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Road rage on the Seine

Ludovic Marin, AFP | People dance during the last night of Paris Plages on the banks of the River Seine, in Paris on September 3, 2016

In the heart of Paris, a three-kilometre stretch of highway-turned-promenade has become a tarmacked battleground for opposing visions of what a city should be.


An eyesore to some, a critical artery to others, Paris’s Seine-side Right Bank highway buzzed with traffic for nearly 50 years, pausing only in later years on Sundays, holidays and during the annual Paris Plages summer beach festival. The middle patch of the Voie Georges Pompidou, inaugurated by that then-future president when cars were king, ferried vehicles through central Paris -- alongside the Tuileries Gardens and the Louvre, the Pont Neuf and City Hall -- past the traffic lights that punctuate the city’s upper quays.

All that changed in September when Mayor Anne Hidalgo obtained the controversial closure of the urban shortcut. The move obliged some 43,000 motorists to make other plans and sent Hidalgo’s right-wing rivals into a rage.

The stated plan is to give the riverbank back to pedestrians and cut down on air pollution. City Hall envisions “boules” pitches, a stage for young artists, a fair-trade coffee club, a fair-trade souvenir shop, spaces for debates and a bicycle workshop where cyclists can repair their own bikes. A Left Bank thoroughfare was similarly -- and just as controversially -- pedestrianised in 2014, successfully so in Hidalgo’s estimation.

But those quaint plans for Right Bank boules and refreshments have degenerated into invective, recriminations and a mystifying war of numbers.

“Ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of Ile-de-France residents to play boules, is that really reasonable?” tweeted Jean-Pierre Lecoq, the conservative mayor of Paris’s 6th arrondissement (district), referring to the residents of the greater Paris region, including its suburbs.

Conservatives have compared the resulting traffic deviations to thrombosis, while the city believes traffic trouble created by the change only will be temporary. City figures show a drop in traffic between September and October, which City Hall says shows motorists adapting their habits or even switching to other forms of transportation.

On Wednesday, 168 Paris-area mayors, most representing the conservative Les Républicains party, published an open letter in the daily Le Figaro calling out Hidalgo, and backing appeals lodged recently against the plan by the Ile-de-France region and administrative departments bordering the French capital.

“The residents of our towns who work in Paris, the Parisians who work in our towns, and who do not have the possibility of using inefficient or already saturated public transit are tired and angry,” they wrote, calling for the plan to be re-examined with more transparency.

The Council of Paris’s Les Républicains group issued a statement in November entitled, “Madam Mayor, come out of the denial and lies.” It declared, “More traffic jams fatally mean more pollution.”

Both sides of the debate are digging in, each citing numbers flattering to its cause, which vary considerably depending on the source.

AFP noted that, in one instance, journey times on the upper quays at rush hour have lengthened by five minutes according to city numbers, six minutes according to Paris’s prefecture and eight-and-a-half minutes according to the region that includes Paris and its suburbs.

The Ile-de-France region’s conservative president, Valérie Pécresse, told Europe 1 radio in November that the numbers showed journey times linked to the riverbank road closure were “much greater than the mayor of Paris is giving us and, this is what is very important, that the riverbank closures have impacted the suburbs”. Pécresse lamented the effect on “populations nobody thought about” and argued the decision to close the road had been taken with “unheard-of brutality”.

For his part, Christophe Najdovski, Hidalgo’s deputy for traffic matters, called on Pécresse, to “cease her personal campaign of disinformation”.

“The Ile-de-France region focuses on short journeys, for example between the Place de la Concorde and the Place du Châtelet, and on the heaviest traffic days, to hide the fact that the total time to cross Paris has only very slightly been impacted,” Najdovski said. “The region also takes care to communicate percentages to mask the fact that it is only talking every time about journey times that are a few minutes longer. That falls under disinformation.” Najdovski also said that some traffic issues cited outside Paris were linked to roadwork unrelated to the riverbank road closure.

The Paris prefecture says any realistic evaluation of the closure’s impact on traffic will take six months, but that is evidently unlikely to quiet this street battle for now.

Hidalgo’s green credentials have been lauded abroad. She was recently named “Green Diplomat of the Year” by US magazine Foreign Policy and in August, she was elected chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a network of global megacities working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Pedestrianising Seine-side roads is just one of City Hall's bids to reduce Paris traffic. Starting in January in Paris, drivers of vehicles considered heavily polluting, including diesel and gas-fueled vehicles registered before 1997, will face fines if they are caught circulating in the city between 8am and 8pm on weekdays.

In 2013, the air quality evaluation organisation Airparif noted that City Hall measures had reduced traffic by 15 to 20 percent between 2002 and 2012 with speeds slowed by two kilometres per hour. The group said the measures reduced the number of Parisians exposed to excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide by 24,000 and to fine particulate matter by 170,000.

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