Hoping To Clear The Air In Paris, Officials Ration The Rue

Paris is suffering from the worst smog it's seen in decades. Associated Press Paris Bureau Chief Angela Charlton explains the ways the city's dealing with the smog, including restrictions on drivers.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

And if you're trapped in traffic right now, or even if you're not, don't take your eyes off the road. Just let your mind drift slightly and think of Paris. That's where a spike in air pollution has driven the government to ban half of all cars from the road. Several cities in France are giving it a try, and Paris has the most severe restrictions.

Under the plan, Paris and its suburbs are off limits to certain drivers each day based on odd- or even-numbered license plates. There are free bikes and public transit in an effort to sweeten the deal and convince commuters to leave their cars at home. The goal is to reduce unusually high levels of smog, the worst since 2007. With us now is Angela Charltan, Paris bureau chief for the Associated Press. Angela, welcome.

ANGELA CHARLTAN: Thank you. Hello.

CORNISH: So, first, tell us how things went today. Was there actually less traffic? And how did drivers react?

CHARLTAN: There was considerably less traffic on the roads in Paris today. Many, many drivers seemed to have obeyed this sudden new rule. Many others did not. There were several thousand people ticketed and several people had their cars impounded for refusing to cooperate with the police officers who were monitoring this new rule.

CORNISH: Now, political opposition had been arguing that this would be impossible to police, but it sounds like you're saying that there were definitely enforcement out.

CHARLTAN: There were at least 700 police officers around, it's about 180 control points around Paris and the nearby region handing out tickets. So it was visibly enforced. I think pretty much everyone had heard what was going on, although some people pretended that they didn't. And then, as I said, I think some people just willfully ignored the ban in hopes that no one would notice their even-numbered license plate.

CORNISH: Now, describe just how bad the smog has been. I don't know what's been said about what some of the factors are that appear to have made the pollution worse this season.

CHARLTAN: Well, the smog has definitely been bad, visibly so, to the point that by afternoon, even on glorious sunny days, you couldn't see the top of the Eiffel Tower, which is highly rare here. What led to it was actually a confluence of factors. This time of year, farmers are fertilizing, they're burning off old green matter. And usually at this time of year, there's rainy, windy weather that sort of blows that away. This year, it's been really warm, unusually, unseasonably warm and dry, and that have managed to trap in those agricultural fumes, along with all the car exhaust, particularly from diesel cars, in a way that hasn't been seen here in almost 20 years.

CORNISH: Now, the last time Paris tried something like this was in 1997. It only lasted a day. What's different this time around?

CHARLTAN: Well, this time, it looks like it's also only going to last a day. They said that already, weather patterns and the lower traffic levels today had made it unnecessary to run it tomorrow. However, they're holding out the option that they could renew it again later this week. I think also what's different this time is there's a bit more awareness of the issues and more awareness, period. With everyone online all the time, I think a lot more people knew about this policy.

CORNISH: Was this in effect a kind of political stunt? Or do people actually expect this to have made a difference environmentally?

CHARLTAN: I think it's both. I think it's largely about awareness. And I think the politicians were trying to get people to be more aware of their own role in environmental pollution. It also comes, I will note, just a few days before mayoral elections in Paris. So there's a lot of political debate and activity going on around this decision.

CORNISH: Angela Charltan, she's the Paris bureau chief for the AP. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CHARLTAN: Thank you.

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