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Just hop in the car? Not so fast, says one French town.

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It takes a while, as you walk around the streets of Nantes, a city of half a million people on the banks of the Loire River, to realize just what it is that is odd.

Then you get it: There are empty parking slots.

That is highly unusual in big French towns, normally clogged with traffic crawling along ancient thoroughfares. But here, Thursday, as one policeman said, "ça roulait bien" - cars were rolling.

Two decades of effort to make life more livable by dissuading people from driving into town has made Nantes a beacon for other European cities seeking to shake dependence on the automobile.

"We are not anticar," says François de Rugy, deputy mayor in charge of transport. "But we send people a lot of signals: If they come into town on buses, on foot, by train, or by bike, we will help them. If they come in cars, we won't."

The effects were clear Thursday, the high point of Mobility Week, a campaign sponsored by the European Union that prompted more than 1,000 towns across the Continent to test ways of making their streets, if not car-free, at least manageable.

"That is an awfully difficult problem," acknowledges Joel Crawford, an author and leader of the "car free" movement that is picking up adherents all over Europe. "You can't take cars out of cities until there is some sort of alternative in place. But there are a lot of forces pointing in the direction of a major reduction in car use, like the rise in fuel prices, and concerns about global warming."

Thursday, proclaiming the slogan "In Town, Without my Car!" hundreds of cities closed off whole chunks of their centers to all but essential traffic. Nantes closed just a few streets, preferring to focus on the alternatives to driving so as to promote "Clever Commuting," the theme of this year's EU campaign.


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