Paris is saying ‘non’ to a US-style hellscape of supersized cars – and so should the rest of Europe

Traffic on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, France, December 2023. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images
Traffic on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, France, December 2023. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

The United States is in the midst of a full-blown size crisis. No, I’m not talking about the mad rush for Wegovy, which is selling so swiftly that Denmark has to remove data relating to manufacturers Novo Nordisk to measure (the rest of) its economy properly. And no, I’m not talking about … something else. I’m talking about the enormous monstrosities filling up its roads. (Yeah, I see you on the streets of downtown Cleveland alone in your $85,000, 7,000lb Dodge Ram and I can tell you’re not a farmer … maybe that actually says something about the “something else”.)

There are lots of trends, ideas, music and films that cross the Atlantic. Some of them are good. This is not one of them. Neither are the 500 Krispy Kreme “points of access” the American chain is planning to open across France over the next year. (One, OK, fine, for the novelty, but 500 in the next year? In a country that exists in a completely different universe when it comes to pastries?)

Whether France is chauvinist enough on its own to resist an invasion of American doughnuts remains to be seen. When it comes to oversized passenger cars, though, Europe as a whole should be doing more to make sure that they remain confined to the other side of the Atlantic.

This year, the average weight of a new car in the US was more than 4,300lb (2,000kg) – a full 1,000lb (450kg) more than in 1980. It’s not just that people are opting to drive larger models; the same models themselves have expanded. You can see the evolution most clearly with pickup trucks. Take, for example, the iconic Ford F-150, as Axios does in this comparative graphic. Since 1970, the truck has become progressively larger, even as its bed – the fundamental point of owning a pickup truck, one would think – has become smaller.

It should be obvious that bigger, heavier cars are an ecological disaster. Without the trend towards bigger and bigger SUVs, global emissions from the motor industry would have fallen by 30% between 2010 and 2022. And even though a heavier electric vehicle (EV) is still preferable, emissions-wise, to a lighter petrol-engine vehicle, a lighter EV is obviously more efficient than a weightier one. The heavier the vehicle, the larger the battery it requires – and with it, more critical metals, and more electricity required for each charge.

The arms race in vehicle size is also a safety disaster, for other drivers and certainly for pedestrians. The individual logic makes sense: would you want to drive on the same highway as Mr Tinydick’s 7,000lb (3,175kg) Dodge Ram if you’re in a Mini? Of course not – in a collision, the Ram would probably just drive straight over you, like a monster truck rally malfunction. And the driver of a similarly sized vehicle wouldn’t even see a small child in front at close distance. The macro-level effects are deadly. In the US, deaths in car crashes rose by 33% between 2011 and 2021, while pedestrian deaths have risen by 77% since 2010.

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has now proposed tripling parking rates for SUVs in central Paris to €18 an hour, and €12 an hour for the rest of the city. The measure, which would include hybrids and electric vehicles over a certain weight limit – though with an exemption for Paris resident parking – would affect roughly 10% of the cars in the city. And beyond Paris, Tesla’s 6,800lb (3,080kg) Cybertruck probably won’t be coming to Europe at all, because at that weight, it requires a trucking licence to drive (I write this with a sigh of relief).

Hidalgo’s administration has pitched the increased parking fee as a form of social justice (taxing the owners of expensive cars) as well as a way to encourage use of public transport. It’s a good start, but we need bolder regulation to redirect the automobile industry towards smaller instead of bigger, the same way Europe gave industry clear incentives to move away from plastics: a progressive tax on vehicle weight.

Some EU countries already do this, such as France, which applies a €10/kg tax above 1.8 tonnes. I’m not sure this is sufficient to head off the upsizing trend when it comes to luxury vehicles. And at the moment, the weight tax exempts EVs, which is good in theory, because ideally EVs should always be more economical than internal combustion engines across every vehicle class. But EVs aren’t inherently exempt from size inflation, and so a progressive weight tax on EVs – just staggered lower than the tax on internal combustion engine cars – seems like a logical thing to do.

The next time I go back to the US, I wouldn’t be surprised to find someone driving an actual tank down the street, probably on their way to Krispy Kreme. Please let that be a novelty combination I’ll never see in Europe.

Alexander Hurst is a Guardian Europe columnist.

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