On October 16, it will be possible to walk from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the Place de la Nation, roughly two hours away, and barely encounter a moving car. The entire city will be car-free for the day. It’s the third year that the city has temporarily banned cars, and one symbol of the city’s larger changes.
“It’s a day to make Paris live in a different way,” says Celia Blauel, the city’s deputy mayor. “Make people aware of the issues, and show them that it’s possible actually to move within Paris without a car.”
The city has been shifting away from driving for decades; car use inside city limits has dropped 45% since 1990, while the percentage of people riding bikes grew 10 times. (In New York City, arguably the most walkable city in the U.S., around twice as many trips happen by car.) But Paris still has a problem with dangerous levels of smog, and the push to cut pollution from cars has accelerated in the last few years.
In 2017, the city announced that it would ban diesel cars by 2024. Cars that run on gas will be phased out by 2030. Older cars (diesel cars made before 2001, and gas cars made before 1997) are already banned from the city center between 8am and 8pm on weekdays. If you live in Paris and get rid of your car, you can claim benefits of around $700 to buy a bike, sign up for a car-sharing service, or buy a public transit pass. If you own a small business, you can get around $10,000 from the city to buy an electric truck or bus. The city is also studying the possibility of making public transportation free.
“We know in Paris that people are losing six months of life because of pollution,” says Blauel. “So we want to tackle that.” Mayor Anne Hidalgo is also motivated by climate change. Hidalgo is the current chair of C40 Cities, a network of global megacities that work together to measure emissions and take action to reduce them.
In Paris, major intersections have been redesigned to prioritize pedestrians. The city has added hundreds of kilometers of bike lanes, and in 2017, announced plans to double the number of bike lanes and cut car traffic in half by 2020. In the first five months of 2018, the number of cars on city streets had dropped 6.5% compared to the same period a year before.
Drivers, unsurprisingly, haven’t always been supportive of the changes. When the city banned cars from an expressway next to the Seine, many complained, even though traffic on nearby streets actually declined. The city is now in the process of appealing a court ruling in February that said the city didn’t have the authority to ban cars on the road. As the city considers further restricting cars in some neighborhoods and creating “low carbon zones,” it’s likely to face more pushback.
In a 2017 interview, Hidalgo told Fast Company that she didn’t envision that the city would ever be fully free of cars. But it will be free of polluting cars, and fewer people will drive. “The aim is not to get rid of all the cars in Paris, but it’s really to switch to another mobility,” says Blauel.
Other cities are headed in the same direction. This week, 12 cities, from Tokyo to Rotterdam, signed the C40 Green and Healthy Streets Declaration, a pledge to shift toward walking, cycling, and public transport, and to ensure that a large area of their city uses zero-emissions transportation by 2030. Fourteen cities, including Paris, have already made the commitment.