Ruth Brandon: Why Paris is right to force SUVs out of sight

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Indy Lifestyle Online

If the Mayor of Paris has his way, 2005 will be the year Paris bans SUVs.

If the Mayor of Paris has his way, 2005 will be the year Paris bans SUVs. If it actually happens - and it hasn't yet, despite being promised for January - then this will be yet another motoring first for Paris. The long-distance race which in 1895 established horseless carriages as the transport of the future began and finished there - Paris-Bordeaux-Paris in 22 hours, won by Emile Levassor in his Panhard-Levassor. It was the first town to get motorised, and the first to introduce one-way streets (in 1909). It was the first centre of motor-manufacturing. And now - this.

The ban is the baby of the beatifically-smiling Denis Baupin, Paris's Green deputy mayor, who is responsible for transport. "4x4s are polluting, they take up too much space, and they¿re a danger to pedestrians", he says.

Logically, any tax or ban should of course be directed at pollution or size, not a particular make or style. And indeed Baupin accepts this. An outright ban on SUVs would be illegal, so he intends to restrict all vehicles that do not meet minimum environmental requirements - and if this includes other big cars, so much the better, as far as he's concerned. His eventual aim is to free Paris of cars altogether, using park-and-rides and improved public transport - "The notion of the family car is rubbish, 99% of the time there's only one passenger. It's cheaper to use taxis and public transport, and rent a car for the holidays." But you have to start somewhere, and a recent survey by ADEME, France's Institute for the Environment and Energy Management, found that of the 18 most polluting cars - the ones that would be immediately caught in Baupin¿s net - 14 are SUVs. "They're a caricature of a car," he says.

Many would agree - Ken Livingstone for one, who famously called London¿s SUV drivers "idiots". What nobody asks is why SUVs - but not, for example, big Merc or BMW saloons, just as expensive, just as polluting, just as dangerous when they hit you - are so detested by everyone that doesn't drive one. Why do we feel this instant loathing, this urge to scratch them, deflate their tyres, throw paint over them - ban them from the roads?

Unsurprisingly, SUV drivers feel beleaguered. "Can anyone logically justify why 4x4/SUV users should be stung with any additional form of taxation?" plaintively demands one. "My 4x4 is classed as an Estate car when I get insurance (because it is the same size, just jacked up and all four wheels are connected to the gearbox). Does this mean that any estate car or people carrier should be penalised the same way?" To which all the rest of us answer in chorus, No, of course it doesn't!

Perhaps this feeling that SUV drivers are somehow getting away with murder at the expense of all the rest of us has something to do with the origins of the thing. It began, after all, as a scam - to circumvent the stringent fuel economy laws imposed in America in the 1970s (dear dead days!) But light trucks were exempt from these regulations, so Detroit came up with the brilliant idea of putting a passenger car body on a truck frame. And - bingo! - the SUV was born. It has been keeping Detroit solvent ever since.

A sideways sort of birth; and one that has ever since endowed its progeny with its own rather doubtful characteristics. SUVs are still perceived as giving the finger to regulation: let the world burn! And they still pretend to be what they¿re not. Those bull-bars will never see a bull, and everyone knows it. A recent British survey found that only one in eight 4x4 drivers had driven their car off-road, and 6 in 10 never take it out of town.

Is there a moral? Perhaps it's this: If you will drive a rolling V-sign, don't be surprised if the world returns it, in spades.

motoring@independent.co.uk

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