World chokes as cities reach gridlock: How Parisians will breathe more easily

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The Independent Online
As pollution reached critical levels for the fifth day this month in Paris, the French transport minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, announced radical measures aimed at reducing pollution in the capital.

For the first time, the state will subsidise travel on all forms of public transport in the Paris region, in an attempt to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home.

Previously the state compensated public transport users after a general strike in 1995 which closed down all public transport across France for three weeks. It also subsidised travel costs during the Gaypride march earlier this summer and the World Youth Days Festival which is taking place this week.Today and yesterday all underground, bus and train tickets in the Paris region are half price. Commuters can buy a ticket for travel in Paris for as little as 25p, and if the levels of pollution do not fall, the project is likely to be extended.

The measures come in response to increasing concern in the capital over high levels of pollution, caused mainly by vehicle exhausts and exacerbated by a spell of hot, dry and windfree weather.

The speed limit has already been reduced to 40mph on the Paris ring-road, and asthmatics in the capital and the surrounding area have been advised by local authorities to stay at home.

The long-term health implications of a polluted atmosphere are still not clear, but doctors are sure it reduces lung capacity in the short term and aggravates asthma. France's mortality rate from asthma increased by 30 per cent during the 1980s and the illness is becoming more common, but doctors have not yet established a definite link with increased pollution.

Although the measures are far-reaching in the short term and may temporarily reduce pollution in Paris, they will do nothing for the long-term pollution problem in the capital, or other pollution blackspots like Toulouse or Strasbourg. Furthermore, they do not include season-ticketholders, who make up a large number of users of public transport.

The main significance of these measures is that they show the new government is prepared to take pollution seriously - as demonstrated by projects outlined yesterday by the environment minister, Dominique Voynet. His proposals include the reduction of traffic in Paris through investment in public transport, bus lanes and railways. The minister also hopes to cut the amount of heavy goods traffic - responsible for up to 50 per cent of the urban pollution - by transporting goods by rail.

There are also plans to encourage car users to move to unleaded petrol by increasing tax on diesel, which is much more harmful and still widely used in France today. Jean-Claude de la Rue, founder of the Anti-Pollution Committee, said: "These proposals correspond exactly to what we have been demanding for the last two years. "They recognise that pollution in the city is a long-term problem which requires long-term solutions." But he was dismissive of the measures proposed by Mr Gayssot - describing them as "a drop in the ocean".