Polluted Paris forces half cars off the road

Two joggers wearing protective masks run past a Police officer controlling a vehicle on the Concorde square in Paris, Monday, March 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

PARIS: Paris Monday resorted to drastic measures to curb sky-high pollution by banning all cars with even number plates for the first time in nearly two decades.

In a move that infuriated motorist organizations, around 700 police officers were deployed at 60 checkpoints around the French capital to ensure only cars with plates ending in odd numbers were on the streets.

Public transport has been free since Friday to persuade Parisians to leave their cars at home, and at rush hour Monday morning, authorities noted there were half the usual number of traffic jams as drivers grudgingly conformed to the ruling.

Some, though, appeared unaware of the restrictions that came into force across Paris and 22 surrounding areas from 5:30 a.m. – or chose to ignore them.

“You don’t have the right to drive with your number plate,” a man on a scooter remarked to another while stopped at a red light.

“Oh really? I didn’t know,” the second driver replied before speeding off.

The restrictions will be reviewed on a daily basis, with odd numbers potentially banned Tuesday if deemed necessary.

The government decided to implement the ban Saturday after pollution particulates in the air exceeded safe levels for five straight days in Paris and neighboring areas, enveloping the Eiffel Tower in a murky haze.

And while these fell to safer levels Sunday, they inched up again Monday, though the pollution was not perceptible to the naked eye.

Parking in the capital was free for vehicles with even number plates Monday, the Paris city hall said, calling on residents to consult carpooling or car-sharing sites to work out their travel plans.

Those who choose to defy the ban risk a fine of 22 euros ($30) if paid immediately, or 35 euros if paid within three days.

Electric and hybrid cars, as well as any vehicle carrying three people or more, are exempted from the ban – the first since 1997.

The issue is something of a political football, with less than a week to go before key municipal elections.

The opposition candidate for Paris mayor, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, called the measure a “fig leaf.”

Ecology Minister Philippe Martin said he understood the “difficulties, the irritation and even anger” over the move, adding “But we just had to take this decision.”

Martin said similar measures in 1997 “had yielded results.”

The measure is also expensive, with free public transport costing the RATP – the state-owned Paris train, subway, tram and bus operator – 2.5 million euros a day, according to RATP head Pierre Mongin.

France’s Automobile Club Association, which counts some 760,000 members, denounced the move as “hasty, ineffective” and “bound to lead to chaos.”

“This measure had no effect in any country where it was introduced,” ACA head Didier Bollecker said.

“Drivers are being targeted even though heating is more polluting, but no one is asking for heating to be used on alternate days.”

Similar measures have been introduced in a number of cities around the world, such as Athens or Beijing.

In the Chinese capital, the government implemented the odd-even number plate system during the 2008 Olympics, and the result was so successful that authorities set up a permanent, watered-down version of the rules that bans cars from the roads one day a week.

But that has done little to alleviate the dangerous levels of particulates in the air in Beijing – one of the most polluted cities in the world.

In Paris, authorities measure the concentration of particulates with a diameter of less than 10 microns – so-called PM10 – in the air to determine pollution levels.

PM10 are created by vehicles, heating and heavy industry, and include the most dangerous particles that measure less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and the blood system and cause cancer.

The safe limit for PM10 is set at 80 micrograms per cubic meter.

Last week, the concentration of PM10 particulates in the French capital’s atmosphere hit a high of 180 micrograms per cubic meter.

The smoggy conditions have been caused by a combination of cold nights and warm days, which have prevented pollution from dispersing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 18, 2014, on page 13.




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