A 'Sort Of' Car-Free Day in Paris

photo: st germain blocked off
The barriers keep what looks like - all - the traffic from turning onto the boulevard Saint-Germain.

Daring Experiment Has Mixed Results

Paris:- Tuesday, 22. September 1998:- Traffic in Paris is a funny animal. There are times during the day when you can walk across the four or six lanes of the boulevard Saint-Germain in the middle of a block without looking either way. And there are times when you'd prefer to take one of the tunnels under it.

After studying Le Parisien to find a 'typical' area of Paris for a report about today's 'No Car Day,' I have picked the Latin Quarter.

There were two things I noticed about the newspaper's guide. It did not say 'car free;' it said 'traffic restricted.' These 'restricted' areas are not continuous - they are isolated islands around the city. The Latin Quarter is one of the larger ones.

Since I have other things to do too, I pop out of the métro at Saint-Suplice and head over to the church, to visit the Mairie of the sixth arrondissement. Here, I do not find all the Paris-wide 'event' brochures I was hoping for. We are in the period of the 'rentrée' still, and while there are plenty of 'events,' the calendar for them is still being printed.

Instead of going back to the rue de Rennes, I take the rue Bonaparte which runs right out the place, to the place Saint-Germain des Prés. This rue Bonaparte is stuffed with stalled traffic. A truck with the 'Delirium Biere' sign is in the middle of it.

Before I get to the place at Saint-Germain I have figured out the jam I am walking past is a result of the boulevard being 'car free.'

At the place Saint-Germain, it is all abundantly clear. There is an absolutely huge traffic jam.photo: traffic jam at st germain Everything is being forced to continue past the place, down the narrow rue Bonaparte, towards the Seine.

This jam doesn't look too bad, but the photo only shows about a quarter of the crossing.

I have not seen many jams like this one; outside of rush-hours and disaster areas. There are many police and there is some honking and there are a lot of motors getting very warm, because it is a bright, sunny, warm day.

The police have a barricade blocking access to the boulevard Saint-Germain; which uniquely permits east-bound traffic in normal times.

Beside a gap in the barricade there is a large sign with the following text:

1998 Année du Piéton
"Et si nous vivions Paris sans voiture le mardi 22 septembre 1998"

Quartier à circulation reduite.
Accès aux véhicules motorisés limité.
Sauf riverains, bus, taxis, vélos, voitures non polluantes électriques, GPL, GNVI, GIG, GIC.

There are also two signs: speed limit 30 kph and a red circular 'no entry' sign.

The sign does not say that passage is also permitted for police cars, riot-squad vans, fire department equipment, ambulances, removal vans, postal vans and trucks, pharmacy deliveries, street-cleaners,photo: restricted sign press-delivery vehicles and hearses; and any other driver who has a special permit. This last includes local inhabitants, but these - the 'riverains' - is mentioned on the sign.

This is the sign. Drivers have plenty of time to read all of it.

I walk through the gap in the barricade and move halfway down the block. Because I have to dodge all the 'exceptions' coming through the gap in waves, I can only get a photo showing the barricade - with all the traffic behind it. This is the shot I want anyway - even if it is a bit phoney.

My guess is that 'reduced traffic' allows about 30 percent of normal traffic. So, in this 'circulation reduite' stretch, it is safer to be on the sidewalk.

And what do you know? In this safe area, there is a RATP bus parked at the curb; with its rent-a-bike service set up under parasols. Today the bikes are free, and here there are some available.

At the Mabillon intersection, a flock of bicyclists sails out of the rue du Four. Temporarily there is no traffic on the boulevard and the bicyclists spread out and head east, about six abreast. It is quiet, it looks good. I am not ready; I miss the shot of it. I also miss the lone 'roller' headed west.

In the side streets running off the rue de Buci, there are empty parking spaces. I have never seen these before, day or night. At the marché area, there is a permanent-looking sign; which also says it is a 'circulation reduite' area.

Last Sunday, Saint-Germain-en-Laye had a traffic-free day. Neighbors told me the cafés there expanded their terraces out into the streets and it was very cool and relaxed.

At Buci, there is just enough 'exceptional' traffic to prevent this - and I give up the idea of looking all over the Latin Quarter for an example of terrace tables and chairs out in a street.

Instead, I do walk down the middle of the rue de Seine. I have to get out of the way of 'exceptions' only about three times before getting to La Palette - which only has its usual terrace.

Going all the way, to the quai de Conti, I see there are a lot of people strolling on the pont des Arts. It is a pedestrian bridge and people are taking in the sun on it.

According to the paper, there are supposed to be 'pedestrian connections' between the reduced-traffic areas. I assume this is one of these 'connections,' coming through the Louvre's Cour Carrée - but it turns out it isn't. Just a lot of people coming this way.

The west-bound rue de Rivoli does not have restricted traffic today, but I don't know this. The light goes green at the rue de Louvre and lets a burst of cars and buses go. Then it is the rue de Louvre's turn, and a medium burst pours into Rivoli out of it. It scoots west.

For a few seconds, before Rivoli gets the green light again, the rue de Rivoli is nearly deserted - nearly all the way up to Palais Royal. For a few seconds, it looks like 'circulation reduite' here.

Today's Score

Globally, Paris' traffic dropped 20 percent and the use of public transport increased by ten percent. The quality of the air showed no change - but it was aphoto: free bike rental bus warm and fine day and if traffic had been normal, the air quality would have likely suffered.

Here is the RATP's 'Rent-a-Bike' bus, with parasols, under the shade of the plane trees. If there had been a café waiter around, they could have rented tables and chairs too.

Around France, 35 towns and cities took part in the reduced traffic day. The amount of traffic dropped from minus 15 percent to a whopping minus 40 percent in Strasbourg, which had improved air quality. Loser was Nîmes with reduced air quality, despite 20 percent less traffic and ten percent more public transport use.

For the Minister of Transport and the Environment, Mme. Dominique Voynet, it was not an 'alibi day' but one to make people think there are other ways of getting around in urban areas.

What made it work - for this one day - was the public's willingness to give it a trial.

Due to the impressive traffic jams adjacent to areas where traffic was restricted, some drivers were said to have thought the whole city should have been closed to cars. These same blockages also trapped city buses and many couldn't keep to their timetables - which are calculated according to the normal bottlenecks.

The roller people and the bicyclists also ran into the increased traffic outside the restricted-traffic zones. The regulars among them had very mixed feelings about the experiment.

New lines on the road: on normal days, at some intersections, bicyclists get to jump-start on the green light. Instead of just having a bicycle-lane by the curb, a space for bikes has been reserved across all lanes - in front of the cars, right at the stop-line. I haven't seen how this works yet.

For me today, I did what I usually do. With a pocket full of green and yellow tickets, I took the métro and the train. Both were on time.

The Official Word:

The government's Ministry of Transport and the Environment, responsible for figuring out if Parisians can live without cars, has a Web site with an official declaration.

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