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Car-loving Parisians facing a painful breakup


PARIS - Nothing quite says "Paris" in the hearts of dreamers like cozy apartments overlooking lush gardens with trickling fountains, or lazy conversations conducted while sipping coffee in outdoor cafes along the Seine.

And nothing quite says Paris in the minds of realists these days as this: Apartments are affordable to almost nobody, and cafes are being enveloped by the thick, belching smoke of traffic going nowhere quick.

The City of Light is becoming a difficult place to live. It might still remain a refuge for artists, for struggling musicians busking in subway tunnels, for lovers in love with love. But the largest capital in Europe has also become its most expensive and, increasingly, among its loudest and most congested.

Nobody seems to know quite what to do about the city's spiraling rents. The mayor of Paris, though - Bertrand Delanoe, a certified hater of the automobile - has a relatively simple solution for how to end the city's endless traffic jams: banning cars from its streets.

By 2012 - when Paris hopes to be host of the Olympic Games - only residents and a few selected "essential" providers will be permitted to drive their cars in the heart of the French capital.

Already, lanes that once belonged to cars have been turned over to bicyclists and buses. Municipal parking lots have been closed and prices increased. Traffic wardens have been deployed en masse.

"Already our customers are like thieves," said Bernard Baroukh, a 57-year-old clothing wholesaler explaining the new shopping habits of his clientele on Boulevard Sebastopol. "They dash in, look, grab 30 pieces and run before they are ticketed. Now we are dying. Soon we will be dead."

Under a three-phase plan, a large central zone of the right bank of the Seine will be closed to all but delivery vehicles, buses, taxis and cars belonging to residents.

Roads surrounding the area known as Les Halles would become pedestrian malls. When the plan is fully in place, the entire area bordered by the Seine, the Place de la Concorde, the Opera, Republique and Bastille will be banned to cars. Even people such as Baroukh, the unhappy garment salesman, agree that something has to be done.

The Eiffel Tower still defines the skyline, but life on the street is dominated by Peugeots, Citroens and Renaults battling for space with buses, taxis, scooters, motorcycles and bicycles, all darting and weaving but mostly standing still, honking.

"This is why people want change," said Joyce Sananes, 50, taking time out from her lunch of scrambled eggs and cheese yesterday at the street-side Le Capitole cafe on Rue Reaumur.

In front of her was a traffic jam that could be mistaken for a still-life. The traffic lights at the intersection did little to help move the cars along; drivers seemed unaware that a horn was incapable of physically moving other cars.

"People now don't even want to sit outside to enjoy the weather," she said. "That is a shame for Paris, because this is what we do."

Sure enough, the little chairs around the tiny tables at the cafe were empty at lunchtime, save for one other die-hard diner. Although it was the kind of glorious sunny day that has been rare in Europe so far this spring, the inside of the cafe, thick with cigarette smoke, was packed.

Mayor Delanoe is a bit of a maverick, a socialist who runs the city in a coalition with the environmentalist Green Party.

It was he who introduced "Paris-Plage," the summertime conversion of a stretch of bank along the Seine into a beach, complete with tons of sand, scores of umbrellas and chairs.

Delanoe argues that former President Georges Pompidou's pro-car policies of the 1970s were disastrous for the quality of life in Paris, with one of the world's most reliable and far-reaching subway and rail systems.

Those policies included the north bank expressway, designed to welcome cars to the city. The trouble with it is that the traffic still has to feed into the network of narrower Paris streets. The expressway handles 70,000 cars a day.

"Le tout-automobile," he told the Guardian newspaper, using the name given to the pro-automobile policies, "is not a factor of economic development."

And while the mayor's solution might be novel, the problem of traffic congestion in Europe's capitals is not.

Madrid's Gran Via often appears as if motorists have taken to siesta, never mind being in traffic. Crossing from one side of Rome to the other by car comes with the temptation to pack a lunch. A dinner, too.

And London's streets became so packed that Mayor Ken Livingstone, a friend of the Paris mayor, has instituted a "congestion" charge in a large swath of the city: Motorists are charged about $13 a day if they want to drive on its streets.

The plan has raised millions of dollars, which are put toward city buses, and it has been so successful in reducing traffic that the mayor plans to expand it to include adjacent Kensington and Chelsea.

Since 1998, more than 1,000 European cities - prompted by Paris - have "celebrated" car-free days, in which urbanites get a taste, for a day at a time, of how life would be without cars.

Success has been mixed. In Scandinavia, where bikes reign, the days have been trouble-free. In Athens, people have clogged streets and highways - in their cars - to flee the city before the one-day ban took affect.

Bicycling is a big part of most big cities in Europe, but even those who would swap four wheels for two are reluctant to do so because the traffic has made riding too dangerous.

Last week in London, a couple of hundred cyclists and roller-skaters rode and rolled naked through the center of the city to protest dependency on oil and the overuse of cars.

Parking and locking his bike yesterday on the outskirts of Paris' Marais district, Olivier Beaubatie, 28 and fully clothed, said he understood the reluctance many people in Paris will have to curtailing their driving.

"It is because they love their cars like Americans love cars," he said. But he admitted being puzzled by the driving habits of some of his countrymen. It was going on 8 p.m. when he spoke, well after rush hour.

"Look at that," he said, nodding to the intersection where gridlock froze traffic both ways. "I could get home on my bicycle faster even if I had a flat tire. What is so magic about cars?"

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