Why Paris Is Transforming a Riverside Highway Into a Pedestrian Promenade

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Sections of the Voie Georges-Pompidou are closed to traffic each summer for a month. Soon, cars will be banned from the busy riverside expressway for the long-haul. . (Photo: Eric Chan/flickr)

Seine you later, blaring horns and smog-spewing tailpipes.

In her administration’s latest effort to curb vehicle emission-related air pollution in a city all too often obscured by an oppressive grey haze, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced earlier this week that a traffic-ridden expressway running directly alongside the Right Bank of the River Seine will be closed to vehicular traffic.

To be clear, cars have already temporarily gotten the boot from this particular 3.3-kilometer (roughly 2-mile) span of eastbound highway that stretches from Jardin des Tuileries to the Henry IV tunnel near the Bastille as part of an annual summertime “Seine-side holiday” event held since 2002. Called Paris-Plages, the beach-themed fete — truckloads of sand, floating swimming pools, volleyball courts and all — is held each July and lasts four weeks. While the just-approved $9 million pedestrianization scheme won’t see the riverside transformed into a full-time faux beach, it will see cars disappear for a lot longer than one month.

They’ll disappear for good. Adieu, cars.

Once liberated of the roughly 43,000 cars that travel along it daily, the '60s-era quay-bound highway will be lined with foliage and al fresco cafes and outfitted with wooden boardwalk open to pedestrians and cyclists. A small section of the old road will remain open but only to emergency vehicles. Presumably, the wildly popular Paris-Plages will be held each summer as normal.

And so, this Seine-abutting stretch of the Right Bank — UNESCO-designated as a World Heritage Site, by the way — will, for the first time in modern history, be experienced like it was meant to be: up-close and car-free, all year round.

Voted on and passed by Paris City Council, the plan — the latest in Hidalgo’s air pollution-combating Paris Breathes initiative, which has also enacted the banishment of cars from the Champs-Elysees on the first Sunday of every month — has been heralded by the mayor as a “historic decision, the end of the urban motorway and the taking back of the Seine.”

While Paris remains a world-class beauty, the city has been plagued by air pollution woes that, at times, are on par with notoriously smog-cloaked Chinese cities such as Beijing. Air pollution has been blamed for the deaths of an estimated 2,500 Parisians annually.

In 2014, when air pollution levels in the city shot way past levels deemed safe by the World Health Organization, Paris pleaded with motorists to leave their cars at home and take public transit instead. To, ahem, drive home the urgency of the situation, officials opted to do away with fares and opened up the city’s extensive public transportation network to riders gratis for a weekend.

This past July, another emissions-curtailing measure went into effect: all cars registered in Paris prior to 1997 (and motorcycles registered before 2000) are forbidden from being operated in the city on weekdays with some exceptions. Those caught cruising around in older, more polluting vehicles are subject to steep fines.

Paris Plages, River Seine
Held since 2002, Paris-Plages sees the normally car-oriented quays of the Right Bank transformed into a pop-up beach destination. (Photo: jean-louis zimmerman/flickr)

A bitter battle over pedestrianization

Not surprisingly, the plot to pedestrianize such a high-traffic artery has been a hugely contentious one.

Wrote the Guardian in early September, prior to the council voting on the permanent closure of the expressway, which is part of the 8-mile-long Voie Georges-Pompidou:

Few issues have so bitterly divided Parisians than the closure of Voie Georges-Pompidou. The move, one of the pillars of Hidalgo’s 2014 election campaign, has pitted city hall against the regional council, right against left, motorists against pedestrians, in increasingly bad tempered exchanges.

While 55 percent of Parisians surveyed in a recent poll are keen on the idea of transforming a section of Voie Georges-Pompidou into a permanent public promenade, many right-wing politicians have vehemently opposed the Socialist party-borne scheme, claiming that it would hurt businesses operating in this particularly touristy section of Paris and create a bottleneck-heavy traffic nightmare that may free the riverside from traffic but generate worse gridlock elsewhere.

What’s more, the Independent reports that a French motorists association collected 12,000 opposing signatures from concerned commuters.

Pierre Chasseray of drivers' organization 40 Millions d’automobilistes (40 Million Motorists) tells the Guardian: “If you close a major road, it’s obvious the cars aren’t just going to disappear. Anne Hidalgo isn’t David Copperfield. They’re going to turn up elsewhere and there will be traffic jams elsewhere.”

He adds: “City hall wants to change people’s habits by force, but we’re not a dictatorship. Instead of closing the highways, they should find a way for cars and pedestrians to coexist.”

Voie Georges-Pompidou
Thanks to the aggressive air pollution-curbing initiatives of the mayor, cars and motorcycles on a 2-mile section of Voie Georges-Pompidou will soon become a thing of the past. (Photo: Kimberly Vardeman/flickr)

On the other hand, a petition in favor of opening up the riverfront to people, not Peugeots, boasted the signatures of 19,000 Parisians.

The Guardian notes that despite being passed by Paris City Council, the closure still needs to be approved by the Paris Police Prefecture, which oversees any and all major changes that would impact the flow of traffic through the city. If the closing off this particular part of the riverfront to cars ultimately results in “traffic chaos,” Parisian police honcho Michel Cadot could potentially decide to open up Voie Georges-Pompidou to regular traffic.

But before that happens, authorities will closely watch traffic on other major roads — alternate arteries, in particular — in the area to see how they are impacted by the road-to-promenade conversion during a six-month period. Noise and air quality levels will also be monitored in the vicinity to see how things are progressing.

Traffic patterns and air quality levels aside, it’s exciting to think about how a expressway-free riverbank dotted with parks and plants and people will change the heart of Paris for the better and put the city “on the right side of history” as Ségolène Royal, minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, puts it.

Sounds like it’s time to fall in love with Paris all over again.