Can Paris Exist Sans Gasoline? Its Mayor Thinks So.

Gone by 2030? Photo: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

If Paris’s socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo gets her way — and gale-force opposition is trying to make sure she doesn’t — one day you won’t be able to drive a gas-powered car through Paris, but you will be able to breathe. That is the choice, and it should be an obvious one. No city should make it necessary (or, really, possible) to run an errand, drop off the kids, or get to work in a two-ton, fume-spewing capsule engineered to travel at high speeds and crush any creature that gets in the way. Piloting a private car through city streets will eventually come to seem as loony as commuting by tank.

Last year, Hidalgo declared the goal of ridding Paris of all but electric vehicles by 2030. She expressed the hope that all good citoyens would trade in their gazole-guzzlers for Teslas and Volts by then, without the need for draconian rules. But many saw her stated optimism as a call to eliminate cars of any kind from the city’s streets.

In the meantime, she’s in a bind. She can only reach her dream of a carless metropolis incrementally, and micromeasures don’t work. How urbanites get around has become an emotional political issue — driving is right-wing, biking is left- — and Hidalgo’s conservative critics use every one of her steps in the right direction as evidence of failure. She closes roads; clots move a few streets over. She poses for innumerable photo ops astride picturesquely clunky Vélib’ bicycles; the bike share system collapses. If pollution levels plummeted as sharply as the mayor’s popularity, Paris would have air like Wyoming’s.

Revolutions don’t come easily, and Hidalgo is chipping away at a crust of history and culture that is more than a century thick. The desire to sweep Paris clean of dangerous, street-hogging private vehicles dates back at least to 1790, when an anonymous pamphleteer claimed that pedestrians’ rights were human rights. In the 1870s, Baron Haussmann laid down grand boulevards through the tangled heart of the city, creating wide, shop-lined sidewalks flanking even broader, straight-shooting roadways — the flâneur’s turf and the traffic artery, in one convenient package. A generation later, the motorcar forced the city to bend to its needs, instead of the other way around. Sidewalks were narrowed to make room for parking. By the 1970s, the Boulevard Périphérique looped around the metropolis, a moat of traffic that divided the city proper from the bleak high-rise suburbs beyond. The Seine’s picturesque embankments were commandeered for highways.

Every once in a while, I rewatch my favorite road movie from that time, Claude Lelouch’s C’était un rendez-vous. There’s no dialogue, just a nine-minute high-speed drive through Paris at dawn. The camera’s eye sweeps the pavement, as if you, the viewer, were strapped to the front fender, the engine whining in your ear. The car shoots down urban gorges and through red lights, past a blur of empty sidewalks and shuttered boulangeries. You zoom through the Louvre courtyard (where there’s no glass pyramid yet) past the Opéra, and up to Montmartre — where a pretty girl sashays into view, the explanation for the driver’s hurry. When Rendez-vous came out in 1976 the chief of police summoned the director and demanded that he turn over his license. “I gave it to him,” Lelouch recounted. “He looked at it and said, ‘You know, my children loved your film. I’ve taken your license and now I’m giving it back.’ ” The seemingly transgressive short was actually an ode to car culture’s dominance.

I, too, caught the romance of the open street. In the 1980s, as a student in Paris, I enacted a 30-mph version of Lelouch’s film in my rusty Fiat, putt-putting along the Boulevard Raspail late at night toward my room in the Cité Universitaire. The film gets some of its juice from sheer improbability, since a drive through real-life Paris is an étude for brake pedal. All it takes is a light drizzle for the Périf — the beltway — to seize up and for major intersections to revert to their natural state of gridlock.

By 1990, the city woke up from its carbon-fueled fever dream and began to realize that decades of turning streets into speedways and parking lots had proved calamitous. Hidalgo’s predecessor and fellow Socialist, Bertrand Delanoë, who took office in 2002, turned part of the Seine-side expressway into Paris-Plage, a summertime urban beach. Later, he shut a Left Bank section to traffic year-round. Hidalgo did the same on the Right Bank.

She ran into a withering partisan barrage accusing her of high-handedness, poor judgment, mismanagement, and ideological fervor. Video clips of overflowing garbage cans and teeming rats suggested she was losing sight of the basics of urban management. Last February, a court nullified the Right Bank closure, citing a flawed process and poor planning. (Hidalgo struck back with a new closure order, this time invoking the need to protect the area’s aesthetic integrity and tourist appeal.) Even the national road safety agency took a tacit swipe at her pro-pedestrian policies last year, launching a sadistic high-tech campaign meant to terrify and humiliate jaywalkers into obedience. Pedestrians who step off the curb against the light were startled by the screech of pre-recorded brakes. A camera registered each person’s oh-God-I’m-going-to-die expression and instantly projected it on a street-corner billboard. (Might the authorities consider a companion program, encouraging drivers to slow down by tossing fake bodies onto their windshields?)

