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When Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo entered the French presidential race last month, she did so with a bang: Pledging to make the City of Lights 100 percent bikeable by 2026. While the €100 million project is expected to lead to a steep cut in the city’s emissions, it is also threatening to squeeze out those dependent on keeping their engines running.
Since she entered the Paris mayor’s office in 2014, Anne Hidalgo has made no secret of her disdain for cars: parking spaces have been torn out, car lanes have ceded to bike lanes, and whole streets – including the right bank of the river Seine – have been pedestrianised. And for good reason, as Paris is notorious for its dirty air. The city is regularly subject to dangerous spikes in smog, and even briefly topped the list of the world’s most polluted cities.
Hidalgo has been hard at work on reversing this trend, and has since her inauguration ploughed €150 million into adding 300 kilometres of bike lanes to the Paris cycling network, which now stretches to the suburbs and totals more than 1,000 kilometres. Her latest plan adds to that, including the construction of 130 kilometres of new bike paths and converting 52 kilometres of the “Corona lanes” – the temporary cycling routes set up during the pandemic – into permanent ones.
Moreover, City Hall recently unveiled plans to pedestrianise the historic heart of Paris, banning most cars from Paris's central arrondissements (districts), including areas housing such landmarks as the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is considered the heart of Paris. In September, the speed limit across Paris was lowered to 30 kilometres per hour (from 50 kilometres per hour) in a further bid to cut pollution.
Hidalgo’s green push has angered some motorists, who accuse her of causing traffic jams and ignoring the needs of those who depend on their cars for a living. Nevertheless, she won a second mandate as Paris’s mayor last year. Now she is hoping her environmental credentials will help boost her chances – she is currently polling in the single digits – as she sets her sights on the Élysée Palace in the 2022 presidential election.
FRANCE 24 spoke to an urban planner, a taxi driver, a commuter, a chauffeur and an activist to get their views of how Hidalgo's Paris revamp is affecting them.
Vincent Cottet, the urban planner: ‘Cars aren’t the future anyway’
Urban planner Vincent Cottet said he was in favour of Hidalgo’s plan, saying it is in line with what other large cities – like London, Sydney and Vancouver – are currently doing. “Some people are against it because they are only looking at how it will affect their [immediate] comfort or the situation they are in right now. But it’s 2021, and we are facing climate change – that’s a fact. Politicians need to make brave choices now, leading to more carbon-free mobility,” he said.
Cottet said he believes Paris will likely see a large drop in traffic thanks to the plan. And as a result, other transport options – such as electric bikes, e-scooters, electric rental cars and extended public transport services – will be made more widely available and more affordable.
“Because if you look at what a car costs to run and maintain, it’s not cheaper,” he said.
“The problem we have in Paris today is, clearly, that there is too much traffic. Statistics show that the vast majority of the city’s car journeys last just a few kilometres, no more. Only 30 percent of the journeys made on the Paris ring road last longer than 10 kilometres,” he said.
“If there’s less traffic and you instead ride a bike, or an electric bike, you can easily get around a lot faster than if you were driving a car.”
Cottet said that maintaining roads in the île-de-France region (the area around Paris) alone costs more than €100 million a year, so large amounts of money can be saved and reinvested in other modes of transport. He noted that a drop in traffic would also mean fewer accidents and hospitalisations, and fewer pollution-related health problems, thus “costing society less” in the long term.
Émilie Lemoule, the commuting sales manager: ‘Meeting clients will be hard’
Émilie Lemoule is a single mother who lives in a southern Paris suburb. Around twice a week she needs to drive into the city to meet with clients. Although many suburbs are now developing their public transport networks to better connect with the French capital, Lemoule lives in an area where both buses and commuter trains are far and few in between.
“Oh, I’m totally dependent on my car," she said. "It would take way too much time for me to take public transport from here – it just wouldn’t be possible." Moreover, she usually meets with two or three clients on each visit to Paris, and they can be scattered anywhere across the city.
Lemoule fears that Hidalgo’s bicycle plan may translate into her wasting “a monstrous amount of time in the car” by getting stuck in the traffic jams created by those trying to navigate around the restricted vehicle zones City Hall has announced.
