Paris emergency measures to combat smog hailed as a success
The Guardian, 23 March 2015
Emergency measures introduced in Paris to halve the number of vehicles on the roads after a noxious smog descended on the French capital have been hailed as a success. Police said the measures had reduced traffic jams in and around Paris by up to 40% and that 2,800 drivers had been stopped and given on-the-spot fines of €22 (£16) for flouting the regulation by midday on Monday.
Only “clean” cars, those with uneven number plates or vehicles carrying more than three people have been permitted to enter Paris and 22 surrounding areas on Monday in an attempt to reduce the level of fine PM10 particles from diesel engines.
Vehicles were also ordered to travel at a maximum 20kph in the city. An estimated 750 police officers were dispatched from 5.30am onwards to about 100 busy roads and junctions to hand out fines to those who ignored the measures.
To encourage people to leave their cars at home, public transport and residential parking were free.
Pedestrians and cyclists in the city have said that the pollution has become steadily worse over the past few weeks. For several hours on Wednesday last week, as the pollution peaked and a cloud of smog almost completely obscured the city’s famous landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Paris was declared the most polluted city in the world – worse than Shanghai, which normally tops the list.
The effect of the ban on some of the capital’s busiest roads was evident first thing on Monday morning. On the grands boulevards, the main roads running from Place de l’Opera to Place de la Republique, traffic was moving freely. On a normal weekday morning, it is backed up and crawling from traffic light to traffic light.
“Goodness, it’s calm this morning. What a difference,” said Rosa, a concierge sweeping the front of a building near Boulevard Saint-Martin. “I can breathe,” she added.
It was the same on all the main city axes north and south of the Seine river.
It is only the third time since 1997 the city authorities have resorted to such emergency measures. This time last year, a similar two-day ban was said to have had a positive impact on air quality, reducing the PM10 particles and the toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) according to Airparif, which measures pollution in the capital.
Experts say the problem is caused by carbon monoxide and PM10 particles from vehicles, an absence of wind to disperse the pollutants and other meteorological conditions including sunshine coupled with a drop in temperature leading to a stagnant cover of warm air over Paris.
Airparif issued its maximum alert after the carcinogenic PM10 particles (those with a diameter less than 10 microns) topped 80mg per cubic metre and reportedly peaked at 120mg per cubic metre. On Monday, Airparif said the level of particles had risen after falling over the weekend, but was expected to level out on Tuesday with a north-west air current expected to disperse the pollution.
Martin Pietz, a German photographer living in Paris, said he could hardly breathe when cycling to work. “The pollution has become extremely noticeable and worrying. Apart from cutting off my breath, I also find these days that when I get a cough it takes two months rather than two weeks to clear up.”
However, the emergency ban sparked a political row between the Socialist ecology minister, Ségolène Royal, and the Socialist city mayor, Anne Hidalgo. Having been warned that the pollution was unlikely to go away without emergency measures, Hidalgo asked the police to impose the traffic ban last Friday. Her request was overruled by Royal, who argued it was better to persuade Parisians to abandon their vehicles and take public transport than take “hasty decisions” to issue bans that were not a long-term solution.
After a public spat, much of it carried out on social networks, the ecology minister agreed to the ban, but not without accusing Hidalgo of failing to have a “real transport policy” to deal with the pollution problem. Royal also announced that because of an improvement in the air quality, the alternating traffic order would not be renewed on Tuesday.
The minister praised the “public-minded behaviour of motorists who have understood the necessity for this measure”.
On Monday, Hidalgo tweeted that there appeared to be 40% less traffic in the city as a result of the emergency measures.