For nearly half a century, from 1967 to 2016, this is what the right bank of the Seine looked like in the center of Paris. An endless stream of motor vehicles clogged the notorious Voie Express Georges Pompidou, spewing out noise and filth and denying people access to the river bank.
This plaque is still on display (at least it was still there was the last time I looked) on the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville overlooking the river, across from the city hall. It reads:
George Pompidou, being Prime Minister,
inaugurated on 22 December 1967
the Right Bank Expressway.
The council of Paris
in a decision of 26 June 1975
was honored to pay tribute to him
by giving his name to this road.
Nothing was done about this until the beginning of the 21st century, when the new mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, took the first steps towards banning the cars. His first step was Paris Plages (= Paris Beaches) which closed off the expressway to motor traffic for seven weeks each summer, beginning in 2002.
The next year he started Paris Respire (= Paris Breathes), which banned motor traffic on the expressway and on a constantly changing list of Paris streets and neighborhoods on Sundays and holidays from 10 am to early evening, year-round.
Thanks to Paris Plages and Paris Respire, the expressway was closed to motor traffic on about 99 days each year, which was already a big improvement because these were the 99 days when people had the most time to go walking, cycling roller-skating or whatever. But on the other 266 days (and 308 nights) it was business as usual, meaning that the cars continued spewing out their filth and monopolizing the river banks, which in the long run was clearly an unacceptable situation.
In 2012 this new footbridge was built across the expressway to give pedestrians access to the river bank. In addition, several pedestrian crosswalks with traffic lights were installed. The old Les Berges website explained: “The Georges Pompidou highway, on the right bank, has been transformed into an urban boulevard in an attempt to share the public space between motorists and pedestrians.”
My comment on this at the time was that Georges Pompidou would no doubt turn over in his grave (in Orvilliers) if he knew that his beloved cars now had to suffer the indignity of being forced to stop to let mere pedestrians cross the road.
Thanks to the new footbridge and crosswalks, pedestrians could now cross the road and get to a small piece of land by the river which was given the name Square du port-de-l’Hôtel-de-Ville (Square of the Port of the City Hall). Since it was right next to the Voie Express Georges Pompidou, this little square had all the charm of a motorway rest area, but people seemed willing to put up with the traffic noise because of the great views of the Seine and the two islands Île Saint-Louis and Île de la Cité.
Note in the foreground the water faucets with the slogan Ouvrez un grand cru (‘Open a great vintage’). Of course this expression usually refers to fine wine, but here it refers to fine water. Down below in small print it says Eau de Paris (‘Water of Paris’) and l’eau, un service public (‘water, a public service’). This refers to the fact that on January 1, 2010, the city of Paris ‘remunicipalized’ water distribution in the city, to bring the water supply back under public control after twenty-five years of exploitation by private companies. (See my post The Paris Water Pavilion.)
And yes, the water is safe to drink, in case you were wondering.
The first bridge in this photo is the Pont d’Arcole. The second one, painted green, is the Pont Notre Dame. And the third one, made of stone with the letter N for Napoléon III, is the Pont au Change. This is where Inspector Javert threw himself into the river and drowned near the end of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Off to the left you might recognize the Conciergerie with its pointy towers.
This sign explains that the Square du port-de-l’Hôtel-de-Ville was entirely refurbished in 2012 “to meet the new expectations of the public”. The new outdoor furniture helps people “to better enjoy the superb views of the Seine and the islands.” The sign says that this square is open 24 hours a day, which is unusual for squares and parks in Paris, since most of them close at sunset.
A few years later (as I have mentioned elsewhere) the expressway was completely closed to motor vehicles and transformed into a pedestrian and cycling zone as part of Les Berges (= The Banks), now called Parc Rives de Seine, along with the already-existing section on the left bank further downstream.
My photos in this post are from 2006, 2013, 2017 and 2019. I revised the text in 2020.