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Voices: Le polluter pays! Paris votes to penalise SUV drivers… we should, too

After a public referendum, it was decided that parking fees for non-residents driving an SUV in Paris will triple – to €18 (£15) an hour (AP)
After a public referendum, it was decided that parking fees for non-residents driving an SUV in Paris will triple – to €18 (£15) an hour (AP)

J’aime Paris – doubly so now. The city of lights is taking action against the SUVs clogging up its over stuffed roads and polluting the air quality ahead of the 2024 Olympics.

After a public vote, parking fees for non-residents are tripling to €18 (£15) an hour in the centre, and €12 an hour in the rest of the city for an SUV or 4x4 car. The punitive-looking prices will apply to vehicles weighing more than 1.6 tonnes with a combustion or hybrid engine, and more than two tonnes for (heavier) electric vehicles.

Petrolheads will inevitably characterise this as illiberal and anti-motorist. So let’s unpick that. I have some sympathy with people frustrated with the way cities treat motorists. I drive in London a lot because I’m disabled, and trying to navigate its public transport system frequently resembles the descent into Hades, populated as it is by surly staff who resent manning ramps, busted lifts and all kinds of grief.

The trouble is, there is almost as much of the latter on hand when I take to the roads. The urban driver is confronted with a constantly changing road layout; deeply confusing signage – which I suspect is often deliberate; constant surveillance by cameras designed to trap the unaware; and arbitrary and highly unfair penalties.

Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) – arrogantly imposed with little regard to what are (laughably) referred to as “public consultations” – only add to the toxicity. The London borough of Hackney’s ghastly and deeply unpopular mess of a scheme is a case in point.

When it comes to SUVs, however, I’m with the antis.

I fail to understand why anyone would drive one of those things in an urban area in Europe, where cities have evolved organically over hundreds of years, with tangled, often narrow streets that people once got around on foot or horse-drawn taxi.

Now, those with an excess of filthy lucre drive Kensington taxis, so named because of how common they are in the royal borough, where they’ve become the triffids of the road: gigantic, ugly, dangerous menaces. Their venom comes not from the stings of John Wyndham’s giant walking plants, but the polluting gas they cough out, the danger they pose to pedestrians and cyclists, the fact that their drivers behave as if they’re the only ones on the road, which their heavyweight vehicles damage.

Here, they’re up on the pavement; there, they’ve blocked off a carriageway. Want to know why your door has a dirty great scratch in it? That’s right. It’s the gorilla parked next to you that’s too big for the parking space.

I got lumbered with one as a courtesy car after mine had another vehicle driven into the back of it (no prizes for guessing what sort of vehicle was at fault). You don’t get a lot of choice when you have to drive an adapted car, and I hated the thing. It felt like I was in the cab of a tank. It’s a wonder it didn’t come with a free sheet of stickers so I could slap one on the side each time I gave heat to a pedestrian or a cyclist.

They’re anti-social menaces which sully the quality of urban life for everyone else. As Paris has done, it’s about time someone said arrêt! on behalf of those of us that have to live, and especially drive, alongside them.

There are two things I like about its approach. The first is that it stops short of a ban, which would be unfair and illiberal. Instead, it says, fine, have one if you want. But you’re going to pay for the grief you’re causing to your fellow city dwellers.

“Polluter pays” is a fine principle. It makes sense. It’s fair. Don’t like the fees? Buy a vehicle more suited to an urban space. Your wallet will thank you, and there are plenty on the market. Your fellow city-dwellers will thank you even more. Car companies won’t be overly happy – these things have been pushed because they’re highly profitable, and those who can afford them have been sucked in by marketing men selling luxury on open roads which don’t exist in our cities – but I can bear their discomfort.

The other point in favour of what Paris has done is that it gave its citizens the vote on these measures, which were approved by a referendum. Now, the turnout was piffling – just 5.7 per cent. But disgruntled SUV owners and their pals were given the chance to knock the idea back. They failed to do so. Mauvais chance. Now pay up.

Sadiq Khan and our other urban mayors should think about this (they’re watching closely). They should consider the method as well as the measure. LTNs are unpopular precisely because entirely legitimate local objections have been treated like pedestrians rolled over by dirty great fuel-guzzling SUV beasts. Hackney crushed the legitimate concerns of disabled people and women, in particular; you don’t count, it said.

There is far too much of this sort of top-down bad behaviour from London local authorities, which often look disturbingly like one-party states, something true of both sides of the political divide. So Khan and his pals should consider following the lead of their Parisian counterpart, the socialist Anne Hidalgo, who put the idea to the public and won the day.