IT’S two and a half years since Paris closed a busy main road on the right bank of the River Seine to traffic and handed it over to pedestrians.
The transformation of the two-mile Georges Pompidou expressway, built in the 1960s, into an open space for people to cycle, rollerblade, go for a riverside stroll or sit in the sun and children to play caused controversy with commuters complaining it would take an extra 20 minutes to get into the city.
But Mayor Anne Hidalgo was determined to carry it through as the next stage of her crusade to make Paris greener by cutting the number of cars on the streets and reducing pollution.
Edinburgh has taken inspiration from Paris in drawing up the Open Streets project which will see certain streets in the city centre close to traffic on the first Sunday of each month, starting in May.
The success of the project will be considered after a year and could lead to some permanent road closures.
Paris has a well-established scheme, known as Paris Respire – Paris Breathes – which similarly sees roads, including the city’s most famous street, the Champs Elysee, closed on the first Sunday of every month.
Experts say air pollution kills 48,000 people a year in France.
The first day-long ban on all private non-electric vehicles in Paris was held in September, 2015 which led to a reported 20 to 40 per cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels.
The left bank road along the Seine has been closed to traffic since 2013.
And the now-closed right bank expressway was also shut regularly in the summer as part of the Paris Plages initiative which saw a temporary riverside park created, complete with artificial beaches and deckchairs.
Mayor Hidalgo celebrated the expressway closure saying: “We aren’t anti-cars, we’re anti-pollution. Long live life, long live Paris, and long live fresh air.”
Stuart Hay, director of Living Streets Scotland, hopes Edinburgh’s Open Streets venture will lead, as in Paris, to more radical action in future.
He said: “Edinburgh’s historic streets were designed for walking not cars. Street closures will allow locals and visitors to experience the city centre at its best without congestion and traffic danger. Living Streets hopes that this will lead to pressure for permanent pedestrianisation.”
Neil Greig, of motoring group IAM RoadSmart, said he was not opposed to road closures altogether, but argued other transport improvements were required first.
He said: “Closing off roads is fine for one-off events and it might help tourism to an extent.
“But ultimately the only way to persuade people to do it on a permanent basis is to give them alternatives.
“People continue to drive in Edinburgh even though it’s more and more difficult to do so with the 20mph limit and congestion. That’s because unlike places like Paris, Edinburgh doesn’t have a proper ring road.
“People don’t want to be driving through central Edinburgh – they know it’s going to be time-consuming and congested – but often they have no alternative. The cities which are most successful in removing traffic from historic city centres catch the traffic early so there is no need for it to be there and they can go round instead of through.”
Transport Lesley Macinnes said Edinburgh had looked at other cities including Bilbao and Copenhagen as well as Paris.
“More and more successful examples are emerging as each month passes. By introducing Open Streets we are joining an international movement encouraging interaction, activity and people-focused places.
“As we move towards our first event in May I am looking forward to seeing its positive impact on our city, when our historic streets will be opened up for people to enjoy, informing our broader ambitions to transform the way we manage the city centre.”