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.
Mayor Anne Hidalgo shifted her defense of the pedestrianization plan, winning with an argument that a car ban protects the city’s heritage and tourism.
In Paris, the Seine Quays can stay closed to cars after all. That’s the verdict today from Paris’s Administrative Court, which has ruled that the city’s pedestrianization of the roads along its central river can remain in place.
The pedestrianization plan, a flagship policy of Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s green overhaul of France’s capital, has been in jeopardy for months after opponents, who included motorists’ groups and representatives of suburban districts surrounding the city, got a court to agree in February that the closure had been based on inaccurate evidence about pollution and traffic reduction.
Today’s rejection of that complaint is thus a major victory for Paris City Hall and has even drawn expressions of relief from members of the opposition party, which welcomed an end to what it called a legal “soap opera.” It must also be a relief for Hidalgo, who filmed a personal message celebrating the ruling. Indeed, news magazine L’Obs has hypothesized that City Hall’s reaction is no less than “un grand ‘ouf’”—“a big ‘phew.’”
The quayside car ban is a subject CityLab has been following for some time. First proposed in 2015, the move was an undeniably ground-breaking one, taking more than three kilometers of one of the most beautiful stretches of urban waterway in the world and reserving it for the exclusive use of pedestrians and cyclists. The ultimate view is to remodel the waterside as an urban garden. The plan became a major struggle because that stretch of quayside was already in heavy use as a major thoroughfare across Paris, constructed on what had been a river dock in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By confining cars to the upper quays, opponents protested, the city was drastically slowing traffic across the city, in a way that penalized suburban commuters at the expense of leisure-seekers living in the city core.
This, however, was not the key hinge of the court case against the city. The legal problem was not that traffic had increased, but that the city had made poorly substantiated claims about traffic and pollution reduction as part of their argument for the car ban. Indeed, reports in newspaper Le Parisien yesterday suggest that while cars and their pollution may have been displaced from the pedestrianized lower quayside, they had not in fact reduced in the surrounding area or across the city as a whole. As recently as Monday, another court ruled that halting the pedestrianization on these grounds was indeed valid.
Rather than redo their impact assessment, the city tried a different route, and a new application with which the Administrative Court ruled today. It rephrased its argument for closing the lower quays, this time citing the scheme as a benefit that would protect Paris’s heritage and tourism and help to preserve a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was this argument that the Administrative Court upheld—although still leaving the city open to potential appeal against the ruling.
So what does the decision mean beyond Paris itself? Hidalgo has developed something of a reputation among city leaders as a green pioneer who takes decisions others are fearful of. In a time where the awareness of a need for radical climate action is ever growing, overcoming Paris’s pedestrianization setback will cheer many up. Mark Watts, executive director of C40 Cities, described the decision in a statement as “fantastic news for the citizens of Paris” and for a world seeking action on climate change:
Earlier this month the IPCC warned that we need unprecedented action to keep global temperature rise to within safe limits. Transforming this World Heritage Site that was once the preserve of highly polluting vehicles into a wonderful new space for walking and cycling is precisely the type of bold transformation that we need to see in the world’s great cities.
There’s no denying that, along with a few other missteps, the affair has left Hidalgo’s local standing a little battered, albeit not irrevocably, after a campaign against the car ban that has tended to target her personally. Today’s decision could possibly be the extra boost she needs to get her record, and her administration, back on track.