Air Date: Week of September 25, 1998
On September 22nd, the "City of Light" became the "city without cars". At least for the day. Paris was one of thirty-five French cities that tried to persuade residents that their personal mobility doesn't depend on the automobile. In a program dubbed "in town without my car" officials halted traffic on certain streets, bolstered public transport, and even loaned out bicycles. The government hopes the initiative will become a yearly event. But it may not, as the French, like us, have a romance with their cars. Sarah Chayes reports from Paris.
CURWOOD: On September 22nd, the City of Light became the city without cars, at least for the day. Paris was one of 35 French cities that tried to persuade residents that their personal mobility doesn't depend upon the automobile. In a program dubbed, "In town without my car," officials halted traffic on certain streets, bolstered public transport, and even loaned out bicycles. The government hopes the initiative will become a yearly event. But it may not, as the French, like us, have a romance with their cars. Sarah Chayes reports from Paris.
CHAYES: A normal day in the labyrinth of downtown Paris streets can be jarring.
(More honking, yelling)
CHAYES: Congestion, noise, and air pollution are on the rise in France. And some city dwellers have gotten so concerned they left their cars at home for a day, making Tuesday sound like this in places.
(A bell dings)
CHAYES: Out of 35 towns participating in this week's operation, 4 closed their city centers to traffic completely. Some held street fairs with music and theater. The conservative Paris City Council grudgingly blocked off 35 out of 1,000 total miles of streets.
(Many milling voices)
CHAYES: At City Hall Plaza, people waited under a circus tent to borrow one of the shiny yellow bikes lined up in rows. Handsome white men in white coveralls adjusted seats and handlebars. It was the French telephone company's contribution to the initiative. Marie-Catherine Jusseran explains.
JUSSERAN: First Telephone Company's a partner of this operation because we think that it's a great thing to discover a town with bike. Biking in Paris is very different with bikes.
CHAYES: Also, with a swarm of TV cameras and a trademark plaque on each bike, it was an excellent source of advertising. But even that calculation, the realization that environmentalism can be profitable, shows attitudes are changing in France. Erman Schneider of the environmental group Green Network says the mere awareness of the dangers of air pollution is quite recent.
SCHNEIDER: We had some very heavy air pollution 2 years ago in Paris, and there was really a concern because most of the French cities had no equipment to measure the air pollution. And so nobody was informed.
CHAYES: Since then, air quality monitoring and public information have improved. There's now a national 3-tier alert system. Last month, Paris and several other cities hit level 2 for ozone for days on end, triggering automatic traffic reduction measures. Despite excellent public transport systems, roughly two thirds of trips to work in France are made by car. Carpooling is almost nonexistent, and almost half the auto rides cover distances of less than 2 miles. For Patrick Fragman, in charge of air pollution issues at the Environment Ministry, it's a cultural problem.
FRAGMAN: People want to have a car. People want to use a car, even though they could use public transportation systems.
CHAYES: Fragman admits this week's initiative won't do much to change that.
FRAGMAN: The main objective is just to try to arouse the awareness of Parisians and people from the other cities about those problems.
CHAYES: And though most complain Paris didn't close off enough streets, bike borrowers at City Hall like Herald Clairegirard were thrilled.
CLAIREGIRALD: It's the first time they ever organized something like this in Paris. We have great weather and Paris is a beautiful city, so I think we'll enjoy it, the holiday. Shall be great.
CHAYES: In the nearby Marais neighborhood, you could make out an uncanny sound.
CHAYES: Footsteps. Pedestrian Pascal Benoit describes what this street is usually like.
BENOIT: Normally, there are many cars, and you cannot walk on the street. Even if you come with a car, you have to wait a long time.
CHAYES: So do you think it's a good idea?
BENOIT: Of course, of course! (Laughs) Yes.
CHAYES: Others are less convinced. Shopkeepers fumed. The mayor of the southern town of Pau refused to participate, calling the initiative "a useless gimmick." Paris district mayor Francois Lebel dismisses efforts to reduce traffic.
LABELLE: (Speaks in French)
CHAYES: He says, to think you could go to work on a bike in a 21st century in Paris, New York, or Los Angeles, is of course totally absurd. Absurd or not, police estimate Paris traffic fell by almost 20% on Downtown Without My Car Day. Just enough to get rid of the bottlenecks. For Living on Earth, I'm Sarah Chayes in Paris.
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