Smothered by smog, Paris bans some cars; measure lifted late in day

PARIS -- With the City of Light buried under a thick blanket of smog for a week now, authorities in the French capital took drastic steps Monday to cut the number of cars on the road and to encourage commuters to find more environmentally friendly ways of getting to work.
Only cars with license plates ending in an odd number were allowed on to Paris streets during the day. Drivers with plates ending in an even number were ordered to leave their vehicles at home and use public transport, which officials have made free of charge since Friday to try to reduce pollution -- at a cost of $5.6 million a day.

[Updated  1:40 p.m. PDT, March 17: Late Monday, authorities announced that the driving curbs would be lifted as of midnight because the level of pollution had dropped. They said the restrictions would be reviewed on a daily basis, depending on pollution levels.]


Parisians and those living in the north of France have been choking on smog for the last seven days because of an unusual situation known as an "inversion of temperature," in which the air at night is warmer above the city than in it, trapping pollution that would normally have dispersed. There has also been little wind or rain.

In some readings, the pollution in Paris has been as bad as that in Beijing, although the level remains far below the very worst days experienced in the Chinese capital.
About 700 police officers manned 179 checkpoints around Paris to enforce the ban on cars with even-numbered plates. By midday, police said they had issued 3,800 fines, impounded 27 cars and levied penalties on an additional 1,800 motorists for other driving offenses. A representative for the city police said the operation was going "satisfactorily."

Authorities said that traffic jams were reduced by 25% in Paris and that there were 60% fewer cars on the main roads, the "portes," leading into the city.

The center of Paris was less clogged than usual, and pedestrians were able to breathe and cross the roads a little easier. But the lack of honking was made up for by the moaning of disgruntled motorists forced to squeeze onto packed trains and buses.

The restrictions went into effect across Paris and 22 suburbs at 5:30 a.m.

Those who chose to ignore the ban faced a fine of $30 if paid immediately or $48.67 if paid within three days. Electric and hybrid cars as well as those carrying three or more people were exempt from fines as were taxis and commercial vehicles.
It is the first time since 1997 that French authorities have imposed such a ban. It was prompted by a recording of 180 micrograms of air particles per cubic meter recorded in Paris on Friday, more than twice the accepted safe limit of 80 micrograms.

Willsher is a special correspondent.