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Tempers flare as Paris push to go green falters

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has pledged to tackle the city's smog with bike-sharing and car-free riverbanks. But with the Velib' fiasco and simmering resentment among drivers, her push to make the French capital go green is faltering.

Tempers flare as Paris push to go green falters
How long will these banks of the River Seine remain car free? Photo: AFP
Emerging from the tunnel of a former highway along the River Seine in Paris, bikes zip past the cars caught in traffic on a road just next to them.
 
“It's great for cyclists, it's safer,” says Kolestin Onaindia, though he is one of just a handful of riders taking advantage of the car-free thoroughfare on a weekday afternoon.
   
Onaindia knows his perk comes with a price.
 
Before he retired, driving to work along the same stretch of the riverbank near the Louvre museum was a quick 25-minute commute. Now he says the same drive would take twice as long.
   
“For people who come and have to get across Paris, it's a catastrophe,” he says.
   
At least Onaindia had his own wheels.
   
Tens of thousands of Parisians who use the city's popular Velib bicycle-hire service have been forced off the roads since January by a shambolic rollout of new bikes that is not expected to be completed until this summer.
   
Bike-sharing and car-free riverbanks were supposed to be flagships of Mayor Anne Hidalgo's pledge to tackle smog in the French capital, which can get so bad that children's football matches are cancelled.
 
READ ALSO:
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo rides a new “Velib Metropole” bicycle. Photo: AFP   
 
She says her policies, first implemented while she was deputy mayor, have cut car traffic in Europe's most densely populated city by 30 percent in the past 10 years.
   
And she wants to go further, imposing stricter pollution rules with the goal of phasing out diesel vehicles by 2024, when Paris is set to host the Summer Olympic Games, and gasoline-powered cars by 2030.
   
But the Velib fiasco and simmering resentment among drivers have turned up the pressure on the mayor, who now appears increasingly vulnerable to a 2020 election challenge despite her Socialist party's nearly 20-year grip on the city.
 
'Misguided ecological utopia'
 
Hidalgo was dealt a setback last month when a court overruled the riverside road closures she imposed in 2016.
   
The court accused her office of “inaccuracies” and “omissions” — or as her critics put it, false claims on supposed pollution benefits.
 
A regional air pollution monitor recently gave a “mixed” review of the “pedestrianisation” of the 3.3 kilometres (two miles) of highway, saying the benefits were offset by increased congestion and higher emissions elsewhere in Paris.
   
And the move infuriated the roughly five million drivers who commute to Paris, who scoffed at Hidalgo's claims that road closures would encourage them to use public transport — an impractical option for many living in the suburbs.
   
A committee set up to evaluate the plan's effects found in November that there had been no meaningful decline in traffic, while jams on nearby routes had increased rush-hour travel times by up to 70 percent.
 
Paris makes 'history' by banning cars on river bank
Photo: AFP   
 
“The reality is that 30 more minutes are being lost during rush hour,” said Pierre Chasseray of the 40 Million Drivers advocacy group, which has denounced Hidalgo's “misguided ecological utopia”.
 
Hidalgo rushed out another decree after the court ruling to keep the riverside roads closed, citing a poll which found 55 percent of Parisians in favour of the measure.
   
But Chasseray's group is preparing a fresh legal challenge along with business associations.
 
#Velibgate
 
Hidalgo's other big headache is the overhaul of Velib, hailed as a model for major cities when it was rolled out 10 years ago, but which has basically been out of service since the start of the year.   
 
Critics say her administration made a huge miscalculation by thinking a system handling some 20,000 bikes for an estimated 300,000 users could be ripped out and replaced in just a few months.
   
According to the Paris En Selle (Paris in the Saddle) association, just 80 of the promised 1,450 new stations are reliably working since the system's new operator took over, because they are the only ones hooked up to the city's electrical grid.
   
A few hundred more work in theory, but are being temporarily powered by batteries prone to failure — so even if the Velib app says a station is available, users often find it's impossible to take a bike.
 
Paris: Here's how the Velib' bike share is set to change
Photo: AFP   
 
“If you have to take a gamble on whether or not the system is working, then it's clearly not working,” said Paris En Selle spokesman Simon Labouret.
   
City hall has had to deploy its own engineers to help install the new stations for Smovengo, an upstart operator whose previous bike-sharing programmes were limited to much smaller schemes in cities like Vancouver or Moscow.
   
Smovengo, which has been fined three million euros ($3.7 billion) over the delays, has for its part lashed out at city officials for “serious shortcomings” in managing the handover.
   
