Paris and the End of the Automobile

The New York Times recently reported on efforts in Paris, France to consciously reduce the viability of the autombile. Proposals even exist to stop auto travel altogether along the iconic Seine River to promote pedestrian activity, roller skating, and other leisure activities.

Every Sunday for the past few years, the expressways that border the Seine in central Paris have been closed to cars and opened, instead, to strollers, roller skaters and cyclists.

In April, the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, announced plans to go a step further by permanently closing a 2-kilometer, or 1.2-mile, stretch of the Left Bank and slowing traffic on the Right Bank. The whole area would be transformed into a “pretty urban boulevard,” Mr. Delanoë said, with cars and pedestrians coexisting among cafes, flowers and floating islands.

City Hall planners estimate construction costs at â’¬40 million, or $48.8 million, and maintenance costs at â’¬2 million a year, and say the project could be completed in two years.

On the one hand, these policies are just part of a current transportation fad that focuses on “quality of life” for residents over economic productivity and income growth as a critical ingredient to economic development.

On the other hand, these anti-auto policies (and their proponents) ignore the broader tradeoffs implicit in these antimobility policies for the economy, productivity and income. As we discuss in our book Mobility First, travel speeds are an important component of economic productivity and efficiency. Faster travel leads to higher productivity, which leads to higher income. Reason Foundation has explored these relationships in numerous studies, including one by David Hartgen and M. Gregory Fields that showed improving travel speeds and access to key destinations in an urban area could generate billions of dollars in income, thousands of jobs, and tax revenues sufficient to pay for the upgrades. Hartgen and Fields examined these effects in Seattle, Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Detroit, Charlotte, and Atlanta.

That’s why its a bit hard to take the following comments of Eric Britton, quoted in the New York Times, seriously:

Supporters of Mr. Delanoë turn that argument on its head. “This is an initiative for all Parisians, and it’s part of a pattern of a larger translation. We are in the midst of a shifting paradigm,” said Eric Britton, an American economist in Paris and founder of NewMobility, a sustainable transport advocacy organization.

Amenities like rivers and green space must be allowed to once again become the “lungs of the city,” Mr. Britton said. “Cities must plan this way to be global competitors now,” he said. “The time of the car is over, and symbols, like the river, are the new metrics of civilization.”

The anti-car initiatives are not for all Parisians. They are very targeted programs that benefit the wealthy and those without a need for or desire to travel. Despite Mr. Britton’s claim, urbanized areas cannot generate wealth based on symbols and frolicking along a river. The metric of growth will always be improvements in a city’s standard of living and quality of life, and economy capable of sustaining wealth creation is essential to those goals. And greater mobility is an essential ingredient of that economic calculus.