World·CBC in Paris

Paris mayor's attempt to curb traffic along Seine leaves some commuters fuming

The Paris mayor's decision to close the right bank of the Seine river to cars as a means of reducing air pollution has left many in the city hyperventilating.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo called move 'historic'; opposition decried it as 'autocratic'

Parisians enjoy the last days of Paris-Plages, the promenades set up along the Seine's right bank highway, extended through September for this first time this year. Mayor Anne Hidalgo's government passed a law earlier this week closing the highway to traffic. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Chase scenes along the Seine river in Paris are classic. We've all seen them. Walled in on one side, a river on the other, perfectly perilous ground for Bond, Bourne and other lesser mortals.

"Delon and Belmondo starred in a few, too," says Mourad Ladouari, bordering on wistful.

Ladouari is a Paris taxi driver who likes to practise his English talking old French films with passengers. He's congenial and even-tempered but not about the recent ruling closing the right bank highway to traffic.

Designed in the car age to provide a fast route through a city otherwise constrained by its ring road, the highway has cut through Paris's downtown core since the 1960s.

But since 2002, segments of the road have been closed to traffic over the summer, when a beach-like promenade called Paris-Plages is erected.

Hidalgo called the greening measure 'historic,' but the opposition said it was an autocratic move that went against the recommendations of a public inquiry into the matter. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)

Before making way for the beach this summer, an estimated 43,000 cars drove the quay highway daily.

"It's only one o'clock now," Ladouari says of our relatively smooth drive. "Cars that would have been down there are up at street level now. Come 3, 4, 5 pm, traffic is going to start backing up at Concorde. It'll spill onto St-Germain on the left and through the Louvre to the right. Eventually, the whole city centre will be choked up."

Pollution health risks prompted closure

And yet, the measure is designed to let Parisians breathe easier, turning the quayside highways into walkways, part of socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo's plan to ease pollution.

According to statistics promoted by the city, pollution reduces life expectancy by two years and is the main cause of 6,500 deaths in greater Paris.

The quays of the right bank are set to be transformed from a highway into a walkway. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

The bill to ban cars from the right bank was bitterly contested but was passed earlier this week by the mayor's majority government. Hidalgo heralded it as "historic." Her opponents — and there are many — opted instead for "autocratic."

One council member even compared Hidalgo to Mrs. Ceausescu, the wife of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's Soviet-era dictator.

Conservative opposition on city council decried the disregard for the findings of a public inquiry that concluded the closure should not go ahead. 

'I'm always in my car. I take the metro maybe twice a year,' says Pairs cab driver Mourad Ladouari. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

Chiming in to cry foul were suburban mayors, taxi drivers, Uber drivers and thousands of commuters, either claiming privilege for downtown residents, prejudice against the poor, insufficient alternative transport or increased congestion.

"All old arguments," said Eric Britton, a veteran sustainable development consultant. "And it's not that they're wrong, and it's not that they're right. It's that they're worried because somebody's going to change their lives. They are supposed to scream. That is what governance is all about. Listening to them scream."

An old controversy

Britton's equanimity comes from years of thinking about sustainable development. An American economist who moved to France over 40 years ago, he takes a long view on the issue.

Britton tells stories, sometimes long and old stories, to explain the vagaries of sustainable development. He's been in this game since the 1970s, and, according to him, controversy over quayside traffic is an old story.

By international standards, Paris can fairly be considered among the world leaders in sustainable transport.- Eric Britton, sustainable development consultant

"In 1973-74, during the first energy crisis, it became very clear that unless we had a policy about cars, our cities, and Paris in particular, would die. So, Paris has been trying to figure out its transportation issues for 40 years."

And, to his mind, they've done quite well.

"By international standards, Paris can fairly be considered among the world leaders in sustainable transport."

Along with an old but mostly efficient public transit system (the suburban trains get a bad rap), the city's transportation network includes a popular bike-sharing program, a growing network of bike paths, arrondissement-based free buses, speed limits targeted at reducing pollution, and, if all goes to plan, new tram lines as of Spring 2017.

The city has a bike-sharing program and a growing network of bike paths. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)

'Congestion is also a policy'

But none are of any use to Ladouari.

"I'm always in my car. I take the metro maybe twice a year. And I do cycle. But I prefer the woods close to my house. I'd never cycle in Paris."

He's open to change and recognizes pollution is a concern, but, for a moment, waxes nostalgic.

Nowadays, pedestrians despise you. And yet, at the same time, there are ads everywhere selling you cars.- Mourad Ladouari, Paris cab driver

"Thirty years ago, a car was the dream. People would say, 'Oh, look, he has a car!' Nowadays, pedestrians despise you. And yet, at the same time, there are ads everywhere selling you cars. The Paris auto show starts this weekend and runs for 17 or 18 days ... I don't know which way is up anymore. A little consistency wouldn't hurt," he said, a touch resigned.

Innovation, however, isn't always logical, Britton suggests.

"You see, congestion is also a policy. It's a very valuable policy," he said. 

This time, he lapses into a story that takes place in Copenhagen to explain what he means.

"I wish I could do a Danish accent for you," he says before delivering the moral of the story.

"Traffic is people, and people are smart, and they figure out other ways to get around."

The mayor hopes the closure of the right bank highway will reduce air pollution in the city. (Michelle Gagnon/CBC)


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.