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Cars Are Vanishing From Paris

The share of journeys made by car in the city has fallen by nearly half, and the trend is only accelerating.

Bright parasols, wooden sun loungers and expanses of golden sand suddenly appear every summer on what was once a traffic-clogged, 3.3 kilometer road along the banks of the River Seine in the heart of Paris.

The so-called “Paris Plages” have been coming to the picturesque waterside location since 2016, after Mayor Anne Hidalgo, following two years of consultation, decided to take the controversial step of closing the road to motor vehicles.

“This used to be such a stressful corner of the city,” says Françoise Genet, 38, sipping on a glass of lemonade as her two boys dig around in the sand. “It’s not quite the Côte d’Azur, but now I almost feel like I’m on vacation here.”

Under Mayor Hidalgo, Paris has done as much as any city in the world to wage a war on cars amid a growing awareness of the damaging impact they have on cities.

Passenger cars emit huge amounts of pollution and are an inefficient use of finite public space. They are Europe’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the leading killer of children. Copenhagen has calculated that for each kilometer cycled by a resident, society reaps a benefit of €0.64 ($0.64), whereas each kilometer driven costs us €0.71 in impacts on health, safety and the environment.

But over recent years, Paris has implemented an array of measures to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists and transit while bringing car use screeching to a halt. In addition to pedestrianizing the Seine’s quayside, the French capital has banned heavily polluting diesel cars through the creation of a low-emission zone (which will become progressively more stringent from now until 2030), reduced drivers’ access to major streets, expanded green areas, and promoted other ways getting around the city. (During the pandemic, 50 kilometers of cycle routes were added to the existing 700 kilometer network).

As a result, the proportion of journeys by car in Paris has dropped about 45 percent since 1990, according to a paper published by the journal Les Cahiers Scientifiques du Transport. At the same time, the use of public transit has risen by 30 percent and the share of cyclists has increased tenfold.

Separate research released by the Parisian Urban Planning Workshop (Apur) found the number of cars in the city has fallen — more and more quickly — every year since 2012. That means that while nine out of ten French people have a car, only three in ten Parisians do. “A lot of what has been happening in Paris is very exciting,” says Rachel Aldred, a professor of transport at London’s Westminster University. “It is seizing the opportunity to change.”

Aldred says that in order for European nations to meet their climate goals, other cities will have to follow the same route. The European Union aims to have 100 climate-neutral cities by 2030 — a goal that will require car use to fall by 40 to 50 percent. “That requires substantial changes,” she adds, “but I think that big changes are possible.”

The latest projects in Paris include enforcing a new citywide speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour and establishing car-free zones outside schools. One of the most radical new measures is a “peaceful zone,” set to launch in 2024, that will make it illegal to drive across the city center without stopping (albeit with exceptions for various groups of drivers), effectively banning cars that aren’t absolutely essential — a policy the city estimates could cut through-journeys by up to 70 percent. Meanwhile, wider efforts to create a 15-minute city — where every resident’s needs, for leisure and work, can be reached by bike or foot in a quarter of an hour — will put the brakes on car use even further.

“Hidalgo has been much more anti-car than her predecessors,” says Pierre Zembri, professor of urban planning and transport at the University of Paris Est Marne La Vallée and director of the City Mobility Transport Laboratory. “That’s clear.”

But if the transition away from motor vehicles is not done carefully, Zembri says it risks being regressive, punishing those who have little choice but to enter the city by car and shifting traffic to the suburbs. He cites the example of the gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, an anti-establishment movement that swept across France in 2019 due to the cost-of-living crisis for some of France’s poorest that was partly due to high fuel taxes.

“Most people don’t enter Paris by car for pleasure,” adds Zembri. “These people are delivery drivers, shopkeepers, artisans. [By cracking down on cars] traffic won’t just evaporate. It will push the problems to the suburbs, where they don’t have a choice but to take the car because of the more limited transport options.”

Professor Aldred acknowledges the tricky path municipalities must navigate, both practically and politically, in trying to cut car use. “There’s a split between Paris and Greater Paris, with that tussle over the ringroad between them,” she says. “Hidalgo has power over the road network. But the risk is you only make things better in the historic core — you’re seeing a reduction in inner Paris, but not so much outside.”

Yet fears of pushing the traffic problem into poorer suburbs might not necessarily be founded. For the first time, in 2020, the amount of cars in the Greater Paris region, known as Ile-de-France, declined. While in 2014, the region’s vehicle fleet increased by 90,868 vehicles, over the following five years it steadily declined, until the real drop in 2020. Although pandemic lockdowns played a role, Paris’ policies to restrict cars “accelerated the exit of old vehicles from the fleet without them being replaced by new ones,” according to Apur.

But for Aldred, a key factor is a shift in attitudes. The world is reaching a state of “peak cars,” she believes, and behavior change is being driven by younger people. She says that the car, long a symbol of freedom, is increasingly coming to be seen as inconvenient, expensive and ecologically indefensible.

The road ahead, nonetheless, varies hugely depending on geographies and demographics. Parisians have a richly developed public transport network, including the metro, tramways, buses and longer-distance RER trains, as well as a supply of electric scooters and self-serve bicycles, both municipal and private. The city’s high density, too, means that walking is often a viable option. But Aldred says that cars are sometimes necessary for people’s mobility and social inclusion needs, especially those with disabilities, and so alternatives to driving must be provided.

“But it’s important to note car-centric cities disadvantage the marginalized,” she adds, citing research in the UK that found nearly 90 percent of the highest-income households own at least one car, but in the lowest-income households 40 percent do not.

Paula Kuss, who led research into the ways European cities have been able to curb car use, drawing on nearly 800 peer-reviewed studies and case studies, found that a particularly effective measure was a congestion charge, which London, Milan, Stockholm and Gothenburg used to reduce traffic in the city center by 12 to 33 percent.

Other approaches included Oslo’s replacement of parking spaces with pedestrianized streets and bike lanes, and Rome’s restriction on cars entering the city center, with fines used to finance public transport — both reduced car traffic by 10 to 20 percent. The Dutch city of Utrecht reduced the share of commuters traveling by car by 37 percent by providing mobility services including free public transit for employees and workplace shuttle buses. Bristol in the UK and Catania in Italy both cut car commutes to their universities by 24 to 27 percent by providing free public transport for students and incentives for staff to use car-sharing, walking, biking, or public transport. “I think a combination of measures is really effective,” says Kuss, of Lund University. “Especially when you see holistic approaches for mobility, such as what Paris is doing with the 15-minute city.”

Kuss outlines three sectors to consider the relevance of any initiative: suitability in the local context (size, population), feasibility (financial resources, workforce) and novelty (how radical is it compared to past or current policies). 

“In Lund, it might be difficult to implement because the city might be too small to have a congestion zone,” she says. “It could be difficult to create a cordon, digital or otherwise. And how do they go about charging?”

But even with a few roadblocks to contend with, as the planet hurtles towards the point of irreversible global warming, Kuss argues that towns and cities around the world must accelerate their efforts to crackdown on cars.

“The change has to happen very quickly and radically,” she says.

Peter Yeung is a Contributing Editor at Reasons to be Cheerful. A Paris-based journalist, he also writes for publications including the Guardian, the LA Times and the BBC. He’s filed stories from across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

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