This past Monday, a new kind of French Revolution came to Paris. By government decree, on March 17 half the cars in the city were not allowed to hit the streets, lest their owner be hit with a €22 fine. Exceptions were granted for hybrid and electric cars, taxis, and vehicles with at least three people in them.
The previous Friday, the Paris Air Quality index found that pollution levels in the city were just as bad as Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world. By instituting an alternating pattern of driving days according to odd or even numbered license plates, the government said that this was one way they could bring the pollution level down. They hadn’t instituted this kind of restriction since 1997.
Progressive Americans look to European cities as a model for mass transit and urban planning, but this latest development and record pollution levels tell a slightly different story. If the worst excesses of a car-centric culture are happening in public transit-friendly Europe, are we all doomed to a smog-ridden existence?
Smog Dreams of Mexico City
Mexico City’s reputation might be forever scarred as the most polluted city in the world, but thanks to a wide range of measures, including alternating driving patterns, the city no longer even ranks in the top ten. The Mexican success story is impressive: the presence of lead in the air has dropped more than 90 percent since 1990, and carbon monoxide and other particles that cause asthma, emphysema and cancer have been dramatically reduced.
But it wasn’t easy to get there. Its existing metro system was hugely expanded to the suburbs, making it currently the eighth largest metro system in the world, with 1.609 billion trips made a year. A dedicated lane for Metrobuses was placed in the highway system. Government programs helped get old gas guzzlers off the road.
This is to say that all is not hopeless. Yet in 2014, seemingly advanced cities like Paris, Rome, Beijing, Salt Lake City and New Delhi are dealing with many of the same issues that Mexico started jousting with over 20 years ago. Of all the lessons learned from the recovery of Mexico City, the following should be front and center: the government knew they had to sacrifice profit and growth in exchange for social good. When they made the $500 million decision to dismantle and relocate the largest oil refinery in the country and turn the land into park space, it was positively a blow to the economy.
“The government is prepared to impose upon itself the most severe measures to protect public health and to respond to social demands,” then Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said to cheers, while announcing the shutdown in 1991. “Let’s plant trees where today there is nothing but pipelines.”
But this is more about tree hugging and sloganeering. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that 70 percent of the world’s populations will live in cities, and the smog that we will collectively face will increasingly be a part of daily life.
Paris Today, L.A. Tomorrow?
The global economy’s constant demand for growth means that pollution is a byproduct of production-- and production is the ultimate goal of globalization. And yet this byproduct is leading to a decline in health standards, quality of life and an uncertain future.
When France made the decision to ban half the cars in Paris, it wasn’t easy politically nor economically. That meant offering free metro and bus service to the whole city over the weekend and Monday, to a tune of €4 million a day. It meant close to 4,000 residents got fines for just trying to live their daily lives. And it gives many disgruntled citizens fodder against the ruling Socialist Party before next Sunday’s municipal elections.
Nevertheless, before the day was over, government officials announced that business could resume as usual on Tuesday, and that the experiment was successful. (Now try to imagine U.S. politicians making that same call.)
Hybrid cars and technology like green buildings alone will not solve our problems. Rather, they will convince people that consumption is a viable answer to the problems of the modern world. As the French experiment just demonstrated, the only way to truly combat the impending smog apocalypse in the name of self-preservation is to alter habits, instead of making productivity a priority.
And inevitably, you will have to put up with some complaints. It's part of our self-preservation.