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2018 Was the Year of Europe’s War on Cars

From Paris to Madrid, efforts to curb the use of automobiles formed a battleground across Europe.
A cyclist passes the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which has been working aggressively to curb the use of private cars. But these efforts have not come without controversy and backlash.
A cyclist passes the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which has been working aggressively to curb the use of private cars. But these efforts have not come without controversy and backlash.Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Of the many strange sights seen in Europe this year, few were more unexpected than that of legions of protesters in bright yellow vests blockading the streets and highways of France. Bringing traffic to a standstill and leaving Paris stores with their windows smashed, the fast-growing, politically unaffiliated Gilet Jaune movement even risked toppling the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

It’s not necessarily the scale or intensity of these protests that is shocking—France, after all, is a country with a tradition of vigorous street protest. What surprises is the spark that triggered them: a fuel surcharge. It says much about 2018 that what would have been a far smaller issue a decade ago now took center stage. Indeed, France’s protests were just the most prominent example of a Europe-wide phenomenon in which the fight to control climate-warming emissions and air pollution—and above all, the cars that produce it—became a core battleground for cities and entire nations. For while France’s drivers were protesting their new gas tax, authorities across Europe were working to curb the use of cars with a new set of laws imagined on a scale not seen before. Tellingly, these car-fighting regulations were often proposed with wide popular backing.