The Lower Quays of the River Seine in Paris, just after they were permanently pedestrianised in September 2016 Charles Platiau/Reuters

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Aerial view of narrow strips of land divided by water, some with houses on them.
    Environment

    The Dutch Can’t Save Us From Rising Seas

    Dutch engineers are renowned for their ability to keep cities dry. But their approach doesn’t necessarily translate to an American context.

  2. Equity

    Why Are So Many People In San Jose Fighting Housing for Teachers?

    The school system’s plan to build affordable apartment units for the city’s teachers has triggered a fierce backlash in one affluent area.

  3. Slogan projected on the Eiffel Tower for World Climate Change Conference
    Environment

    What Local Climate Actions Would Have the Greatest Impact

    In light of even more dire news about our warming planet, leading thinkers tell us the one thing cities and states could do to cut emissions significantly—and fast.

  4. The interior of Grand Central Station
    Design

    Saving Grand Central, 40 Years Later: a Cautionary Tale

    The Supreme Court ruling that rescued the icon also opened the door for other, more controversial preservation cases.

  5. Equity

    Netflix’s ‘Stay Here’ Is a Baffling Show About Renovating Airbnbs

    Binge-watch it if you’re not sure what to do with your extra house.