Space is for Parisians, not SUVs

9 February 2024

Last Sunday, Parisians voted to create a specific tax for parking “heavy, bulky and polluting” private cars. In practice, this means that vehicles such as SUVs will have to pay up to three times the current fee, starting after the City Council’s vote in September 2024.

Even though affluence was low – 78,121 Parisians voted in a city that has almost 2.2 million people – “the car is still an object of political, socio-economic and cultural division,” says David Belliard, Deputy Mayor in charge of the transformation of public spaces, mobility, rules and regulations on city streets, and the management of roads in Paris. “It also shows that Parisians have a more distant and critical relationship to cars than the rest of the national population.”

A necessary debate

With 54% of votes in favour of the measure and 45% opposed, the city was also split along socio-economic lines, between the wealthy West arrondissements (voting against) and the multicultural East. While it is “quite exceptional that people have voted in favour of an additional tax,” as Belliard puts it, the experience of Paris is also vital as it has put the issue on the political agenda.

“The media covering the referendum brought the debate to the national level and allowed us to discuss the place of the car more broadly and its ecological impact,” explains Belliard. The attention around the referendum inspired some neighbouring cities and made a few others cautious. In Belgium, for example, Brussels is looking into the initiative, while Ghent is worried about the consequences of such a decision so close to local elections.

In this interview with David Belliard, we look into the reasons that pushed Paris to propose such a measure, how it affects the conversation about the place of the car in today’s society, and what the EU could do to weigh in on the debate.

Why did you target SUVs? What issues do they raise?

We targeted SUVs because studies have shown their negative impact on the climate and road safety [accidents involving an SUV are twice as deadly to a pedestrian compared to a standard vehicle, Ed.]

In addition to that, the main issue Parisians raise is their volume. Paris lacks space, so tension builds up as soon as you have an object that takes up a lot of it.

the car is still an object of political, socio-economic and cultural division
— David Belliard, Deputy Mayor of Paris

👉 Read the Transport & Environment (T&E) research on the issue.  

T&E 2024

So, what does the car of the future look like?

First of all, private cars would be rarer. Ideally, we would have shared vehicles for maximum optimisation. You only use it when you need it; someone else can use it when you don’t. And, in cities like Paris, you can use a panel of options to move, such as public transport or bikes, that are extremely important.

Without wanting to limit the fundamental freedom of movement, the most ecological trip is the one you don’t take. So, we should reduce forced journeys, for instance, those to work when possible. I don’t believe when people think about freedom of movement, they think about the trips they take at peak hours to go to the office.

Ideally, we would have shared vehicles for maximum optimisation.
— David Belliard, Deputy Mayor of Paris

I don’t want to replace today’s car with an electric and automated option; this is not the future I envision, though I also believe that the car will continue to exist as a mode of transport. But if the vehicle is shared, then it’s interesting.

For example, you can’t always plan buses in the countryside as there are not enough people. However, you could envision a shared car solution.

One of the arguments defending SUVs is that they are necessary in some instances, for example, to accommodate families. What’s your response to this?

We have lived for 50 years with family cars that are lighter. We have the technology to build vehicles that accommodate families without being so large and heavy.

I’ve joined public debates on this question, and I felt that the options presented were either the SUV, where you could fit three seats for children, or not going anywhere. Between these two extremes, there are other options.

We have to focus on the use of the product.

Most families that have children and buy an SUV don’t use it. 95% of the time, the vehicle is in the garage. For the remaining 5%, it is used primarily by one parent to go to work. So, the amount of time they use it for its intended purpose is less than 5%, generally for family weekends or holidays.

Do they need to spend €50,000 on a car they use for its actual purpose less than 5% of the time?

There are other solutions. For example, they could rent and use such a vehicle only when needed.

I think solutions for families are similar to those for individuals; we have to adapt to the use, not the product.
— David Belliard, Deputy Mayor of Paris

I have lived in the countryside, and I’m very aware that you can’t live without a car in a rural context. In my parents’ village, they have introduced a stock of cars, small and large, that can be used as shared vehicles.

If I create an account, I can rent one of the biggest ones for €2 an hour, plus a small membership fee when I sign up. The scheme is probably subsidised, but I’m in favour of using public money for these initiatives.

If you use the car for 48 hours, you’ll spend €96. If you do it ten times a year, that’s €960. Repeat that for five years; you can use the right car for the correct use, spending €4,800, which is still way less expensive than paying for a whole car that will stay in your garage for most of the time.

I think solutions for families are similar to those for individuals; we have to adapt to the use, not the product.

Should other cities follow your lead?

I think it should be massively copied at the European level.

In France, cities like Lyon, Grenoble, and Bordeaux are working in the same direction, and London seemed interested. It’s an opportunity to build a common front on this issue.

The car is a battleground where many other issues are at play. The car is one of the battles we have to lead because it links to environmental and major economic debates.

We have to create a collective front to tackle the issue of large vehicles so that everyone understands that they are terrible for the environment and the future.

The logic of the market, making a premium vehicle for more profit, is creating an absurd and appalling product for the collective and common good.
— David Belliard, Deputy Mayor of Paris

What can the EU do?

I don’t understand how we can continue to produce heavier and more expensive vehicles. The logic of the market, making a premium vehicle for more profit, is creating an absurd and appalling product for the collective and common good.

It’s in the hands of Europe.

It’s essential to redirect the European industrial capacity. We must invest in lighter vehicles more adapted to our current context. The European industry has focused on large vehicles [in France, vehicles have become 250 kilos heavier in less than 30 years, Ed.], and it’s falling back compared to the Asian market, which produces vehicles more adapted to today’s needs. This means cars that consider climate change and a demand for cheaper vehicles.

The place of the car in today’s cities is one of the issues that the upcoming Eurocities Mobility Forum will tackle in Utrecht. Members of Eurocities can sign up for the event. If you’re not a member yet, find out how to become one.

Main photo: photo of David Belliard, (c) Jean Nicholas Guillo


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer