In Paris, roughly half of the city’s public space is dedicated to cars. But the city has been fighting to reclaim that space, turning a highway along the Seine River into a park and walking path, redesigning intersections to prioritize pedestrians, giving most space on one of the city’s busiest streets to bikes, banning cars on some streets near elementary schools, and planning dozens of miles of new separated bike lanes.
One of the next steps involves banning through-traffic in the heart of the city. By 2024, the city plans to stop cars from driving across four central districts and part of the Left Bank of the Seine. “They’ve been reducing the space for cars, vans, and trucks quite a lot already these last years,” says Pierre Dornier, the France lead for the Clean Cities Campaign, a nonprofit that advocates for reducing traffic in cities to cut pollution. “But this low-traffic zone is going to go even beyond that. It’s quite ambitious.”
The area, which the city is calling a zone apaisée or quiet zone, won’t be car-free—residents will still be able to drive there, and if someone is going to a store or art gallery or another destination in the area, they’ll still be able arrive by car. (Police will check all vehicles entering and exiting the area to see if people are taking a shortcut; eventually, cameras will automatically check license plates.) Delivery drivers, taxis, buses, ridesharing vehicles, disabled people, and people going to work in the area will also be able to drive. But more than half of the traffic through the neighborhoods currently comes from people who are cutting across the city; by banning those trips, more than 100,000 cars could be taken off local roads each day—along with the pollution they create.
The city wants to tackle its smog, which is linked to asthma, heart disease, lung cancer, and premature deaths. In 2019, before the city rolled out a plan to limit traffic around schools, nearly 300 schools had NO2 pollution levels above the World Health Organization limit. The city government also wants to reduce carbon emissions, and the cars that are left will soon have to be zero-emissions.
Paris has been phasing out the most polluting diesel vehicles, and the government has said that it plans to ban all fossil fuel-powered vehicles by the end of the decade. But the city isn’t relying on electric cars to reach that goal; Instead, it’s working to shift drivers to bikes, walking, or public transportation, which can also improve safety by reducing accidents and open up room for more green space or other uses, improving quality of life. Mayor Anne Hidalgo has also championed the idea of the 15-minute city, city planning that makes it possible to walk or bike to run errands without needing to get into a car. Paris is also working on ways to help people get from the suburbs to the city center without driving, including via cable cars and bike trails.
Hidalgo tries to make such changes quickly. “Marketing is not my way to do politics,” she told Fast Company in a previous interview. “Instead of wasting time and energy trying to convince through an elaborate marketing campaign, I deliver real solutions that speak for themselves and benefit the people of Paris.” But, unsurprisingly, she’s faced criticism for a perceived war on cars. The city first announced plans for the new low-traffic zone last year, and wanted to roll it out early this year; last week, it announced that it now wouldn’t happen until the beginning of 2024.
The city police department, which shares jurisdiction for the project, has opposed its immediate rollout, so the city slowed down its timeline. Local business owners have also opposed it, saying that they’re worried they’ll lose customers, though that’s unlikely to happen; in other cities where car traffic has been reduced, pedestrians and cyclists have replaced customers in cars. “They actually tend to spend more money because it’s easier for them to enter the shop, and therefore to buy things,” says Dornier. “And they tend to also come back more often than car drivers.”
Others say that limiting traffic in the city center will just increase traffic in surrounding parts of the city. It’s important, Dornier says, that the city strengthens its mobility plan so that doesn’t happen, and that people choose to walk, bike, or take public transit rather than drive at all. Paris already has such a strong public transportation system that he thinks the low-traffic zone could be expanded across the whole city. “Paris has one of the densest public transportation networks in the world,” he says. “It’s really not an issue to cross the whole city without a car—and to be honest, it’s probably even faster to use public transport to cross it.”