“In my job it would be really difficult to move around with the help of a bike or an e-scooter because I need to bring a lot of things with me for work, like my computer and files and so on.”
“I mean, anything is possible," Lemoule said. "But it would mean wholly reorganising how our sales teams work. Perhaps some meetings would have to be held over [video conferencing apps like] Teams instead of in person, for example. But overall it would make things a lot more complicated for me if I can’t use my car.”
Despite the difficulties, she said, “when it comes to the environment, I think the plan could be good".
"Paris is way too polluted.”
Karim, the Parisian taxi driver: ‘I think we can make it work’
Karim, who only wanted to give his first name, has worked as a Paris taxi driver for the past 10 years. He said he supports Hidalgo’s plan – as long as the bike lanes are secured and bike riders respect the rules of the road, “because right now there’s total anarchy”.
In the past five to six years, Karim said he has witnessed how the number of bicycle riders in Paris has grown exponentially due to both Covid fears and the increase in bike lanes.
“I was recently in Vienna and saw how bike riders and drivers co-existed thanks to secure bike paths, so I think it’s possible,” he said.
“We can make it work.”
Parisian taxis are allowed to use the capital’s bus lanes, and have – just like delivery vehicles and other necessary transport – been exempted from the City Hall’s proposal to ban cars in the city centre. This exemption means that, in some places, it may actually be easier for Karim to traverse the city.
But he noted that City Hall's decisions have increased the traffic in some areas. "Because we will have to make more detours, it could take longer and make it more complicated for us to get to places.”
Karim isn’t worried about Hidalgo’s plan affecting his income, which is normally between €1,600 and €1,700 per month. “It’s in our work agreement that if we drive under 30 kilometres per hour we charge for the time we spend, and if we drive faster than 30 kilometres we charge per kilometre, so it won’t really affect our salaries.”
Brahim Ben Ali, the chauffeur for ride-hailing apps: ‘A death knell to the profession’
Brahim Ben Ali has been working for a variety of ride-hailing services in Paris since 2016. Unlike taxi drivers, he and his colleagues are not allowed to use the city’s bus lanes and have not been exempted from the bans on cars in central Paris.
“Taxi drivers don’t really have a problem because Madame Hidalgo keeps saying they provide a public service,” he said. “But for some reason we don’t count.”
On October 20, just days before Hidalgo presented her “100 percent bikeable Paris” project, Ben Ali and around 100 other drivers protested against their “unfair treatment” outside City Hall.
Ben Ali, who works between 80 to 90 hours per week including the waiting time between clients, said his profession had already been hard hit by the city’s new 30 kilometre-per-hour speed limit.
“The slowdown means we went from taking an average of about 15 rides per day to 10,” he explained.
The new bicycle plan has him worried. “It’s a death knell to the profession. We have set prices for our journeys and can’t use the bus lanes – so of course it will be more advantageous for a customer to take a taxi rather than sit in our cars [in a traffic jam] for 45 minutes.”
“Morale is pretty low among drivers now," he said. "Some talk about moving out of Paris and others talk about quitting.” Despite the long hours, he said most chauffeurs who work for ride-hailing apps like Uber or Lyft make an average of just €1,500 a month.
“We will be back in front of City Hall to protest on November 24 – and every month after that if we need to.”
Tony Renucci, the clean-air activist: ‘Breathable air’
Tony Renucci is the head of the clean-air activist group Respire Asso. He is optimistic about the plan, “if it in practice actually means that cars will be replaced by bicycles for most journeys”.
According to the Parisian air quality monitoring network Airparif, traffic in Paris and on its ring road is by far the city’s worst source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, accounting for 65 percent. However, when it comes to fine particle matter – particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter that the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified as carcinogenic, saying they can cause asthma and heart disease – wood-burning is the biggest culprit, accounting for 49 percent, with traffic second at 35 percent.
Although there are not yet any official estimates on how much Hidalgo’s car-banning initiatives will contribute to reducing pollution in the French capital, the mayor’s annual car-free Paris day (Paris Respire Sans Voiture), held in September this year, led to a 20 percent drop in nitrogen dioxide levels.
Renucci said that if Hidalgo’s strategy to create traffic congestion actually discourages people from taking their cars unless they really have to, Parisians will likely enjoy “more breathable air” in the future.