For riders, higher prices for the service are salt in the wound over what has been dubbed #Velibgate on Twitter.
   
“We're waiting for serious action to get out of this mess, to restore a public service that is absolutely essential for Paris,” Labouret said.

READER INSIGHTS

‘Painful’ – is Paris Charles de Gaulle airport really that bad?

Following a survey that said Paris Charles de Gaulle airport was the best in Europe, we asked Local readers what they thought...

'Painful' - is Paris Charles de Gaulle airport really that bad?

Recently, Paris Charles de Gaulle was voted the best airport in Europe by passengers.

The 2022 World Airport Awards, based on customer satisfaction surveys between September 2021 and May 2022, listed the best airport on the planet as Doha, while Paris’s main airport came in at number 6 – the highest entry for a European airport – one place above Munich. 

READ ALSO Paris Charles de Gaulle voted best airport in Europe by passengers

Given CDG’s long-standing reputation doesn’t quite match what the World Airport Awards survey said – in 2009 it was rated the second-worst airport in the world, while in 2011 US site CNN judged it “the most hated airport in the world” – we wondered how accurate the survey could be.

So we asked readers of The Local for their opinion on their experience of Europe’s ‘best’ airport. 

Contrary to the World Airport Awards study, users erred towards the negative about the airport. A total 30.8 percent of Local readers – who had travelled through the airport in recent months – thought it was ‘terrible’, while another 33.3 percent agreed that it was ‘not great’ and had ‘some problems’.

But in total 12.8 percent of those who responded to our survey thought the airport was ‘brilliant’, and another 23.1 percent thought it ‘fine’, with ‘no major problems’.

So what are the problems with it?

Signage 

One respondent asked a simple – and obvious – question: “Why are there so many terminal twos?”

Barney Lehrer added: “They should change the terminal number system.”

In fact, signage and directions – not to mention the sheer size of the place – were common complaints, as were onward travel options. 

Christine Charaudeau told us: “The signage is terrible. I’ve often followed signs that led to nowhere. Thankfully, I speak French and am familiar with the airport but for first time travellers … yikes!”

Edwin Walley added that it was, “impossible to get from point A to point B,”  as he described the logistics at the airport as the “worst in the world”.

And James Patterson had a piece of advice taken from another airport. “The signage could be better – they could take a cue from Heathrow in that regard.”

Anthony Schofield said: “Arriving by car/taxi is painful due to congestion and the walk from the skytrain to baggage claim seems interminable.”

Border control

Border control, too, was a cause for complaint. “The wait at the frontière is shameful,” Linda, who preferred to use just her first name, told us. “I waited one and a half hours standing, with a lot of old people.”

Sharon Dubble agreed. She wrote: “The wait time to navigate passport control and customs is abysmal!”

Deborah Mur, too, bemoaned the issue of, “the long, long wait to pass border control in Terminal E, especially at 6am after an overnight flight.”

Beth Van Hulst, meanwhile, pulled no punches with her estimation of border staff and the airport in general. “[It] takes forever to go through immigration, and staff deserve their grumpy reputation. Also, queuing is very unclear and people get blocked because the airport layout is not well designed.”

Jeff VanderWolk highlighted the, “inadequate staffing of immigration counters and security checkpoints”, while Karel Prinsloo had no time for the brusque attitudes among security and border personnel. “Officers at customs are so rude. I once confronted the commander about their terrible behaviour.  His response said it all: ‘We are not here to be nice’. Also the security personnel.”

Connections

One of the most-complained-about aspects is one that is not actually within the airport’s control – public transport connections.  

Mahesh Chaturvedula was just one of those to wonder about integrated travel systems in France, noting problems with the reliability of onward RER rail services, and access to the RER network from the terminal.

The airport is connected to the city via RER B, one of the capital’s notoriously slow and crowded suburban trains. Although there are plans to create a new high-speed service to the airport, this now won’t begin until after the 2024 Olympics.

Sekhar also called for, “more frequent trains from SNCF to different cities across France with respect to the international flight schedules.”

The good news

But it wasn’t all bad news for the airport, 35 percent of survey respondents said the airport had more positives than negatives, while a Twitter poll of local readers came out in favour of Charles de Gaulle.

Conceding that the airport is “too spread out”, Jim Lockard said it, “generally operates well; [and has] decent amenities for food and shopping”.

Declan Murphy was one of a number of respondents to praise the, “good services and hotels in terminals”, while Dean Millar – who last passed through Charles de Gaulle in October – said the, “signage is very good. [It is] easy to find my way around”.

He added: “Considering the size (very large) [of the airport] it is very well done.  So no complaints at all.”

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