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ENVIRONMENT

How French cities are getting people out of their cars

It's better for your health, better for the environment and creates a nicer urban atmosphere for all - so French cities are increasingly creating packages of measures designed to get people out of their cars by prioritising walking, cycling or public transport.

How French cities are getting people out of their cars
Cyclists and car users in Paris (Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

The French capital was an early pioneer of measures including the 15-minute city and car-free zones, but more and more French cities are bringing in measures including weight-based parking charges, low-emission zones, free public transport and increased cycle lanes – all in the name of reducing the number of cars in city centres. 

Street redesigns

If you’re a resident of or regular visitor to French cities, you will probably notice the increasing number of works on the streets, especially smaller, residential streets.

All over France, city planners are making small changes to residential streets – adding bike lanes, removing parking spaces, planting more trees or greenery or creating extra spaces for socialising. The temporary extra café terraces introduced during Covid that allowed cafés, bars and restaurants to expand their outdoor seating areas into parking spaces on the street have become fixtures (with licences) in cities including Paris.

Pay by weight

Both Paris and Lyon have decided to impose higher car parking charges on heavier vehicles – especially targeting SUVs.

In Lyon, the new charges will begin next year. Currently, residents in the city pay a flat rate of €20 per month for an on-street parking permit. But the council has decided that, from 2024, residential rates will range from €15 to €45, based on the weight of their vehicle.

Under the new rules, owners of an internal combustion car that weighs less than one tonne, or an electric car weighing less than 2.2 tonnes, will pay €15; for an internal combustion car weighing more than 1.725 tonnes, a plug-in hybrid weighing more than 1.9 tonnes or an electric car weighing more than 2.2 tonnes the price will be €45. 

For vehicles in the middle range for weight, the monthly price for permits will be €30.

Paris has voted to adopt a similar scheme, although has not yet published details of the new fee scale. 

Carshare lanes

The government offers €100 incentives to people who sign up to car-share schemes, but some cities are looking to create special lanes for covoiturage (car-sharing).

In Paris one lane of the city’s périphérique ringroad will become a priority lane for athletes and officials during the Olympic Games in summer 2024 – but city officials are looking into plans to keep the reserved lane and turn it into a priority route for car-sharing.

Prolonging the scheme beyond 2024 as part of the games’ legacy would aim to “develop more virtuous and economical use of cars,” said Paris deputy mayor David Belliard.

Radars are already being tested that could detect whether a vehicle has multiple passengers and is therefore legally in the car sharing lane, he added.

Low-emission zones

France’s environment minister announced last year a major extension of ‘low-emission zones’ that will see certain types of vehicle effectively banned from numerous town and city centres by 2025. 

These Crit’Air zones already exist in 11 French cities – Paris, Lyon, Grenoble, Aix-Marseille, Nice, Toulon, Toulouse, Montpellier, Strasbourg, Rouen and Reims – and are set to expand.

The zones work by assigning a number of 0-5 to each vehicle based on how polluting it is – local authorities can then either ban or restrict the more polluting vehicles from city centres.

READ ALSO Crit’Air: How France’s vehicle emissions stickers work

Car-free zones

From next year, Paris plans to ban cars in arrondissements 1-4 – the area that makes up much of the historic city centre that runs along the Seine and attracts the most tourists.

The plans were first announced in May 2021 and were set to come into effect in 2022, but have been pushed back to 2024 allow more time to implement the changes. 

The plans as envisaged by City Hall don’t constitute a complete ban on all vehicles in the city centre, and there are many exceptions – including for people who live in the central zones to use cars, as well as allowances for delivery drivers, the disabled, taxis, VTC vehicles such as Uber, buses and car-sharing.

READ ALSO MAP: Where and when will Paris ban cars from the city centre?

Bordeaux, meanwhile, extended the pedestrianised area of its city centre last November, to include part of the Chartrons district, increasing the size of the existing pedestrian area by 45 percent. The current car-free zone is some 58 hectares, and the plan is to increase it to 100 hectares in the next few years.

Low-speed travel

An increasing number of French cities are cutting speed limits to 30km/h in a bid to encourage motorists out of their cars, save lives and – according to advocates – reduce pollution.

Cities recognise that cutting speed limits does not work in isolation. They go hand-in-hand with other so-called ‘soft transport’ measures to reduce reliance on cars in heavily urban areas.

In Montpellier a €150 million 10-year mobility plan aims to cut car use and encourage other means of transport. 

