Paris imagines a world without cars

The city banned cars from major roadways yesterday as part of an environmental campaign, but some say it didn't go far enough


Bicyclists, pedestrians, and rollerbladers swarmed the streets of central Paris on Sunday, taking advantage of the city's first ever "day without cars." All private, non-electric cars were banned from Paris' historic city center for seven hours yesterday, as part of a campaign to promote clean transportation. It comes as the city prepares to host the UN climate conference in December, where world leaders will seek an agreement on limiting the rise of global temperatures.

Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced the no-car campaign in March, at the urging of a citizen collective called Paris Sans Voiture (Paris Without Car). The city has faced severe air pollution problems in recent years, and has occasionally implemented strict driving restrictions due to dangerously high smog levels.

Paris isn't the first city to implement a no-car day; Brussels, Sao Paulo, and the English city of Bristol have launched similar campaigns in the past. In an interview with French newspaper Le Parisien this month, Hidalgo described the effort as "a movement of education and learning," adding that it aimed to "show that Paris can function without cars."

But the case study was far from comprehensive. The ban covered only four of Paris' 20 arrondissements, in addition to tourist attractions like the Champs Elysée, and environmental groups have criticized the city for not extending it to working-class neighborhoods. Others have claimed that the campaign would have been more effective had it been launched on a weekday, thereby forcing Parisians to re-think their daily commutes. Exceptions were made for public buses, ambulances, and taxis, while drivers outside of the no-car zone were asked to respect a speed limit of 12 miles per hour. (Many did not.)

Hidalgo acknowledged that the event was not as expansive as she had hoped, but she aims to extend it next year. "We didn't get as wide a perimeter as we'd have liked, we asked for the whole of Paris," she told reporters before officially opening the event. "But it's a first and I think next year it will be even bigger."

no car day

The mayor has made environmental stewardship a priority since coming into office in 2014, and she has proposed ambitious initiatives to clean up the city. Following the lead of her predecessor, Bertrand Delanoë, Hidalgo has called for the creation of a pedestrian-only zone along the right bank, where a major highway currently runs, and has pushed to ban all diesel cars from Paris by 2020. She has also said she wants to see people swimming in the heavily polluted Seine river by 2024, in time for the Summer Olympic Games that Paris is currently bidding to host.

For a few hours on Sunday, Parisians and tourists in central Paris were able to get a taste of what car-free life would actually look like. A major thoroughfare along the Seine was dotted with joggers, bikers, and families pushing strollers under a cloudless sky. A few hundred meters inland, behind the Louvre, the usually bustling rue de Rivoli was strangely quiet, its engine roars and car horns replaced by the soft bell dings of attentive cyclists. Cabs and busses crawled by in dedicated lanes, but they moved at the whim of pedestrians.

The atmosphere was idyllic, festive, and at times, a little eerie. And, like many pleasant things, it was ultimately fleeting. By 6PM, the horns and the exhaust pipes had returned, and Paris moved forward.

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