In mid-March, on the weekend that France played Ireland at the Stade de France (the reason I was in Paris), the city authorities made public transport free. This was because of the air pollution, which was bad despite the skies that were clear and blue. The mayor had hoped that Parisians would give up on their cars and travel instead by Metro, tram or bus. I don’t know Paris well enough to guess whether there were fewer cars that weekend or not, but the streets on those ideal spring days didn’t seem any less packed with traffic. Still, there’s nothing like the idea of free transport – the thought you could go anywhere, despite there being people to see, and places to be, such as the Stade de France at five.
You wonder what would happen were Boris Johnson to consider the same thing, what with the London air, like the air over much of Southern England today, spiked with Saharan dust. A meteorologist at Reading University explains that the dust from the desert helps to concentrate the pollution from traffic, so it’s a double whammy. You can see the smog, and feel it in your lungs. In Regent’s Park at 7.30 this morning there were many fewer runners than usual; people had heeded the health warnings about exerting yourself in the dust. Others obviously hadn’t; for example, the cycling fanatics known as Mamils – that’s ‘middle-aged-men-in-lycra’ – who treat the city’s roads as their velodrome. There were plenty of them on the streets of London today. Even in the middle of Regent’s Park you could hear the unmistakable noise of road traffic, despite its contribution to the smog all about, and you can wonder how any government will ever get people to leave their cars behind.