As well as the reduction in speed limit, the plan includes new cycle lanes, new bus lanes, and improvements to the city’s tram services – including a new line set to open by 2025.

In 2019, Lille took a step-by-step approach to its speed limit reduction, adding new areas over a period of months, while also improving infrastructure for cyclists and public transport.

READ ALSO Why more cities across France are imposing 30 km/h speed limits

Cycle lanes

During the pandemic, more people were prompted to take up cycling as a means to escape the virus-spreading confines of public transport. In Paris, the rapidly expanding cycling path network was dubbed “corona-pistes”, as commuters shunned public transport for fear of infection.

Images of Paris as an example of how a city can switch transport focus to cycling are regularly trotted out on social media. But it’s not the only city to do this, as government-backed pro-cycling schemes are proliferating across the country.

READ ALSO How France will splash another €250 million on national ‘bike plan’

Free buses

More than 35 towns and cities across France – including Calais, Dunkirk Libourne, Niort, Aubagne, Gap, and Castres – offer permanent free bus travel on in-town routes. 

The idea is to ease congestion on the roads by increasing the number of journeys made by bus, and to reduce the environmental impact caused by cars.

Others – including Rouen, Nantes and Montpellier – run or have trialled free public transport on certain days, notably weekends. And some have age-restricted free travel, allowing under-18s to travel without having to pay.

Advertising

Since 2022, car adverts have been obliged to carry messages that encourage more eco-friendly forms of transport such as cycling and public transport – similar to the health warning required on adverts for alcohol or junk food.

All car adverts now contain one of the following messages:

  • Pour les trajets courts, privilégiez la marche ou le vélo – For short journeys, prioritise walking or cycling
  • Pensez à covoiturer – Think about lift sharing 
  • Au quotidien, prenez les transports en commun – On a day-to-day basis, take public transport 

The messages must be clearly visible or audible, and failure to comply will lead to a €50,000 fine.  They must also mention the hashtag  #SeDéplacerMoinsPolluer – which encourages people to choose less polluting forms of transport. 

Car manufacturers and advertisers will also have to mention which emissions class the advertised vehicle falls into.

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PROTESTS

New large-scale protests planned in south-west France against water storage project

Several thousand activists have gathered in south-west France ahead of two large-scale demonstrations against 'méga-bassines', the contentious irrigation project that has led to intense protests for the last two years.

New large-scale protests planned in south-west France against water storage project

At least 4,000 people have already gathered in south-west France, at the ‘Water Village’ encampment in the town of Melle, to protest this weekend against méga-bassines, a controversial planned network of giant underwater storage areas that farmers can use for irrigation in the event of a drought.

Demonstrations against méga-bassines have been going on for over two years in France, and some have involved violent clashes with police, leading to two protesters being severely injured in March 2023.

The protests are set to take place on Friday, at Saint-Sauvant in the Vienne département, at the site of a future méga-bassine, despite an announcement by local authorities that ‘all undeclared demonstrations in and around the town had been banned.’

The second protest is scheduled for Saturday, at the port of La Rochelle, in Charente-Maritime.

According to a press release by the one of the participating collectives, Bassines Non Merci, they hope to see 10,000 people participate.

There have also been calls by the farmers’ union, Coordination rurale, for counter-demonstrations on Friday.

In response, more than 3,000 gendarmes and police officers have been mobilised.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told the French press he feared there could be ‘acts of serious violence’, noting that security forces have identified 30 protesters as ‘Fiché S’ (on a state security watchlist).

READ MORE: Méga-bassines: Why has a dispute over irrigation in French farmland turned violent?

However, unions and organisations heading up the protests have disputed these claims. One of the organisers, Soulèvements de la Terre, specified on their website that their goal “is not to target individual farmers and their farms”. 

Why the controversy?

The project, backed by around 400 local farmers, is controversial because environmentalists say the mega-basins damage valuable wetland areas – the west of France has several wetland areas that shelter a wide variety of wildlife and the area is also known for salt marshes that produce a highly prized fleur de sel.

The protesters also say that the water tanks drain water from natural groundwater supplies and therefore make droughts worse for local residents and smaller farmers – essentially they see the basins as a ‘water theft’ from locals by big agri-businesses. 

The first major protests occurred in October 2022, which saw between 4,000 and 7,000 demonstrators gather in Sainte-Soline (the sight of the would-be mega-basins) and 1,500 police.

Molotov cocktails were thrown and more than 60 police officers injured in a three-day series of clashes.

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