Last Sunday Paris conducted an unusual experiment. Cars were banned from almost the whole city, an area of 40 square miles. For one day, its streets belonged to the pedestrians and the cyclists.
Paris has run its ‘journée sans voitures’ before, but only on certain streets. This is the first time the whole city has been closed to cars, with exceptions for taxis, emergency vehicles, and inner-city car owners who couldn’t get out otherwise.
There’s been a build-up to this. The first car-free events were held a couple of years ago, with campaigners helping to organise them and the festival atmosphere around it. When they proved successful, they were extended to incorporate more of the city. The Champs Elysées began closing to traffic on the first Sunday of every month, making it a regular event and one of the best times to see the city. Pedestrianisation schemes have opened up new walking routes. And now this, a city-wide break from the traffic to mark World Car Free Day.
For Paris’ mayor, Anne Hidalgo, this is more than a fun or symbolic event. It’s part of the strategy for dealing with the city’s traffic and pollution problems. It shows people what the city could be like – quieter, safer, cleaner and less stressful. Switching off the main source of air pollution for a day is a great way to highlight the causes and show people what they’re missing. It also makes citizens think about how they travel, and whether their car is absolutely necessary. It involves everyone in an ongoing renegotiation between the city and the car.
Car free days aren’t a new idea. They’ve been held from time to time in European cities for a couple of decades. A number of Canadian cities have hosted them, along with China, Indonesia, the Philippines and various other places. Some cities have used them to deal with fuel crises or air pollution spikes. Bolivia wins some kind of prize by having a national car free day across the whole country.
Right now though, Paris is getting all the attention. We’ll have to wait and see how successful its strategy is, and if it can inspire enough people to change the way they travel on an everyday basis. But other cities are watching, and London’s mayor Sadiq Khan is considering bringing them to London.