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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for June 4th, 2012

Thoughts about Paris

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I returned to Vancouver last Thursday: the jet lag has now relented, and my brain seems less fogged. We were there for nearly the whole month of May, which was probably not the best choice, since France has no less than four public holidays in May.

While we were there we did not drive at all. There was really no need for that. We bought a Navigo Decouverte card, and loaded it with a month’s unlimited travel in zones 1 and 2 – roughly the same as the 20 arrondissements of the city out to the peripherique. Now I am going to surprise my readers by telling you that our system is actually somewhat better than theirs in one respect. If you have a zone 1 ticket or pass here, and need to make an odd trip out to Surrey, you can buy an “addfare”. There is no such equivalent there. So for a trip out to La Defense (the major office centre, with lots of challenging architecture and lots of public art) which is in zone 3, we had to buy a whole new ticket. It was actually cheaper to buy an all day unlimited Mobilis ticket (€8.55) than a round trip ticket (€10) and we made the most of it by riding all three of the tram lines – most of which are outside the City.

La Defense dominates the skyline

La Defense dominates the skyline over the Bois de Boulogne

The Navigo pass is a smart card with a photo – but you have to write your name on it too. They are very keen on that, though quite how it improves security I cannot say. We made a point of not carrying anything with us like passport or a driving licence which we did not actually need, simply because of the risk of loss to pickpockets. They are a plague of the system – and have been for many years. We saw a successful arrest of small gang, but the general view is one of cynicism that the legal process does little to deter what is a very profitable activity. Pickpockets can easily afford a ticket. Fare checks were apparent – we saw several in the time we were there both on buses and the metro, and each time there were people being given penalty notices.  I also learned, from reading a notice in a bus shelter, that there is a free transfer from bus to bus or bus to tram provided that you did not pay a cash fare to the operator, but cancelled a pre-purchased ticket on board. There is no transfer to or from the metro. I suppose this encourages use of Navigo for people who need to get a bus to access the metro. It is a proximity card, which means its use is quicker than the magnetic stripe Mobilis – or any current Translink media (other than the “flash pass”) although I saw a lot of people getting frustrated when the faregate refused to open when an entire purse was dumped on a reader.

Navigo is also useful to facilitate use of Velib. There is a daily membership charge, and while the first half an hour of the rental is still “free” after that the Euros start clicking up, so you do have to allow the system access to your credit card. I think it is bit odd that you cannot charge the day membership to Navigo as it is not much different to a metro or bus ride, but of course Velib is a City thing and fares are a regional issue (STIF – the Ile de France agency). So far, and so familiar.

No bikes

No bikes

Those holidays – and a spell of warm weather also revealed the shortcomings of Velib – quite apart from the tendency of users to wreck bikes which remain available for rent even though unrideable. More than once planned trips had to change due to the complete absence of bikes – or the complete inability of the system to take back bikes we were finished with, but could not find an open post to lock them back into. I must also report in all fairness that many Parisians do wear bike helmets – though few of them seemed to be Velib users.

Followers of my flickr stream will also be familiar now with the progress being made to extend T3, the tramway that runs along the Boulevards des Marechaux. These are the broad streets that are named after generals that were built over former city defences on the south and east sides of the city. There is, in fact, a disused railway line that they could have used, but they preferred on street running using an exclusive right of way on the median, which is often grassed.

Grassed track in boulevard median

T3 under construction: grassed track in boulevard median

There has been a lot of progress in providing bike lanes and bus lanes. I like the bike lanes that run counterflow on one way streets, and also those that are protected from moving traffic by the line of parked cars. I am less happy with the painted bike lanes on sidewalks at major intersections – though there is no argument that these are much safer than fighting motor vehicles on rond points, where priority is simply to those who risk most. We were witness to a number of altercations between bus drivers and white vans at such locations. Bus lanes do not provide a universal panacea to congestion. My partner developed a strong preference for the bus over the metro (you see more of the city that way) but even her loyalty was challenged by some remarkably extended travel times in what looked to me like grid lock – even though Paris streets are not in a grid! We walked a lot too – and found that Paris is, in many senses, quite a small place. The Bois de Boulogne to the Trocadero is about 20 minutes, even at the flaneur’s pace I adopt.

Exterior new train Line 5

Exterior new train Line 5

Interior Line 5

Interior Line 5

Paris has lots of transit, and is building more. Metro extension is being planned for Line 14 and Line 1 is being converted to driverless operation. Some of the oldest rolling stock is also being replaced with trains that have interconnections between cars (like the Canada Line) which ought to do more to relieve overcrowding. People still seem to prefer to stand near the doors rather than between the seats, which makes them more vulnerable to pickpockets and leads to extended dwell times at stations as people try to get on and off. Much more emphasis seems to be placed on improving commuting to and within the suburbs – with trams, tram trains (line 4) RER and the Transilien services. We made a few excursions on SNCF, and were very impressed by speed, punctuality and reliability of these services. Of course, in this part of the world passenger rail is almost completely neglected by comparison.

Nowhere gets it right all the time, and there is no monopoly on truth. No one transit system answers every need. But the balance between cars and other modes is different there than here, and is closer to what is needed now, and will be even more important in future. Paris does need to get tougher on cars, I think. They have some experiments with street closures. For instance around the canal St Martin at weekends. But that is still exceptional. For much of the day traffic in Paris is slow moving: parked cars and deliveries are a huge unresolved issue. After hours, parking still seems to be a free for all. While car drivers do seem to respect the need to leave garage entrances clear, pedestrian crossings and street corners are seen as perfect opportunities to park, once the traffic wardens have ended their shift.  There is also an extraordinary ability to get into spaces that no Canadian would even attempt.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 4, 2012 at 3:40 pm