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'Greening' of Paris Rough on Motorists

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The mayor of Paris is widening sidewalks and expanding green spaces. Pedestrians may like this new Paris, but it is frustrating to many motorists.


The mayor of Paris wants to make his city greener and more friendly to pedestrians. So he's begun an extensive renovation. But the mayor's opponents say his urban renewal scheme is really just a war against cars. And even his supporters say the traffic in Paris is worse than ever. Eleanor Beardsley has more from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: For tourists and pedestrians, Mayor Bertrand Delanoe and his Socialist/Green Party coalition is making Paris a more pleasant city. Six thousand trees have been planted. Sidewalks have grown more roomy and green zones are springing up everywhere. But beautification has come at a price for the millions of motorists who suffer in what is known as Delanoe's traffic hell.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BEARDSLEY: For the past three years, Paris has been ensnarled in one giant traffic jam. Expanding sidewalks and 18-foot-wide bus and bike lanes have pushed angry Parisian motorists into narrow, single-file columns that never seem to budge. One joke has it that Paris is the only city with traffic jams at midnight. Needless to say, many Parisians have nothing good to say about their mayor these days. Patricia Toro(ph) runs a family toy store on the recently renovated Rue de la Convention.

Ms. PATRICIA TORO (Parisian): (Through translator) We've got a mayor who wants to kill small businesses in the city by keeping people from driving their cars. And when you see how the bus lanes now take up half the street, it's completely crazy.

BEARDSLEY: Yves Contassot, the mayor's deputy in charge of environmental issues, says he can understand people's anger, but he's sure they'll soon start to see the benefits.

Mr. YVES CONTASSOT (Mayor's Deputy): (Through translator) When we came to power, we inherited a city that was made for the car, with the highways practically coming into the city's center. So we've set about reducing the space given to cars and returning it to pedestrians and busses. We believe that people should live better. They should be able to walk and talk in the streets and to get around efficiently on public transportation.

BEARDSLEY: Last week, amidst much fanfare and flanked by other world mayors beset with similar pollution and congestion problems, Mayor Delanoe inaugurated the showpiece of his renovation project, Paris's first tramway in 70 years.

(Soundbite of music)

BEARDSLEY: The $400 million state-of-the-art tramway is the ultimate symbol of the mayor's controversial drive to banish the automobile from the city. That certainly makes sense to Jean Claude Maya(ph), who is taking his first ride on the tramway.

Mr. JEAN CLAUDE MAYA (Parisian): (Through Translator) It's super. We've been waiting for this. It's fast and quiet and comfortable. This is about progress. You have to modernize and move forward.

BEARDSLEY: While the number of cars has dropped 15 percent since 2001, it is still short of the mayor's goal of a 40 percent reduction. Still, an independent environmental study links his policies with a startling 32 percent reduction in car exhaust fumes in the city. But Paris is exhausted after its five-year makeover, and the mayor's audacity and his refusal to change course have multiplied his enemies. Paris city council member Laurent Duven(ph) is one of Delanoe's most vocal opponents.

Ms. LAURENT DUVEN (City Council Member): Well, the main goal is without any doubt to take the car out of the city of Paris. It's the capital of France; it has got to have an economic life. And the mayor of Paris is just against this life. The mayor is going to transform Paris into a museum.

BEARDSLEY: The final verdict on the mayor's greening of the city will come next spring when Parisians go to the polls for the city's local election.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BEARDSLEY: But whatever your views about the mayor's projects, there's one big benefit. Timid cyclists like myself can now cross the French capital on bicyclette without fear of being struck by crazy Parisian drivers. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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