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On Sunday, September 27, there was a remarkable feeling in the Paris air. Excitement. A sense of history. Freshness. Skepticism. Curiosity. Annoyance. Disruption. Change. Festivity. Hope.
Places like the Champs Elysées were busy—sometimes even clogged. Not with cars, but because of the absence of cars.
The first Paris Journée sans Voiture brought throngs of nonmotorized people to the streets to celebrate. And everyone seemed to be smiling. Life without cars—for one brief shining moment—was exhilarating.
The skies were blue (bluer than usual it seemed). The air was clean. An eerie quiet blanketed many parts of the city.
In the designated car-free zones, covering about 30% of the city, there were walkers, joggers, bicyclists, rollerbladers, families with strollers, scooterists, segwayists, velo transporters, skateboarders, and the inevitable armies of photographers, selfie fanatics, and news media trying to capture this historic moment.
The definition of “car-free” turned out to be not quite as expected. It was not a motorless day. It was, in fact, a day when we learned just how many taxis are in Paris and just how many red double-decker Big Buses and yellow Open Tour charters can circle the city. These vehicles, as well as RATP Paris buses, emergency vehicles, garbage trucks, and cars near their residences were all authorized.
Yes, there were more cars in the no-car zone than anticipated (especially by the photographers who were hoping for empty streets). Mayor Anne Hidalgo—who courageously orchestrated this event as an educational experiment and an important prelude to the Paris-hosted United Nations World Climate Conference in November—had lobbied hard for a larger car-free zone. She is already focused on 2016 and ways to expand the “no-car” zone and refine the experience for everyone.
Even with disappointment on some sides, the event achieved some important goals. Pollution was reduced 20%–40% tweeted Mayor Hidalgo, depending on the area of Paris. Vélibs were, as expected, popular: 144,089 rentals during the 11 am to 6 pm no-car hours (35% more than on normal Sundays). And most people (except those with cars trying to find a way to get to their destinations) were embracing the day.
By 6 pm (and, even before that time on the major feeder routes where cars were allowed), traffic was snarled and horns were honking. The refreshing quiet was a memory. The streets were rumbling again, and diesel fumes were in the air.
The Journée sans Voiture fell into the past as just one day in time.
Only the future will tell if hope and change were the words of the day.
Lead photo credit : The Champs Elysées: Busy with the absence of cars. © Meredith Mullins