The French say cleaner air should be here to stay

By Yoann Le Petit and Pierre Dornier

A clear majority (71%) of people surveyed in France feel they breathed cleaner air while road traffic was halted due to lockdown. Such perceptions are in line with scientific evidence showing that NOx concentrations in March 2020 dropped by about 70% in Paris, Marseille, Lyon, and Toulouse compared to March 2019.

Survey results also show that most respondents (60%) don’t want to go back to pre-COVID 19 pollution levels, a statement echoed on social media during lockdown. This is especially true in France’s two largest cities, Marseille (79%) and Paris (73%).

To avoid going back to pre-crisis pollution levels, French citizens demand efficient measures to protect them against air pollution. Three out of four people surveyed agree cities should protect their citizens from air pollution, even if this means reallocating more public space to walking, cycling and public transport. 

Of all active and shared modes, respondents think that walking should be mostly encouraged: around 74% of them agree more space should be reserved for pedestrians, while about two-thirds want allocations for cycling and public transport. This shift in public space use to allow for social distancing and encourage less polluting alternatives has already started in a few French cities: the greater Paris region announced it will invest €300 million to build a 680 km long cycling network; and Nice has extended its cycling lanes network by an additional 60 km, reaching 130 km in total.

In addition to granting more space to cycling, walking, and public transport, more than 70% of people surveyed support access restrictions to polluting cars, such as zero-emission zones, if this is needed to protect them from air pollution. Support for such measures in the French cities surveyed ranges from 65% in Nice to 78% in Marseille, highlighting the need to tackle traffic emission at the source, by removing the dirtiest cars from city streets. Evidence from London, Madrid and Paris shows that similar access restrictions - in these cases low and ultra-low emission zones - can rapidly reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations by up to a third.

French citizens wish their post-lockdown lives will be different from the polluted normal they were accustomed to. But to get there, cities need to make bold decisions and deploy the right infrastructure, from broad pavement to extended restaurant’s terraces and protected bike lanes. Likewise, public transport operators’ efforts to introduce new hygiene measures are crucial to give commuters the necessary confidence to return to public transport: in Paris, 79% of public transport users will go back to metro and buses if hygiene and social distancing measures are in place.

Some city leaders have well understood what is at stake as lockdowns are being lifted. This is the case of Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo, who made clear that a return to car dominance in Paris after lockdown was ‘out of the question’. Instead, she laid out a clear vision of active and shared mobility, one that will enable Parisians to avoid going back to pre-COVID-19 pollution levels.