By Geert De Clercq
PARIS (Reuters) - Away from the leafy avenues of Paris, a battle over transport policy is playing out between the French capital's two most powerful politicians. The city may be the most congested in Europe after London, but neither woman is backing down.
Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo wants to rid the streets of cars and turn Paris into a world-leading eco-city. The conservative leader of the greater Paris region, Valerie Pecresse, dismisses such a vision as dreamy and impractical.
Since her election in 2014, Hidalgo has targeted a ban on fossil-fuel cars in the city by 2030. She has already hiked parking fees, built kilometres of new bicycle lanes and pedestrianised roads running along the Seine riverbanks.
"Building bike lanes ... in symbolic places like this, major thoroughfares for cars, is part of the lifestyle change we are trying to bring about in Paris," Hidalgo said at the opening of a new cycle lane along Rue de Rivoli last month.
Under Hidalgo, Paris has become a test bed for alternative mobility. China's Mobike and Ofo have improved upon the city's own Velib bike share scheme, California's Lime and Bird launched electric scooters, and several car-share firms have replaced the failed city-run Autolib. https://reut.rs/2PxaLZR
Yet despite these initiatives, and one of Europe's best metro systems, the car remains king in Paris.
Drivers spent 69 hours in traffic jams in 2017, Inrix data shows, and cars travelled at an average speed of just 14 km/hour -- the lowest since 2001. https://tmsnrt.rs/2OtDwc1
Pollution levels also remain stubbornly high, with only marginal improvements in nitrogen dioxide and particulate levels in recent years. Paris had to impose more pollution-limiting emergency measures in the first seven months of 2018 than in all of 2017, Paris Open Data show. https://tmsnrt.rs/2Oq2M2X
In Germany too, politicians are devising anti-pollution strategies, after a court ruled in February that some diesel cars could be banned in cities whose emissions violate European Union standards.
Despite her prestige as mayor, Hidalgo's policy leverage is limited: she is only in charge of roads and has no say over overland and underground rail transport.
That lies with Pecresse, who controls the Ile de France region that encircles Paris and is prime commuter-belt territory for some 10 million people.
She says they should have the freedom to drive into Paris. Her transport plans include no bans on private vehicles.
Instead, ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympics, her priority is to improve the efficiency of the existing road network and upgrade the public transport system.
That will include a 20 billion euro investment to renovate all trains plying Ile de France by 2021 and 1.4 billion euros to improve station access, Pecresse's transport chief Christophe Saintillan said.
"By 2024, 60 percent of Ile de France stations will be wheelchair accessible. We will be ahead of London or New York," Saintillan told Reuters.
To reduce congestion, the region will invest 200 million euros in infrastructure and open emergency lanes to buses, taxis and car-pooling.
To tackle pollution, Pecresse will stop running diesel buses in Paris by 2025 and in the wider region by 2029, Saintillan added.
But transport specialists say Paris will only fix its traffic woes if it introduces urban tolls, like London, where congestion pricing limits circulation of private cars in a 21 square km central zone.
"If cities do not increase the cost of driving a car in town, they will not reduce congestion," said OECD transport economist Kurt Van Dender.
Otherwise, he said, for every driver that switches to bus or bike, another takes his place.
Next month, the government will announce plans to make it easier for cities to introduce tolls. https://reut.rs/2xBJspR
For now, however, imposing tolls is politically unpalatable for both women, especially for the conservative Pecresse.
Saintillan said that instead of tolls, Pecresse planned to provide more parking at stations outside the city.
"Valerie Pecresse's logic, compared to some others, is not one of coercion," he said.
(Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Richard Lough and Catherine Evans)