It is 8.30am on a weekday rush hour and the Voie Georges-Pompidou along the right bank of the Seine, normally one of the busiest highways in Paris, is eerily quiet.
Around 43,000 vehicles a day used this expressway, built in 1967, to cross central Paris from west to east, but they are nowhere to be seen. Instead, teams of workers are there, planning playgrounds, wooden terraces, waterside gardens restaurants and rectangular terrains for playing boules.
The drone from traffic on the parallel Quai des Celestins, higher up the river bank, suggests traffic there is moving along at a respectable pace – confounding those doomsayers who suggested the controversial scheme to pedestrianise two miles of city centre highway would bring neighbouring roads to a standstill.
While this section of the Seine closes every summer to host the Paris Plages – in which temporary artificial beaches are created along the right bank of the river – this time the expressway has not been reopened.
Instead Paris’s prefect of police – the state representative – this week approved the closure of the riverside route for a six-month trial. Socialist-run city hall says it intends to keep the highway closed to vehicles for good. …
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. …
Christophe Najdovski, Paris deputy mayor responsible for transport and public spaces, and a member of the Ecology Green party, said the new project is all about changing attitudes. “The first few weeks will be difficult and then it will become normal. As we have seen with this type of project across the whole world, including places like New York and Rio, is that when an urban highway is transformed or closed, there is an evaporation of traffic. Either people modify their route, or they use their car less and take other forms of transport.
“Behaviour will change. Habits will change. And our objective, to reduce traffic and thus pollution, will be achieved.”
Najdovski added: “We have done all studies necessary for this project and we’re convinced that after six months, a year, everything will be fine and nobody will be talking about this any more. That’s what happened with the right bank three years ago.
“If Anne Hidalgo wants to ride a bicycle then that’s up to her, but why should motorists suffer? Let’s make no mistake, her goal is purely electoral and this stupid idea will please two or three bobos (bourgeois-bohemians) and upset 10 million others. She doesn’t care about the people in the banlieues [suburbs] because they don’t vote for her.”
“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,” Chasseray told the Guardian.
He added: “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.”
The Ile-de-France regional president Valérie Pécresse, of the opposition centre-right Les Republicains (LR) party, said the trial should last a year to take account of “spikes in pollution” in summer months. She said the pedestrianisation project was “seductive” but added: “It all comes down to how it’s done.”
“Paris cannot take brutal decision without real consultation and without taking into account the impact on the banlieue,” Pecresse told Le Monde.