A mouse, and other naturalists, reclaim Paris streets

France and other European cities celebrated a day without motor

At half past 10 on Wednesday morning, on the rue St. Honor in the heart of Paris, a mouse stepped off the sidewalk, plucked up his courage, and scuttled across the road.

It was not the only unusual sight in Paris on Wednesday. Also attracting surprised looks was the bevy of government ministers arriving for their weekly Cabinet meeting on bicycles, guarded by policemen on in-line skates.

Along with 66 other towns and cities in France, Paris was marking its second annual car-free day, welcomed by some as a blessed relief from traffic jams, and dismissed by others as a worthless gimmick.

But as the mouse that dared reached his destination, unthreatened by the normal clog of traffic that would have blocked his path, he made a point.

"Nature reclaims its rights," exclaimed a delighted onlooker.

The purpose of the day, dubbed "In town, without my car?" (the question mark communicating the disbelief with which most French people greet such an idea) was more to help humans than wildlife find their place in the city.

The Ministry of the Environment (headed by an ecologist minister, Dominique Voynet) "hopes to mark the slow but steady reconquest of the city by its inhabitants," the ministry said in a statement.

Ms. Voynet, dismounting from her bike at the Elyse palace, acknowledged that her gesture was "symbolic." And many Parisians were skeptical about the value of the event. "One day without pollution isn't going to change anything," said Isabelle Giroulet, as she took an unaccustomed bike ride to go shopping.

But the point, argued Voynet, "is to create a dynamic, to make us reflect on our habits of getting around in town."

Last year, some towns participating in the event used it to try out innovative traffic-reducing plans, such as loading bays outside town centers where transport trucks would offload their goods onto electrically powered vehicles for delivery to shops.

Other cities tried out new mass-transport systems, like gas-powered buses, or tested protected routes for cyclists and in-line skaters, who are soon to get special status under French traffic law, so numerous have they become.

Some critics decry the annual car-free days as publicity gimmicks. "If the idea is to show that we can do without cars, that is completely false," said Christian Gerondeau, President of the Federation of Automobile Clubs in France. Eighty percent of journeys that people make in towns are by car, he pointed out.

But others who might be expected to complain, such as car manufacturer Citroen, took a more positive approach. The company offered free test drives of its new line of electric cars at three spots in the center of Paris, where only buses, taxis, motorbikes and gas or electric powered vehicles were allowed.

For pedestrians, the center of the city was transformed. You could talk to a companion without shouting. And you could breathe the smells that Paris is famous for - the fresh bread in the boulangeries, the scents from fashionable parfumiers - rather than the pervasive exhaust fumes.

Last year, tests found, sound levels in the traffic-free zones were more than 50 percent lower than usual, and carbon-monoxide emissions were also cut in half, on average.

For drivers, life was clearly harder. Some, police said, tried to break through the barriers that had been put up to block roads into the protected zone, which stretched along the Seine river from the place de la Concorde to the place de la Bastille. But most simply parked and walked.

Some did as they were meant to, and took buses or subway trains. But passenger numbers were up only 5 to10 percent, the authorities said, suggesting that a lot of people had simply decided not to come into town at all on Wednesday.

That was certainly the impression Jacqueline Goubert got, as she tended a stationery store near the Louvre museum. "I haven't had a single customer yet," she said at mid-morning. "This day is a great comfort to me, because normally I have a McDonald's delivery truck parked outside my shop for two hours each morning, with its engine running to keep the refrigeration going," she said.

"But when my boss empties the cash register tonight, he is not going to be so happy" she added.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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