Traffic jams mar first car-free day in Europe

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The Independent Online
WE ARE at the corner of the Avenue de l'Opera and the Rue des Pyramides; in other words in the very heart of Paris.

On a normal working day, the streets would be choked; no parking place could be found; taxi-drivers would be making complex, rude hand signals at motorcycle dispatch riders. It would be dangerous to cross the road on a red light; and even more dangerous to cross on a green one.

This, however, is a "day without cars": the first time that cars have been excluded from the whole of the centre of the French capital. What do we find? The streets are choked; there are few parking spaces; and taxi-drivers are making rude signs at motorcyclists. Crossing the road remains hazardous, on red or green.

There were so many exceptions to the rule yesterday - buses, taxis, motorcycles, residents, delivery vans, electric vehicles, emergency vehicles - that it was difficult in some parts of the city centre to tell the difference. It was a day without cars - except for the cars.

The experiment was repeated in 66 other towns across France, 92 cities and towns in Italy, including Rome, and six in Switzerland. The intention was to remind commuters that public transport exists and to show them how much pleasanter a car-free city can be. An even more limited one-day ban was imposed in Paris last year.

Fabrice, standing beside his motor-bike on a traffic island near the Louvre, surveying the streams of vehicles all around, declared the experiment to be "nul" (useless). "I've been eating diesel fumes all day," he said. "There are more taxis and more buses than ever. What's the point? Electric buses, now that would be a good idea."

The so-called car-free day was dismissed as a "gimmick" by several French politicians. It would be much better, they said, to concentrate on permanent answers to the country's, or the capital's, traffic problems than promote one-day trials that annoy everyone.

Police reported a few scuffles and arguments at the barriers ringing the "car-free" boundaries - the first four arrondissements and parts of the fifth and sixth. Thousands of commuters had driven in from the suburbs, assuming, as French motorists tend to assume, that the rules did not apply to them.

Overall, the police reported that there were 20 per cent fewer cars in the whole of the city by the middle of the morning. It was difficult to dispute the fact but difficult also to tell the difference.

The Environment Minister, Dominique Voynet, arrived at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace on a bicycle. The "car-free day" was her idea but she agreed that it would remain just a gimmick if it was not followed up by permanent car-free zones and a change of commuting habits.

"The idea is not to punish people for using their cars but to get them to think," she said. "More than half the car journeys in the city are three kilometres or less. Is it really worth getting in your car for such a short journey, just to get stuck in a traffic jam?"