The latest chic in Paris: no car

July 13, 2000|By Edward Flattau

PARIS -- It took me six hours to fly from Washington to the "City of Light." It took me two hours from the Charles De Gaulle Airport to reach the center of the French capital.

The Parisian taxi driver shook his head in disgust, muttering that "every year, it just gets worse and worse ... and if there's an accident, forget it."

Statistics bear out the cabbie.

About 3 million cars enter and depart daily this city of more than 2 million people and most main arteries are jammed with traffic throughout the day. This is not the Paris that I knew back in the early and mid-1970s, when automobiles blended into the landscape rather than detracted from it.

Years ago, Parisians and tourists alike strolled where a highway now borders the picturesque banks of the Seine River. For a motorist, street parking has always been a dicey proposition in some parts of the city, but never the formidable challenge it is today in virtually all central locations (unless one is fortunate enough to snare one of the limited underground garage spaces).

The major avenues were always bustling. Today, even many of the narrow side streets are clogged with traffic into the wee hours of the morning. When one occupies a table at the famed Left Bank outdoor cafes that used to be prime vantage points for people watching, it seems as though more cars pass by than pedestrians.

Congestion and noise are not the only ways that automobiles have diminished this famed European capital. Paris all too often has become smog-ridden from car exhaust, and has had its share of bad air days when the city fathers have been forced to restrict the use of motor vehicles for public health reasons.

No small wonder then that the latest in "chic" for Parisians living in the center of the city (and chic is not a French word by accident) is not to own a car but rather rent one for weekend outings or other special occasions. Latest estimates are that 45 percent of those Parisians who can afford cars have forsworn them.

Come to think of it, the figure is actually quite low, considering the city's superb sprawling public transit system and the high cost of maintaining an automobile in France, where the price of a gallon of gas ranges between $4 and $6. The number of those abstaining from automobile ownership figures to rise unless the French find some way to rescue their capital and other cities from the excesses of the internal combustion engine.

It should be noted that some organized efforts to diminish the automobile's negative impacts in French cities have begun. The French have actually designated Sept. 22 of each year as a day for a "city without cars," in which communities are urged to close a part of their downtown area to private automobiles and limit it solely to foot traffic, bicycles, public transit and official government vehicles.

Symbolic? Yes. Significant? Maybe.

Last year, 65 communities in addition to parts of the Paris metropolitan area participated. In 1998, the first year of the event, only 34 communities joined in the festivities.

The Sept. 22 celebration's message is that in an urban environment, a car can easily become a constraint on freedom rather than a liberating instrument. Of course, the real test is whether a well-publicized gesture will ever evolve into some form of permanency.

Lack of space and public health considerations may ultimately give the French no choice. At least they seem to be poised to move in the right direction. That is in sharp contrast to our own nation, where sprawl is making us more auto dependent than ever, a fact corroborated by the U.S. Census Bureau. It reported that the number of trips Americans take on foot has declined 42 percent in the last 20 years.

Right now, though, I'm not worrying about the States. My mind is on Paris, the fantasy destination for travelers the world over, that is flirting with the mortifying prospect of being transformed from the romantic city of light into the fractious city of cars.

Edward Flattau is a Washington-based columnist who writes about environmental issues.

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