Paris' Plan to Kick Cars Off Its Riverbanks

In a controversial move designed to get Parisians off the road, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has unveiled plans to close parts of the Seine's banks to traffic and turn them into a pedestrians' paradise

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Handout /Apur / JC Choblet / Reuters

A computer-generated image shows an urban planning project of the Paris expressway on the banks of the river Seine at Port de Solferino and Orsay museum area where the road has been covered and converted into a pedestrian walkway.

On a recent Sunday in Paris, stroller-pushing parents, rollerbladers and cyclists eased their way up and down an unusually tranquil stretch of the Seine's left bank. Normally this road is filled with thousands of cars zipping along, but once a week it is transformed into an oasis of calm as part of an experiment by City Hall to see what happens when cars are banned from Paris' riverbanks. So far the experiment, which has been going on for the past few years, is proving popular. Delphine Damourette, 31, a Montmarte resident whose cobblestoned neighborhood is a rollerblader's hell, says the traffic-free Sundays give her a taste of her city as she most loves it — during summer vacation, when Paris slows down, cars disappear, and pedestrians reclaim the Seine. "It would be great if Paris were like this all year long," she says. Soon, she may get her wish.

If Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has his way, by 2012 the 1.2 miles of left bank expressway between the Musée d'Orsay and the Alma bridge will be permanently closed to automobiles, while traffic on the right bank will be slowed, all with the goal of turning the urban highway into a "pretty urban boulevard." The estimated $50 million project — dubbed "the reconquest of the banks of the Seine" — calls for the development of 35 acres of riverside, with cafés, sports facilities and floating islands. "It's about reducing pollution and automobile traffic, and giving Parisians more opportunities for happiness," Delanoë said at the April 14 project unveiling. "If we succeed in doing this, I believe it will profoundly change Paris."

But Parisians have already been through several years of policies — some drastic, some less so — aimed at ending the automobile's reign in the capital. Are they ready for another transformative transportation project? Deputy Mayor for the Environment Denis Baupin, who as transportation chief from 2001-2008 launched tramways, bus lanes, bike paths, the Vélib' public bikeshare and other schemes — all while weathering virulent criticism and monikers like Khmer Vert — thinks they are. "If we can talk about reconquering the banks of the Seine today, it's because we first had the Sunday [closures] ... which allowed people to acclimate to the idea that it was possible, pleasant and positive," he tells TIME. "Mentalities have changed, and desire has grown for a city that's going somewhere, that's transforming and becoming more ecological."

In seeking to take back the Seine, though, City Hall has started a new fight on one of the most historic battlegrounds in Paris for competing visions of the capital. The 1967 creation of the right bank expressway was part of a wider plan to crisscross the capital with high-speed roads, reflecting former President George Pompidou's belief that "Paris must adapt itself to the automobile." That philosophy hit a roadblock in 1975 when grassroots opposition successfully blocked plans for an elevated left bank expressway that would have passed in front of Notre Dame. The victory was a benchmark for France's nascent green movement and constituted "the last gasp of the Los Angelesation of Paris," says Eric Britton, Paris-based economist and founder of the transport think tank New Mobility Agenda. "It was the beginning of another idea about how to handle mobility, transport infrastructure and the environment in general."

Yet 35 years later, more than 30,000 cars still zip down the Seine expressways every day, and for critics of Delanoë's idea, like French radio commentator Marion Ruggieri, they are "no less than the umbilical cord of the capital for everyone working and living in the suburbs." Worried about how closing the river's banks to traffic will affect those who depend on their cars to make a living, Ruggieri told France INFO radio, "Bertrand Delanoë wants a museum city, petrified in its clichés, reserved to tourists and the privileged, all this in the name of pollution."

Other detractors scoff at City Hall's claims that traffic diverted by the project will be absorbed into the upper quays and that drivers' commutes will only increase by 6 minutes. Environment deputy mayor Baupin, however, is confident that, when forced to, people will change their habits. It's already happened. Thanks to municipal policies such as lowering speed limits and replacing thousands of parking spaces with wider sidewalks and bike and bus lanes, daily car trips in Paris were reduced by 450,000 from 2001-2008. The hope is that by making the river banks automobile-free, more drivers will leave their cars at home and use the east-west-running bus lines, metro, and RER commuter trains along the Seine — all currently under expansion.

But in the end, they may have no choice. "This thing is inevitable, the reclaiming of waterways is happening worldwide," says Britton. Major cities like Bordeaux and Lyon have banned automobiles from their river banks in recent years and invested millions to develop green promenades, tramways and other transportation alternatives — projects widely embraced by residents today after initial skepticism. Outside of France, transformations have taken place even in industrial cities like Bilbao in Spain — which since the 1990s has cleaned up the infamously polluted Nervión river and moved its port downstream to reclaim its banks — and Kaohsiung in Taiwan, the country's busiest port, where the city has transformed shipyards and military complexes into green space and leisure areas.

Baupin believes that all these examples point to a permanent shifting of the tides. "Not a city in Europe would build the Georges Pompidou expressway today," says Baupin. "The movement has finally reversed." Technically that won't be confirmed until Paris City Council votes on the project in July. But with the right bank to still be partially occupied by cars whatever happens, Baupin and the Greens won't be fully satisfied. "This is only a step," he says. It seems the banks of the Seine haven't seen their last battle yet.