- Feargus O’Sullivan
- 11:42 AM ET
It’s rush hour in Paris, and here on the banks of the Seine during an early March evening, it’s easy to see why drivers are grumpy.
Last September, the lower quays of central Paris’s two-tiered Seine embankment closed to all motorized vehicles, limiting drivers of the double-decked waterfront highway to the upper quay. Now, at 6 p.m., the upper quay is packed with cars creeping home to the suburbs—still moving, but in a viscous molasses-like flow rather than a steady stream. Meanwhile the lower quays, now reserved for bicycles and pedestrians, are all but empty, with just a cyclist here, a skater there. The landscaping that will eventually turn them into a lush succession of lawns, copses, and flowerbeds is only beginning to emerge, so the quayside still looks like a road—a road you can’t drive on.
The closure seems to visually troll the commuters above with its flagrant emptiness. If the tired suburbanites trapped in traffic above protest that their journey home is getting longer to make space for the odd rollerblader, right now, it’s hard to blame them.
Paris City Hall hasn’t shut down the quayside without good reason, however. The move is part of a concerted effort to reduce the number of private cars on its streets. Not only is Paris clearing cars from its quays, it’s banning the most heavily polluting vehicles from the city altogether, having created a system of shields detailing a vehicle’s age and emissions that all cars must display or face a fine. Already it has instigated alternate driving days or total driving bans during pollution peaks. Moving in from the river, Paris will slash the number of lanes on other major axes and turn whole neighborhoods into car-calmed, pedestrian- and bike-dominated zones. It is already in the process of redesigning seven major squares to reduce vehicle lanes and parking while increasing pedestrian space and greenery.
These are the kinds of measures you’ve been hearing about for years from bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen (metropolitan population 1.28 million). But Paris is different: It’s a vast metropolitan region with over 11 million inhabitants who are frequently, albeit not exclusively connected by a network of car-intensive arteries. On this scale, this kind of automotive regulation is something entirely new—and impressively strident.
Next Week: Part 2