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Paris' Traffic-Cutting Gamble Charms Pedestrians, Irks Drivers

In a daring gamble, the mayor of Paris recently shut off a major vehicle thoroughfare through the city, the highway along the Seine River.

The move is part of his plan to reduce traffic in the city. The new space delighted Parisians and tourists this summer, but many wonder if it'll be such a hot idea during the cold winter months.

Away from the busy street, next to the Pont Alexandre III Bridge that spans the Seine River, a new recreation and leisure area called Les Berges, or the banks, is set up for pedestrians. The area was once filled with cars speeding by, but now it's a place to take a stroll, ride a bike or just sit and hang out.

And hanging out is exactly what people are doing down on the berges on a recent Indian summer day. The noise of the traffic on the streets above is now replaced with other sounds, like a speedboat cutting through the waters.

There are new sights as well, like close-up views of the ornate sculpture on the sides of the bridges. Children frolic on a new playground, where a wall has been fitted with ropes and footholds for rock climbing.

Farther on there are shuffleboard and chess, and wooden decks covered with plants and lounge chairs. There are even a couple of shipping containers with glass fronts that have been comfily furnished. You can rent a few hours in them to lounge around with your friends, undisturbed.

Xavier Janc, the head of the Berges project at Paris City Hall, says it's designed to give Parisians what they want: nature, culture and sport. "But most of all we wanted to get rid of this urban highway that marred the historic heart of the city," Janc says. "We wanted to give the river back to people who love Paris."

Everyone seems happy to be here, like Brigitte Loir, who was visiting the berges for the first time. She thinks the project is a very good idea. "I'm very happy because since a few years, there are less and less cars in Paris, and it's beautiful," Loir says.

Though kicked back in a chaise longue, sipping a drink at one of the new riverbank cafes, medical student Daniel Secnasie says he is less excited about the project. "Yeah, it's a good idea for two months a year," he says, "but the rest of the time, when it's cold and deserted, it's just forcing more traffic onto the streets above."

That's exactly the problem, says Jerome Dubus, with the French business organization Medef. The pleasant pedestrian walk has made it much harder to get through the city in a car, he says.

"It's very difficult now to have economic growth in Paris because of traffic," Dubus says. "It's more expensive for all people now, because we made more time, and time is money."

Dubus says the berges project will hurt delivery businesses and small services like plumbers and electricians and will increase overall congestion. The mile-and-a-half stretch of highway that's been closed off carried about 2,000 cars an hour during peak times. Dubus says now those cars will be forced up into the tiny streets of the Left Bank. He believes the mayor will have to cancel the project when he sees the results of a study his organization is carrying out with the Paris chamber of commerce.

Back at city hall, Janc says reversibility is one of the main pillars of the project, but he doesn't think it will be necessary. He says the traffic problems haven't been nearly as bad as anticipated.

Janc also says they have a few surprises up their sleeve for this winter to attract people to the river. Those cozy shipping containers will be heated for anyone who wants to hang out on the Seine, in the rain, in the middle of January.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.