COMMENT: City of Light needs radicalism once more

By Simon Warburton | 10 October 2014

How could Paris encourage more EVs?

How could Paris encourage more EVs?

Conjure up an image of Paris and chances are a multitude of accepted versions will crowd your brain, a smorgasbord of real experiences and tourist brochure charm hard-wired into DNA for centuries.

As with many clichés there's more than an element of truth to what received wisdom there is of Paris too. Glorious architecture, a rich history, decent bouffe and indifferent taxi drivers; there's a sprinkling of recognition in all those - but the town had me thinking last week during the Motor Show.

October can often be something of an Indian Summer in the City of Light - there's another oft-quoted shorthand phrase - but last week was - well - hot - and I took advantage to eat outside on the first night.

I used to live in Paris and I'd forgotten about the enjoyment of regularly eating outside, but I'd also forgotten about the heavy, pounding, traffic that goes with it. 

Go to a decent restaurant on the Left Bank looking over the river or just opposite the Opera and chances are it'll have a four-lane highway roaring right by it.

This is a city blessed with very decent public transport - significantly cheaper than London's to boot - so why do so many Parisians seem wedded to their cars?

The Paris Motor Show was full of future technologies, alternative fuel initiatives, clever light-weighting and electric vehicles, yet where is that initiative translated onto the streets of the capital?

I don't think I saw a single electric car while I was there and there doesn't seem much enthusiasm for a London-style congestion charge either - a move which at a stroke would remove some of the more unnecessary traffic from clogging the city's streets which can rapidly alter from those highways to narrow lanes.

Pollution seems more noticeable than in say, London and from an aesthetic point of view, the unceasing noise from vast areas of tarmac tearing through the heart of the place isn't exactly what you'd imagine from the Cite de la Lumière.

Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann's - chosen by Napoleon III - move to radically rearrange Paris in the nineteenth century along geometric lines strikes me as partly the reason why such motorway-like roads slice the city apart.

There was a genuine need for sanitary improvement on some of the Les Miserables conditions but that legacy has bequeathed a monster network of roads - and that's before anyone has any anecdotes about being stuck on the Peripherique trying to decanter themselves off to the suburbs.

Two genuine innovations have sprung up in recent years however, that seem at least an attempt to alleviate the chronic traffic.

One are the increasingly prevalent trams - I used one to whisk me to the Porte de Versailles Motor Show entrance - they are sparkling clean and cheap - while the other real change is the seemingly ubiquitous use of bicycles.

The Velib - or Velo en Libre Service - is now as common a sight as 'Boris bikes' in London - maybe even more so.

The scheme faces the same issues as London though in that both cities are hardly geared up to cope with such a sudden influx of cyclists and there seems to hardly anyone wearing a helmet, but the more there are surely the more the city fathers will have to address providing more dedicated cycling routes than currently available.

So what would it take to drag the reluctant Parisian from his car or at the very least change his means of powertrain?

The blunt instrument of charging works - I'm not holding up London as some sort of utopia and Paris - just like its counterpart across the English Channel - has myriad fantastic qualities - but hardly anyone would dream of driving in the UK congestion charge zone at GBP11.50 (US$18.40) a pop unless they absolutely had to.

We heard a lot about some incredible technologies at the Paris Motor Show - and to be fair to suppliers such as Valeo - they are actively working on urban mobility solutions as populations increasingly migrate to cities.

But electric vehicles, hybrids, car sharing, charging, dedicated bus and taxi lanes; some of that was going on outside the Show's cavernous halls, but to me, it didn't seem a lot of it was.

There are some oases in Paris - I used to live on a narrow street called rue de Montorgeuil - a pedestrianised haven where artisanal shops crowd cheek-by-jowl with fishmongers and bakers.

Perhaps the city needs to create some more of those areas for its citizens to breathe - sometimes literally. Reports earlier this year indicated pollution levels had risen so high, drivers were only allowed in alternately according to even or odd numberplates.

If Paris doesn't want more of that maybe it's time for some Haussmann-like radicalism for the city in the 21st century?