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.
France’s most comprehensive car ban marks an important moment of cooperation for oft-quarreling municipalities.
Paris may already be known for tough anti-car measures, but in pushing for change, it has long faced a major barrier: the region around it. Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s plan to ban cars from the Seine Quays, as a prime example, has been bitterly criticized by mayors of surrounding towns, and was even challenged in court by the surrounding Île-de-France region, among others.
This week, however, it seems that pattern finally broke.
On Monday, a large group of suburban municipalities agreed to ban all diesel-fueled cars built before 2000 inside the A86 Beltway, starting in July. In 2025, this will be upgraded to a ban on all diesel vehicles from before 2010, plus a ban on more polluting gasoline-powered cars built before 2006.
What’s ground-breaking about the law is the vast area in which it would ban a set of cars. The A86 is a major highway that lies far outside the borders of the official City of Paris. The new ban would thus extend far into the suburbs (themselves far more populous than the official city), into a region that has battled Paris’s mayor over anti-pollution measures in the past.
The zone it covers is very large, covering 79 of the 131 communes in the Greater Paris area, and it’s expected to remove 118,000 vehicles from the road. For this step, the participating municipalities deserve great credit. Not only will the size of their diesel-free zone have a major impact, it will also be implemented in a relatively car-dependent area where the political stakes for such a decision are potentially high.
The municipalities were able to make this happen largely thanks to a relatively new administrative structure called the Métropole de Grand Paris. The Métropole has been long considered, but was only finally inaugurated in 2016 to create better cooperation within the metropolitan region the French refer to as the Petite Couronne, or “Little Crown.” This is an area with roughly 9 million residents, containing both the city of Paris and the heavily-populated territory that forms a ring around it. (That region is commonly referred to as “suburban” in French parlance, despite many areas of high density and urban character.)
The Métropole itself doesn’t have a particularly large shared budget or much executive power, and as a result was initially damned by some as toothless at its inception. It’s too early to say that this body for inter-municipal collaboration is succeeding, but the brokering of new anti-pollution measures across is a major victory for the Métropole, and may indeed show tentative signs of a partial end to the standoff between city and suburbs.
If this talk of Parisian diesel bans sounds familiar, that’s because the city proper already introduced a similar ban two years ago. In 2016, the official city of Paris barred all pre-1997 cars from circulating within the city limits. This ban has since increased in severity each year, and will reach its ultimate extent in 2020, when all cars built before 2010 will be banished from the streets. Even though this ban restricted itself to the 2.2 million-resident official city, it was still a considerable upheaval, pushing 30,000 vehicles off the streets.
This Monday’s ruling nonetheless goes much further. The communes that worked together to forge Monday’s agreement contain collectively more than twice the population of the official city. By covering the A86 highway, it also affects drivers passing through the area from elsewhere in France—drivers of older diesel cars will now be pushed out to another beltway that skirts the Paris metro area almost entirely. The move is likely to prove controversial, which is why the ban’s endorsement by regional leaders is all the more impressive.
Valerie Pécresse, president of the wider Île-de-France region in which both Paris and the new anti-pollution zone are contained, pronounced herself in favor. While not directly responsible for the ban herself—the region she represents is larger than that covered by the Métropole de Grand Paris—Pécresse said she would like to see the implementation zone extended even further out. Given that she has been a high-profile adversary of Paris Mayor Hidalgo’s banning of cars on the Seine quays, which she held unfairly penalized suburbanites, this agreement is new and highly positive. It is possible that Pécresse is more amenable this time because the plan offers clear support for less-wealthy drivers: Participating communes will offer a means-tested subsidy for poorer owners of more polluting vehicles that will give them between €3,000 and €5,000 (about $3,400 to $5,600) to upgrade to a cleaner, newer vehicle.
If representatives from suburban municipalities have been more resistant to car restrictions, it’s partly because they have good reason to be. Residents of Greater Paris are simply more dependent on cars than people living in the hyper-dense, walkable city core. Admittedly, by international standards, Greater Paris has decent public transit links with the inner city, with extensive rail networks threaded together with bus lines and a growing tram network. These links are great at connecting the periphery with the city center. What they aren’t so great at, however, is connecting suburban towns with their neighbors.
Greater Paris is already doing something to rectify this. The Grand Paris Express is a massive metro expansion due to start partial service in 2021, one that will create over 65 new stations beyond the borders of the City of Paris. While some stations will be built on extensions of existing lines, most new stations will run on entirely new lines that don’t even enter the City of Paris. One line, the 36-station Line 15, will in fact be a rough shadow of the A86 highway. This won’t just improve connections among the suburbs, it will also offer viable alternative modes of transit, making it easier for new anti-pollution measures like new diesel ban to gain acceptance.
Then again, there’s yet another key factor making it much easier to push through legislation. France (like Britain) has already agreed to ban gasoline-powered cars by 2040—a date that’s far enough away that it doesn’t force immediate action, but not so far off as to be meaningless. Paris is going further by promising a ban on gasoline cars as early as 2030—still five years after all of Norway introduces its own ban.
Greater Paris’s upcoming ban may be the most comprehensive France has yet seen, but it’s responding to a wind of change blowing across Europe. It won’t just help to clear the polluted air around Paris—it also makes one thing clear. Greater Paris is already preparing for a petroleum- and diesel-free future.