The city of Paris is renowned for being one of the cultural and historic hotspots of Western Europe, a place that’s considered in the minds of many as being the ideal town. Every year the city of Paris welcomes approximately 15 million visitors to its streets and it’s still the world’s top tourist destination. Yet one thing in particular has cast a particularly dirty, smoky pallor over France’s grand capital – namely the chaotic flood of traffic that drives through the city every day.Last year, a dense smog settled over the “city of light”, in what experts have deemed the worst air pollution in the region in over a decade. Airparif, an organisation which monitors air quality in the French capital, announced that air levels have now reached the alert threshold.However, in what her critics are calling a drastic reaction, the mayor of Paris Anne Hildalgo has announced a plan to pedestrianise the city centre; banning the majority of private cars and motorcycles from those central spaces without permission in order to “reconquer the public space” for pedestrians and cyclists.Paris’ traffic authorities have already tried a number of schemes in order to discourage needless car usage within the city limits. The RATP Group (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) has already introduced measures like making all public transport free on days when smog is particularly bad and banning vehicles built before 1997, which affected around 10% of cars on the road.But it seems that this isn’t enough, and Hildalgo is adamant that the pedestrianisation of the centre isn’t just important, it’s a necessity, stating “The idea is to go step by step towards the pedestrianisation of the city centre. It will remain open to vehicles belonging to local residents, the police, emergency services and for deliveries, but not to all comers.”“We say clearly that our aim is the significant reduction in car traffic, as all the world’s large cities are doing. We must constantly remind people: the fewer cars there are, the less pollution there is.”This move has angered certain residents and Hildalgo’s right-wing opponents. But is this backlash justified? Although many see the move as a restriction of civil liberties, there are others who support it wholeheartedly. Weighing the benefits of the policy against the disadvantages, the question remains: do we really need cars?Now this might sound absurd. “Of course we need cars,” I hear you reply, “look at the amount of roads and highways. Think of the factories that will close and the infrastructure around them. The money made by mechanics. We can’t throw it all away.” But would you feel the same way if everyone owned a private jet? They’d be just as unnecessary and the environmental cost would also be horrendous, but their ubiquity would make their usage appear equally justified.
I’m not proposing we do away with cars entirely, but maybe we should restrict their usage. We tend to think of a car as an essential purchase, particularly (and not coincidently) in cultures where the automobile industry thrives. Cars are everywhere; they affect public transport, the price of fossil fuels, as well as the planning of modern urban development, and they’re revered by advertising as being the ultimate status symbol.The car is usually the second most expensive purchase a person will ever make, and the numerous costs of cars are almost too many and too varied to calculate … but we’ll try anyway. According to Forbes magazine the average price of a new car or light truck comes to around $30,000. According to consumer expenditures in 2006, released in February of 2008 by the U.S. Department of Labor’s U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average vehicle costs $8,003 per year to own and operate, and we spend around $2,227 on gasoline and $2,355 on repairs and maintenance – and that’s without factoring in payments made for the sake of parking.Since 2009 the annual revenue from U.S. car sales has surged 61% to a whopping $522 billion, according to analysis from TrueCar, a website that connects car buyers with dealers. We also need to consider the amount of time we spend in them and on them. In 2014 the American Driving Survey revealed that the Americans drove a total of 2.45 trillion miles each year, and that their driving habits were extremely inefficient. More than 86% of U.S. households have at least one car for every driver in the home and 28% report having more cars than drivers.So cars are expensive. Fine, we all knew that already. But there are more important things to consider than the personal cost. There’s a lot more at stake here, and even if, like me, you’re usually highly skeptical of conspiracy theories, it’s still difficult not to suspect that the automobile and oil industries are complicit in ensuring that the needs of cars and car users come first when it comes to urban transport. Hey, that’s the kind of clout that vast, multi-billion dollar corporations can command. If you’re not convinced by how much power these companies really wield then let me tell you about a little incident known as the General Motors streetcar conspiracy.Let’s travel back in time to the year 1938. Back then the motor car was not as pervasive as it is now, and only the affluent could afford them despite the mass production techniques developed by Henry Ford twenty five years earlier. In these days tram cars provided most city-dwellers with a cheap and convenient form of transportation. Rail was more comfortable and had less rolling resistance than street traffic on granite block or macadam and streetcars were, in most places, faster, more sanitary, and cheaper to run. Their environmental impact was far lower because they carried more passengers, and they were electric, instead of running on gasoline.Yet thanks to the great depression most American urban streetcar systems were aging, in dire need of repair and haemorrhaging money. It was the perfect time for the automobile industry to move in and buy out the competition. General Motors, Philips Petroleum and a number of other automobile manufacturers began purchasing controlling stakes in streetcar companies, ostensibly with the intention of running the streetcar service and providing the trains with some much-needed repairs. Instead the car companies began dismantling streetcars and replacing them with buses, as well as lowering the cost of motor cars and emphasising their importance to consumers.Only a handful of U.S. cities have surviving legacy rail urban transport systems based on streetcars, including Newark, Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Boston; others are only now re-introducing them. All other cities in the U.S. have become designed around convenience to drivers and not pedestrians. The existence of American suburbs meant that people could live work in the city centre and drive home easily. In just a few short years the motor car went from a luxury to a necessity; just in time for president Franklin D. Roosevelt to commission the construction of America’s first interstate highways. Coincidence? Hardly.
So it’s fairly plausible that manufacturers have managed to pull the wool over our eyes and make us see cars as indispensable. But what are the alternatives? Is Hildalgo’s solution really a viable one, or is it a little unrealistic? Well it seems not. Paris has already closed a major thoroughfare for a period of six months last year. The Voie Georges-Pompidou expressway, normally one of the busiest highways which carries over 43,000 vehicles across the city from East-to-West and back again, was shut and pedestrianised over the summer, and caused almost no problems whatsoever. Rather than an apocalyptic vision of commuting hell, for the first time since 1967 when the highway was opened, the banks of the Seine were tranquil and serene.
But realistically, applying this same endeavour to an entire city centre is going to be much tougher, not least because other forms of public transport will have to be renovated and expanded in order to fill the vacuum left by the absence of cars. The Paris Métro is already the second busiest subway system in Europe after Moscow’s, carrying 1.541 billion passengers in 2012 at a rate of 4.210 million passengers a day. It is also already the densest, with 245 stations within the 86.9 km2 (34 square miles) of the city of Paris.
However, on the plus side, in 2016 it was ranked as the best public transport system in the world by the ITDP, with an incredible 100% of people in the city of Paris having an easy access to rapid transportation, ahead of 26 other international cities (including London, New York City and Tokyo). Furthermore, there are approximately 4,000 RATP buses serving the Paris region, and in 2014 983 million journeys were made on RATP bus lines, including 330.7 million journeys on Paris lines and 652.3 million journeys on suburbs lines, and furthermore the Transilien electric tram lines connect Paris’ main stations to the suburbs not reached by the bigger railways.
Our planet is approaching a critical point, a time in which our impact on the environment is almost irreversible, and it is only now, forewarned by experts and rational in face of potentially catastrophic climate change, that we can make the choices that will determine what kind of world we give to the next generation. Sure, a car ban sounds like small potatoes – the kind of officious red-tape that usually just frustrates us. But real change comes in small steps over many years, and maybe if we give the concept a chance, see whether or not things improve, we can change the way cities operate for the better and lower our carbon footprint at the same time.