Dimmed by Smog, City Of Lights Takes Action

Record pollution in Paris prompts first partial ban on driving Wednesday.

Paris subways were free on Wednesday, but many Parisians think they're paying too high a price for the ride.

The City of Lights and its suburbs are choking in a haze of record pollution that has prompted an unprecedented government response. For the first time, motorists in France faced limits on when and where they could drive.

At a time when Indonesia's battles with air pollution have made international headlines, public sensitivity to the issue is high. Parisians cooperated to such a degree that the emergency measures were lifted yesterday, but the event has catapulted the environment to center stage and sparked intense debate.

On the streets, at least, most ordinary Parisians are breathing a sigh of relief. "I go for long walks with my baby every day," says Valerie Martin, avoiding the Indian-summer warmth in a shady corner of a Paris park. "I can feel [the pollution] on some days ... and I worry about my son. I'm glad about this."

Wednesday radio alerts notified car owners that their ability to drive would alternate on a day-to-day basis depending on whether their license plates ended with an odd or even number. Speed limits were lowered, and more than 1,000 police manned checkpoints throughout the city to nab offenders, who face a $150 fine.

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin showed his support by pulling up to work in a small electric car.

"We hope this has a satisfactory impact on the air quality," Environment Minister Dominique Voynet told a press conference. The Green Party member sounded a slightly defensive note in comments to the Liberation newspaper: "We're only respecting the law. It's not a question of punishing drivers. We're counting on the patience of commuters."

To soothe any ruffled tempers, Paris took a step that separates this initiative from those in smog-laden cities like Athens and Los Angeles: In Paris and the suburbs public transportation was free, as was parking for residents.

But as schools kept children inside during recess hours, many felt it was a case of too little too late. The measures, instituted after pollution levels skyrocketed Tuesday due to the unusually warm weather, are part of an air pollution law that was only enacted last December.

Health Minister Bernard Koucher cited regulations in Florence, Italy, and called for a ban on tourist buses, which travel agencies decried. A postal workers' union said it planned to sue Paris for damaging members' health by failing to deal with pollution.

Members of Voynet's Green Party complained the traffic measures are weakened by extensive exceptions. Emergency vehicles, taxis, school and company buses, all trucks, and cars carrying three or more people are exempt. Perhaps with an eye to media coverage, journalists are, too.

There are critics who think Wednesday's ban was an overreaction. A trucker, waiting for a light to turn green, leans out of his window to say he thinks the measure is garbage. Not only that, a dangerous precedent. "First cars and then what?" he asks. "It's bad for business. And my social life."

Maybe so, but it's the law. Air-quality standards are binding in the European Community, and violators can end up in European Court. Laws can be porous though. Athens has had alternate-driving days for years, but it doesn't work well, says a spokeswoman for the Nicolas Hulot Foundation, a French environmental group. Drivers are known to own both even- and odd-numbered license plates, she says, and switch them on appropriate days.

Evaluating Paris's performance, she says, "It seems to be working well, even with all the exceptions and what's more, people are respecting it. That's astounding for France."

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