Incredible Before-and-After Video Shows What Happened When Paris Banned Cars

The Champs-Élysées and other central neighborhoods in the French capital went vehicle-free, thanks to a collective of grassroots activists.

(Photo: Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images)

Sep 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Honking cars, blaring sirens, revving truck engines, and lung-choking exhaust fumes—that’s the norm on the streets surrounding the Eiffel Tower and along the Champs-Élysées. After all, Paris has some of the worst traffic congestion of any city on Earth. But on Sunday residents in the City of Lights bid adieu to vehicles in several central neighborhoods and around its world-famous landmarks, thanks to its inaugural car-free day.

From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. all traffic, except for emergency vehicles and taxis, was banned in four districts and around major landmarks. As a result, thousands of Parisians took to the streets, walking, jogging, biking, or skateboarding against a backdrop of striking blue skies.

To help folks around the world see the drastic shift from noisy, clogged streets to a pedestrian playground, photographer and filmmaker Olivier Pascaud captured before-and-after footage of five locations: the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, the Place de la Bastille, the Palais Garnier Opera House, and the Rue de Rivoli near the Louvre.

“Some people were excited or having a good time, others like me were irritated by the taxis,” Pascaud wrote in email to TakePart about the mood on the streets during the day without cars. “They banned private cars in the center of Paris, but they didn’t ban taxis.”

Eiffel Tower

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That frustration was echoed by many locals who posted on the Facebook page of Paris Sans Voiture, the grassroots collective of environmental activists that first proposed the idea of a day without traffic to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo in August 2014.

On Saturday, Paris Sans Voiture spokesperson Delphine Grinberg told Libération that the group was disappointed that the car-free perimeter was so small and that city officials hadn’t made public transportation free: “We didn’t get as wide a perimeter as we’d have liked, we asked for the whole of Paris,” Mayor Hidalgo acknowledged at the event’s kickoff.


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But on Monday, Hidalgo declared the day “a great success for the well-being of Parisians and lovers of Paris,” and Paris Sans Voiture was effusive in its praise of the city and all the people who had participated. Paris Sans Voiture also promised on Facebook that the next Day Without Cars would be “larger, more respected and more ambitious.”

Place de la Bastille

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Paris Sans Voiture wanted residents to discover more sustainable ways of getting around and hoped to send a message about the need for cleaner air to attendees of the upcoming COP 21—the United Nations Climate Change Conference—to be held in Paris in December. Air pollution in the French capital has been notoriously bad in recent years. In March 2014, the smog was so thick that the Eiffel Tower was obscured from view. The city has amped up its efforts to get residents to bike to work and take public transportation, but the traffic-related air pollution problems have endured. As a result, this year, when levels of particulate matter in Paris’ air have been particularly high, Hidalgo has enacted temporary bans of half of vehicles (according to license plate numbers) until air quality improves. Air pollution kills about 7 million people worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Palais Garnier Opera House

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As Paris residents enjoyed the literary tours of Montparnasse and the curbside picnics that Paris Sans Voiture helped organize, they were able to breathe easier too. French air-quality watchdog Airparif reported a “decline of 20–40 percent of nitrogen dioxide levels on average compared to a similar Sunday,” according to Le Figaro. Measurements of the greenhouse gas were 30 percent lower along the Champs-Élysées, reported the organization.

Pascaud, who is working on a documentary about sustainable mobility in cities, and cycles daily, noted, “Paris is still far behind the likes of Copenhagen or Amsterdam in regards to cycling infrastructure.” But he’s optimistic about its transition from pollution-generating vehicles, given recent support of biking efforts by officials.

“Paris is on a journey. I’m optimistic that in the next 10 years it will become a better city in terms of sustainable mobility. Not just bicycles but also public transport, autonomous vehicles, etc.,” wrote Pascaud.

Rue de Rivoli at the Louvre

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