The City of Light has a dark secret: Smog and pollution are so bad that on some days, Paris has seen air pollution levels that surpass those of Peking and Delhi. To blame, in large part, are vehicle emissions—worsened for years by France’s subsidized diesel prices. On average, diesel costs 15 percent less than gasoline, and 70 percent of the country’s light-duty vehicle sales are diesel cars. While diesel may be cheaper for drivers, it’s proving costly on days when tourists have to strain to see the Arc de Triomphe through the haze.
In a bid to combat this problem, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has announced that on Sunday, September 27th from 11:00am to 6:00pm, cars will be banned throughout much of the city. On La Journée sans Voiture (Car Free Day), there will be no car traffic—except for emergency vehicles—in the areas shaded in red on the map below. Those areas notably include the Eiffel Tower, the areas surrounding Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Champs-Élysées.
This move comes just months ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference that’s set to converge on Paris this December, putting the city’s commitment to cutting fuel consumption in the global spotlight. But is the city’s day without cars just a publicity stunt, or is Paris taking measurable steps to eliminate congestion, smog, and fuel waste?
The answer is complicated.
Most can agree that a single, isolated day without cars will not ultimately change much—even Lorelei Limousin of the Paris Sans Voitures grassroots organization, which originally pushed the city to enact the day without cars. “One day without cars has little impact on the pollution level but it can have a great impact in terms of [raising] awareness and mobilizing people to reclaim the streets,” Limousin tells The Fuse from Paris.
City officials agree that symbolic measures can have real impact.
“Through this massive event, Paris wants to educate its residents about the need to accelerate our energy transition,” says Mélanie Rigaud, spokeswoman for the City of Paris. “It’s also a highly symbolic day to show that the world’s cities can and should—each, on their own scale—invent practical solutions to meet the climate challenges that threaten our planet’s future.”
When air quality in Paris reached dangerous highs, officials made all public transportation free and banned half of the city’s car traffic from the streets for a day.
But earlier this year, practical solutions were not enough: When air quality in Paris reached dangerous highs, the city faced an emergency. Officials made all public transportation free and banned half of the city’s car traffic from the streets for a day. These were stopgap measures, aimed at quickly reducing air pollution when it was at its worst—these efforts did not include any long-term strategies to prevent the crisis from recurring.
When confronted by the French Association of Transport Users (FNAUT) to add a congestion tax to drivers entering the city—similar to measures already undertaken in London—Paris shot the notion down. Instead, the city said it was increasing its investment in public transportation and, as of this summer, banning diesel cars manufactured prior to 2001. Undermining this move is the fact that the ban does not include the notorious Boulevard Périphérique—the-20 mile road that surrounds Paris and is one of Europe’s busiest ring roads, with upwards of one million cars using it every day.
But Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has made widely-publicized efforts to put the final nail in diesel’s coffin. In December of 2014, she called for all diesel vehicles—regardless of their manufacture date—to be banned from the streets of Paris by 2020. With such bold declarations, Hidalgo has made it clear that real change extends far beyond publicity-generating events like the upcoming car free day in Paris.
Complementing these efforts, the move to reduce dependence on diesel vehicles is not just a Parisian push—it extends throughout the French nation. Earlier this year, the government began offering drivers of diesel cars over 13 years old special incentives of up to €10,000 (around $11,245 as of this posting) to switch to a hybrid or fully electric car. France is also starting to end the tax exemption on diesel fuel so that the price is more closely aligned with that of gasoline, ending years of incentives that made diesel preferable for many drivers.
In Paris alone, the local EV car-sharing service AutoLib has more than 150,000 paying subscribers.
France has also nabbed the title of largest electric vehicle market in Europe (in aggregate levels, Norway wins on per-capita EV ownership)—thanks largely to native automaker Renault, who currently sells the largest number of EVs on the continent. And because the French are by-and-large less car-reliant than their American counterparts, EV car-sharing systems now exist in several major cities to give drivers a chance to experience electric vehicles for themselves. Programs are already underway and have seen success in Paris, Nice, Lyon and Bordeaux. In Paris alone, the local EV car-sharing service, AutoLib, has more than 150,000 paying subscribers. The largest provider of this service, Bolloré, is also developing nationwide infrastructure for charging stations over the next few years with support from the French government. Bolstered by its success in France, Bolloré is expanding EV car-sharing to Indianapolis with the Blue Indy program.
“Paris is deeply committed to improving air quality by putting in place an unprecedented plan to fight pollution caused by traffic on our roadways,” Rigaud said on behalf of the city. “Since July, this plan has sought to incentivize and encourage the use of public transport and clean cars (including electric vehicles and EV car sharing systems) as well as restricting high-pollution vehicles in our city.”
These efforts mark real attempts at sustainable and meaningful change, beyond a one-day event. Officials are using the car free day as way to talk about and advance larger, infrastructural changes that are already underway, and educate the public about solutions on the horizon. Paris’s Car Free day is not the answer to the city’s diesel reliance—real changes and smart policy will be required to yield long term benefits. In the meantime, Journée sans Voiture will work as a sign of the city’s ambition, and can help awaken the public to both the costs and benefits of car-filled streets.