Traffic on Paris's Champs-Elysees.
Evening traffic on Paris's Champs-Élysées. Charles Platiau/Reuters

A new bill would let cities charge drivers for using the road. Will local governments jump at the chance?

If the French government gets its way, drivers will soon have to pay to drive into France’s big cities.

The announcement comes in the first draft of a new blockbuster transit bill that was released to the media last Wednesday and is due to be voted on in the spring. Among a legion of new measures (most of them quite small scale) comes a new law that would allow any city of over 100,000 inhabitants to levy a congestion charge on vehicles seeking to access their city cores. While the decision to introduce the charges would ultimately rest with local rather than national authorities, the bill could bring about major changes in driving habits and pollution levels across the country. It also sets the scene for a major stand-off between drivers and the authorities.

The charges laid out by the proposed law are fairly modest. Cities of over 100,000 residents would be permitted to charge cars €2.50 (about $2.87) each time they enter a congestion-controlled zone; larger vehicles could be charged up to €10 ($11.50). All charges would be paid online, though the exact method is not stipulated and could vary from place to place. For cities of 500,000 or more, that charge could rise to €5 ($5.74), and up to €20 ($22.94) for trucks. Compared to London’s £11.50 ($14.90) charge for cars to drive into the city core, this is fairly modest, but the cost is still high enough to act as a major deterrent for regular driving.

The draft bill contains wording that suggests these zones will be large—French media are discussing electronic toll barriers “at the entrance” to cities, rather than limited to only the knottiest streets in a city’s core. As a sweetener, France would also introduce a €400 tax bonus for commuters who cycled or car-pooled to work.

Whether local authorities would actually take up the government’s offer and introduce the charges is not fully clear. In the past, the city of Paris has rejected the idea because it risks creating a two-tier system that prices out poorer drivers without deterring the wealthy. So far the city has preferred such measures as phasing out the most polluting vehicles, an approach also adopted in France’s second city, Lyon. Paris has also introduced car-free days and closed some congested routes entirely to vehicles. National governments have until now shared this reticence on charging, focusing elsewhere, such as on (also ambitious) plans to phase out gasoline-powered cars by 2040.

Following the draft bill’s release, however, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said she was not necessarily against it. The measure might work, she suggested, if it were not restricted to Paris’s official borders, but also covered parts of the wider metro area. It would also need to compensate or even offer incentives for drivers who chose to use the roads outside of peak hours, she said.

Greater Paris is nonetheless far from being France’s only heavily congested urban area. Traffic jams are even worse in Marseille, France’s third city, while congestion also slows road journeys in Bordeaux and Montpellier by a third. Any measure that abates that congestion and encourages a modal shift to cleaner transit will surely have an effect on pollution in general, and carbon emissions in particular.

Or would it? The lessons to be learned from London’s experience with congestion charging are positive, but nonetheless mixed. When the city started charging vehicles to enter a central congestion charge zone in 2003, the number of private cars in the area did indeed plummet, resulting in air quality improvements and less congestion overall. In the intervening years, however, traffic levels have crept up again, powered no longer by private drivers but by delivery vehicles, taxis, and Ubers, whose use has all grown and, as businesses, are not necessarily deterred by charging. London’s example thus shows that road pricing can indeed cut private car use, but that other measures, such as surge pricing, might be needed to curb the commercial vehicle use that takes its place.

If fully adopted, France’s congestion charge plan may well succeed in reducing private car use on the country’s urban roads. To continue from this to slash the number of vehicles on the road overall, however, the law may well ultimately need to find some way to evolve and refine itself.

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