(CN) – Paris, the City of Lights, is pushing to become a city without so many car lights. Since taking office in 2014, Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo has pushed to remove more vehicles, especially gas-powered ones, from the boulevards of Paris, one of Europe’s most congested and smog-laden cities.
Last week her administration won an important long-running legal battle when a city administrative court approved her decision to pedestrianize almost 2 miles of the Seine Quays.
This legal victory comes as French lawmakers are taking a look at the draft of a major transit bill that would allow French cities of more than 100,000 inhabitants to charge drivers a fee for entering urban cores. The bill is scheduled to be voted on next spring.
Hidalgo has said she would consider levying such a congestion charge, according to Les Echos, a French business newspaper. She added that she might back a fee if it covered not just the city center but also the metropolitan area of Paris. About 12 million people live in the metro area. The mayor wants any fee plan to favor drivers who choose to drive outside of peak hours. She’s worried that congestion fees hurt those who cannot afford them while not keeping wealthier drivers off the roads.
Under the draft transit bill, local authorities in cities with a population of more than 100,000 could charge cars about $2.90 each time they enter a designated area, and larger vehicles could be charged up to $11.50. Under the bill, larger cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants could charge twice as much.
By comparison, to the north, in London, drivers have been paying a congestion fee since 2003 and it’s very steep: $14.90.
The draft bill in France envisions a tax bonus of about $455 for commuters who cycle or car-pool to work.
Hidalgo has made making Paris a greener and less congested city a main priority, and stirred a lot of opposition along the way.
In 2017, Paris announced a plan to ban gasoline-powered vehicles by 2030, a decade before France as a whole aims to ban the sale of gas vehicles.
This is part of a larger effort in Europe to move away from gas vehicles. Copenhagen will ban diesel vehicles starting next year. Hidalgo has called for a ban on diesel vehicles by 2024, the year Paris is to host the Summer Olympics.
Hidalgo’s administration has introduced car-free days, too. City Hall is closing much of the center to traffic on the first Sunday of each month.
Cleaning up the air in Paris doesn’t end there. Now drivers of vehicles older than 20 years also face fines. Hidalgo also has commissioned a feasibility study to look at making public transportation free as a way to reduce traffic.
She has her critics, among them motorists’ groups, commuters and leaders in suburban districts. She faces re-election in 2020. The Paris mayor serves for six years.
Her opposition was vocal in its objections to closing the once-busy thoroughfare along the quays. They charged that closing the quays only made congestion and pollution worse elsewhere. They also contended that the move came at the expense of people who live in the suburbs.
It was this opposition that got the city administrative court in February to rule against the closing of the Seine Quays to traffic. The court found fault with her administration’s argument that closing the quays was reducing pollution and traffic reduction.
In response, the city argued that making the quays a pedestrian zone was necessary to protect Paris’ heritage and tourism. And that line of reasoning won the court over.
Still, it's far from clear that Paris — and other smog-choked French cities such as Lyon — will be able to dramatically reduce congestion simply by introducing tolls.
For instance, in London congestion remains a problem. The volume of traffic has climbed back up in recent years with the gridlock blamed on an increase in taxis, delivery vehicles and services such as Uber.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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