Paris’ Ban on Old Cars Is Good for the Environment. Will It Be Good for Paris?

Whose streets are these?

Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

The bridges are old; the churches are older. Paris has restaurants where Rousseau dined, and houses built in the 15th century. If it’s vintage cars and vans you’re after, however, you’ll soon need to look elsewhere. Starting July 1, vehicles manufactured before 1997 will be banned from the streets of Paris on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

This new policy is the biggest step yet in Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s ambitious effort to lift the gray smog that shrouds the French capital. In 2014 and 2015, the city instituted alternate driving days (only odd- or even-numbered plates permitted) and temporarily eliminated fares on all public transportation. Vehicle exhaust is responsible for two-thirds of the city’s nitrogen dioxide pollution, which produces ozone, and more than half of the city’s particle pollution. Hidalgo has referred to the Champs-Elysées, which is now car-free on the first Sunday of every month, as a “canyon of pollution.”

The ban on decades-old vehicles will target 160,000 cars and vans manufactured in the days when emission standards were not as strict. It’s been in the works since 2014, when Hidalgo announced plans to ban diesel fuel from Paris and close large sections of the city to traffic by 2020. By that point, no cars released earlier than 2011 will be permitted in the city on weekdays.

The vehicle prohibition had been, until this month, stymied by a dispute between Hidalgo and the French state about windshield stickers. Ségolène Royal, the French minister of ecology, had argued for four “air quality certificates” that would help municipal authorities quickly determine the age and model of cars. Dividing the country’s vehicle stock into just four categories would have eliminated one in three vehicles from the streets, a measure that the mayor felt was too extreme. Instead, the state will release six certificates for drivers, based on model year and fuel type. The regulations are expected to eliminate one in 10 vehicles from Paris’ weekday streets by the end of the year.

The stickers are optional, and free, but if you own a car around Paris, you’ll want to get one to avoid fines. (The fines will kick in on October 1.) Paris has rolled out a raft of incentives for those who kick their cars to the curb, including discounts for the city car-share service, a year of free public transit, financial assistance for eco-friendly business vehicles, a free bike-share membership, and a 400-Euro credit toward a bicycle.

Not surprisingly, these anti-pollution measures have been perceived as elitist. The ban on older cars, one of the big French automobile organizations announced this month, is “socially unjust,” and “penalizes those of modest means first.”

Though the poor are less likely to own cars and more likely to suffer from the effects of air pollution, it’s a fair criticism. It’s also a complaint you could lodge against many other big-city anti-pollution measures, from Mexico City’s alternate-driving days (which favor residents with multiple cars, or those who can afford taxis) to London’s congestion pricing that charges motorists to enter the center city.

The city of Paris is increasingly the domain of the wealthy, and wealthy Parisians drive less than they used to. Car ownership has fallen over the past decade, the city’s transit coverage is excellent, and its bike- and car-sharing systems are well-developed. That’s not true beyond the city limits, where the majority of the region’s jobs, residents, and cars are located. Even if Hidalgo’s efforts achieve their environmental goals, they have inspired considerable anxiety in the Parisian suburbs.

When old cars are banned from the streets of Paris, the city will be cleaner—and less accessible. Residents of outlying municipalities will need to buy new cars to maintain the option of driving into the capital. But they may have a tough time trading up. With cars from the ‘00s exiled from Paris by 2020, who’s going to buy an older model?