Drivers fume as Paris turns right bank of Seine into park

PARIS (Reuters) - Paris plans to turn a stretch of highway on the right bank of the river Seine into a pedestrian zone in an attempt to reduce pollution despite protests from drivers.

People sunbathe on the banks of the River Seine as French police patrol on the opening day of the Paris Plages beach festival as summer temperatures hit Paris, France, July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

Every Sunday and for much of the summer Paris closes the Voie Georges Pompidou between the Louvre museum and the Place de la Bastille area to motor traffic, opening it to pedestrians and cyclists, but this year cars are not being allowed back as the city prepares to transform the area into a riverside park.

In heavy traffic on the first Monday of the new school year, many drivers and local business owners said the measure would increase congestion, commuting time and pollution elsewhere in the city.

“I’m a saleswoman, this is a hassle, it is just horrible,” French driver Corinne told Reuters at a traffic light.

Others agreed. Italian wine merchant Gianluca De Simone, who crisscrosses Paris on his scooter every day visiting restaurants and bars, said that before closing off key arteries, the city should improve buses and subways and make better use of the river for transport.

His colleague Benoit, who sells French wine, said cycling is no alternative to driving.

“I carry 15 bottles of wine with me. How would I get up the hill at Montmartre? What about winter, what about rain?” he said.

Paris deputy mayor Christophe Najdovski dismissed the drivers’ arguments.

“We want to pedestrianise the right bank because we want to give this magnificent space, part of the UNESCO World Heritage, back to Parisians,” said Najdovski, who is in charge of the city’s transport policy.

He said the highway, built in the 1960s, had brought motor traffic to a place where there was none before.

The banks of the Seine from the Bir Hakeim bridge to the Ile Saint Louis were made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. The right bank highway runs past some of the capital’s main landmarks - the Ile de la Cite, Notre Dame and Paris city hall.

“It is essential for Paris to restore its connection with the river, this river nourishes the city and we want to give this space another function than being a freeway,” Najdovski added.

In 2013, Paris banned traffic from the left bank highway between the Musee d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. The area is now a popular park with outdoor cafes and sports facilities.

While the impact on left bank traffic has been limited, right bank restaurant owners worry about their business.

“Closing the road down by the river will boost traffic up here, which will be a nuisance for the people sitting on terraces,” said Jean-Christophe Felipe, manager of the Mistral brasserie on Place du Chatelet.

Najdovski said any impact on local traffic would be temporary, as closing main routes in cities usually means traffic just “evaporates” as people change their behavior.

Parisian Olivier Riva, one of the few people walking on the empty tarmac of the right bank highway on a rainy Monday morning, could not agree more.

“I am totally in favor. The fewer cars the better,” he said.

Additional reporting by Antony Paone; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Giles Elgood