestrianize a major thoroughfare along the river Seine.
One of France’s most dramatic urban transformations is under threat.
On Wednesday, Paris’s Administrative Court ruled that the city’s decision to ban cars from a promenade along the river Seine was illegal. For a city administration that approached the area’s car-calming, anti-pollution measures with a striking single-mindedness of mission, this decision is a bombshell. If Paris City Hall’s already-planned appeal fails, heavy car traffic will again return to what had become a riverside walkway reserved exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists.
This is one of the most famous, well-loved strips of urban land anywhere on the planet, and the scheme to remodel the area probably had the highest profile of any pro-pedestrian project underway anywhere. What makes the ruling’s timing especially sharp is that new statistics this week showed that road traffic on the streets adjacent to the quayside had actually fallen.
The court’s objections to the policy are clear enough. It was, the judges ruled, based on preliminary impact studies that “included inaccuracies, omissions and inadequacies concerning the effects of the project.” Furthermore, the legal article invoked to give Mayor Anne Hidalgo the right to bar cars from the waterside does not actually grant her that power, the court said; at most, the article means she’s only allowed to restrict traffic at certain times.
Until the appeal is heard, the car ban will remain in place, but there’s no denying the intensity of feeling around the issue. When the city barred cars from the Right Bank’s quayside in September 2016, following a routine temporary closure during the summer months, it returned a loud, congested space that was distinctively hostile to pedestrians into a strikingly beautiful and inviting promenade.
It also drove a lot of motorists mad, frustrated as they were by a perceived uptick in nearby traffic as cars were displaced to parallel streets—especially along the upper section of the Seine’s two-tier quay, where gridlock sometimes ensued.
This week’s figures show that congestion has nonetheless fallen again quite sharply. Last month, the Right Bank’s non-pedestrianized Upper Quay saw its morning peak-hour traffic drop by 11.2 percent compared to January 2017. On the Left Bank’s Upper Quay (which stands above a lower quay that has been car-free since 2012), the drop has been a massive 28.8 percent.
Admittedly, these figures were released by City Hall, but a recent article in newspaper Le Parisien tested the figures anecdotally by trying to cross the busiest stretch during an evening rush hour and found that traffic was indeed reasonably fluid and fast moving. If City Hall is trying to send a message that central Paris isn’t the best place to drive your car—and that some other route or public transit is preferable—it seems that drivers have been listening.
Valérie Pécresse, the premier of the Île-de-France region that surrounds Paris and is home to many commuters, nonetheless suggested that the city had grossly underestimated the impact of the pedestrianization, damning the scheme as “a terrible mess.” Meanwhile motorists groups have accused Hidalgo of adopting an “authoritarian method” in her persecution of drivers. Indeed, her perceived toughness has made her such a target for attacks that this satirical article suggests some Parisians have started blaming her when it rains, or they’re hungry.
So far, Hidalgo has played true to her firm public image in her response to the court’s decision, issuing a statement Wednesday calling it “intolerable” and “a return to prioritizing car traffic over public health and… an urban highway to a park in the city’s heart.”
The changes the city has instigated on the quayside (some plants here, some benches there) are admittedly reversible—in fact, they were legally obligated to be. But the pedestrianization plan is such a cornerstone of the mayor’s program that to give it up would represent not just a major diversion in the city’s plans to be an anti-pollution flagship. It would also be a disempowering loss of face for the mayor. Make no mistake, Paris is gearing up for a fight.