Paris Olympics visitors will see a city moving away from cars to reduce air pollution

The 15 million people expected to swarm Paris for the 2024 Summer Olympics will visit a city far different than it was a decade ago.

That’s because a campaign to make Paris greener, primarily by reducing its dependence on cars, has transformed it into a shining example of what many environmental activists, city planners and transit advocates say ought to be the future of cities worldwide.

Paris has closed more than 100 streets to motor vehicles, tripled parking fees for SUVs, removed roughly 50,000 parking spots, and constructed more than 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) of bike lanes since Mayor Anne Hidalgo took office in 2014.

Those changes have contributed to a 40% decline in air pollution, according to city officials.

“How did we achieve this?” Hidalgo said in a statement in March. “By assuming a major and radical rupture: the end of car-dependence.”

Paris and other European cities have for years been at the forefront of efforts to reduce car use, though their successes have not come without challenges. The U.S., on the other hand, has been slower to adopt similar reforms.

“For 100 years in the U.S., we have built streets, neighborhoods and cities around cars, and as a result most people live in auto-dependent neighborhoods, and it’s very hard to undo that,” said Nicholas Klein, professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University.

Paris’ new urban landscape will be on display at a challenging time for Hidalgo, who has faced declining approval ratings and a failed presidential run. Still, a 2023 poll showed a majority of Parisians approve of her environmental reforms.

Louise Claustre, a resident of the 12th arrondissement and an avid cyclist, told NBC News she’s “100%” in favor of Hidalgo’s anti-car policies.

“I will always be in favor of policies that reduce cars and increase walking and biking,” she said, adding that as a Parisian and the mother of a young child, she thinks the city “will be safer and less polluted if there are fewer cars.”

These changes were inspired in part by Carlos Moreno, a professor at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and a former Hidalgo adviser. Moreno helped pioneer the concept of the “15-minute city,” where all basic necessities are within a short walk or bike ride.

“There’s been opposition from climate-skeptical people, the automotive lobby, and drivers in particular,” Moreno said. “But this is no longer the time for cars, and we need to fight against them for a low-carbon future.”

That fight has made it to the U.S., but without much success. While some cities have embraced bike lanes and strengthened public transportation infrastructure, cars have shown few signs of releasing their grip on U.S. transportation.

Meanwhile, the push for 15-minute cities has become political fodder for the far-right, most notably giving rise to fringe conspiracy theories that claim they are part of a shadowy plot to surveil people and restrict their freedoms.

The movement to undo car dependence comes as experts gain a greater understanding of how air pollution contributes to adverse health outcomes. A recent report from the American Lung Association found that almost 40% of people in the U.S. live in areas with unhealthy levels of pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency has sought to make gasoline-powered cars cleaner with new emissions standards.

Beyond pollution, cars remain a significant contributor to global warming. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that in 2023, motor gasoline and diesel fuel consumption from transportation accounted for 31% of total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

Klein said the need for transportation reforms has grown, given the climate crisis.

“The No. 1 contributor to climate change is transportation emissions, so everyone we can get out of a gas-powered car and traveling by metro or foot or bike is a hugely important way to help mitigate the effects of climate change,” he said.

He noted that what Paris is doing isn’t necessarily novel, as other cities like Amsterdam sought tighter regulations on automobiles decades ago, but he does consider Paris an inspiration for how  cities can and should respond to climate change.

“I don’t know about cities in the United States, but there’s a lot of things from this menu that Paris has been doing that I think other cities will adopt because many of these measures have been really successful,” he said.

Moreno, who hasn’t owned a car in 30 years, said he hopes Paris continues to renounce them, but sees the city’s upcoming elections as a critical crossroad.

“We need to win in 2026,” he said. “With the political situation today in Europe, the far right is rising and nobody’s safe.”