Certainly, the Hidalgo administration has bobbled its agenda. Paris pioneered bike sharing with Vélib’, which launched in 2007, but when the city switched contractors last year and glitches proliferated, the system imploded. So did Autolib’, the electric-car-sharing service that launched in 2011. Parisians had grown accustomed to the sight of the adorable silver mini-cars hitched to their charging stations. Poorly maintained, they sometimes served as impromptu homeless shelters, the interiors sometimes scattered with trash and drug paraphernalia. The company that ran the service demanded that Paris kick in $47 million a year to pay off its rapidly rising debt. Autolib’ went offline in July.

Paris is trying to solve continental problems at the local level. Air quality has remained stubbornly poor, partly because in the late 1990s, Europe was suckered into accepting the lie of “clean diesel.” Hidalgo has vowed to get old diesel belchers off the city’s roads by next year and to ban diesel completely by 2020, the year her first term ends. In an alternately defensive and defiant new book Respirer (“Breathe”), she binds her policies to the fight for clean air. “Pollution won’t kill us tomorrow; it’s killing us today,” she writes.

Faced with political attacks and her allies’ defections, she is doubling down. Last week, she ordered cars out of the central areas of the Right Bank (the first through the fourth arrondissements) for one Sunday each month. Next on the agenda: redesigning Place de la Bastille from a vehicular vortex to a pedestrian plaza that sweeps out from the sidewalk to enfold the July Column. Distancing cars from the nation’s most iconic monument to patriotism may seem like no big deal — after all, you can’t drive right up to Washington Monument, either — but the Bastille plan is part of a citywide strategy to tame traffic nodes and turn them into places you spend time in even if you’re not sitting in gridlocked traffic. Hidalgo has made it clear that if you dislike her administration’s record of reengineering Paris, you’ll hate what’s coming.

Despite the setbacks, Paris’s fitful trudge toward a post-car future is a model of persistence and clarity. Hidalgo’s measures seem radical, but they are the logical extension of a strategy that her right-wing predecessors initiated a generation ago — and the strategy is paying off, though perhaps too slowly for voters to notice. The proportion of trips within Paris made by car has fallen by nearly half since 1990; mass transit and biking have taken up much of the slack. Roughly half of Parisian households owned a car in 2001. That figure is now down to 34 percent.

In principle, Bill De Blasio has been brandishing some of the same tools in New York: adding Citi Bikes and creating lanes for them to use, clawing public plazas back from traffic, banning cars from Prospect and Central Parks, and even turning segments of Broadway and Park Avenue over to pedestrians on one summer Sunday a year. The administration has been campaigning to reduce the number of crashes, mostly through street design that manipulates the behavior of drivers. But these measures can seem disjointed and reversible, particularly coming from a mayor who has shown little interest in reducing the number of cars, much less in eliminating them completely. De Blasio values the freedom to drive around the city more than the freedom not to. And while he and Governor Cuomo go to war over which of them gets how much blame for a derelict transit system, New York is boldly striding backward: in recent years, the percentage of car-owning households has crept up while bus and subway ridership has dropped.

A carless city does not mean a city without vehicles. There will always be a need for some non-polluting version of ambulances, plumbers’ vans, garbage trucks, delivery trucks, and buses. But in a well-regulated metropolis these workaday heavyweights will occupy only the turf they need, and only when they need it. The streets will teem with pedestrians, two-wheelers, golf carts, self-driving cabs, scooters, pedal- and battery-powered wagons, cargo bikes, and assorted mini-vehicles that use space and energy more efficiently.

Hidalgo’s vision resembles Lelouch’s, in a way. Instead of a center that a roadster can rocket through unimpeded, she imagines a city where cyclists, amblers, kids, and the wheelchair-bound can circulate freely and without fear. The beguiling apparition atop Montmartre is a view onto a carless city. She actually has the clout to make that fantasy come true — once a year. Last September 16, a Sunday, marked the fourth annual journée sans voitures, with internal combustion engines banned from all 20 arrondissements. The air cleared a bit, the noise level dropped, and pedestrians discovered how spacious, airy, and serene their city could be. With phones or bike-mounted cameras, Parisians shot their own Lelouch remakes, more sedate but equally romantic.

Urban residents everywhere deserve the same chance to reimagine what moving around freely and safely could be like. New York should try its own journée sans voitures, a one-day, five-borough ban on motorized traffic. Fortified with that experience, we could get to work undoing one of the 20th century’s most terrible mistakes.

Can Paris Exist Sans Gasoline? Its Mayor Thinks So.