On Sunday, 400 miles of streets in Paris—about half of the city—were closed to cars. It was raining, and anti-terrorist forces were on alert, but the roads filled with people walking and biking.
"What struck you first was the silence and calm," says Delphine Grinberg, one of the organizers of Paris Sans Voiture, the citizen collective that originally proposed a car-free day to the mayor two years ago.
During the first event, in September 2015, smog in parts of the city dropped 40%, and sound levels dropped 50% in the city center.
The project started with a letter to Mayor Anne Hidalgo that outlined how the event would work, inspired by similar car-free days in Brussels and Bogota. Cars would stay off the roads, other than ambulances and taxis, making room for street festivals and art, sports, demos of alternative transportation.
"I think we convinced [the city] because our project was very ambitious, and driven by citizens," says Grinberg. Among the arguments the group made, she says, was that "it would be crazier not to do it than do it, to address the serious issues of pollution and climate."
The group visited the car-free day in Brussels, which has a 12-year history, and interviewed other Parisians about what they thought of the idea. People were skeptical at first, then inspired, as the letter says:
They express the simple joy of discovering their city differently: strolling in the middle of the streets, letting go of the hand of a child without getting stressed, opening windows on a usually busy street, discovering the monuments from an angle usually confiscated by traffic, listening to the silence.
When the event launched last year, it was two months before the historic climate summit in Paris that led to a global agreement. The group used the timing to push the city to demonstrate a commitment to solving its own climate pollution problems, and pushed the mayor to be bold.
We do not want to regret having given up because it's difficult. We don’t want to say later 'I wasn’t utopian enough.'
Though the event only lasts a day, it's designed to help shift mindsets for broader change. "Our goal is to accelerate the evolution of mentalities for the city to change its rapport to the car permanently, and convince motorists to change their means of transport," says Grinberg.
"We are so used to living amid the cars that we no longer see the price we pay in accidents, pollution, stress, urban planning," she says. "It raises a lot of debate about the proper place that we want to leave the car. It puts a focus on the emergence of alternative solutions...Many people say afterward, 'Why just one day?'"
Since the first event, the group is in touch with people in other cities, including New York and Moscow, who want to do the same thing. "Contact us," she says. "We're happy to share our experience in Paris...Don't be afraid of huge dreams—offer them to your institutions."
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[All Photos: Victor Vauquois via Facebook]