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Postcard from Paris

Greetings from Paris. Actually, by the time you read this, I will probably be on a train to Germany. Here are a few thoughts from the city that Walter Benjamin called “the capital of the 19th century”.

The day I arrived in Paris, negotiators were finalising and approving the new climate accords. They’re good – certainly much better than anyone would have hoped after the shambolic end to the Copenhagen talks in 2009. While the climate accord relies upon countries to submit and implement their own action plans – no binding commitments are required – they are universal and will provide a framework for ramping up action over time.

While the deal is not binding, the in-principle agreement to keep global warming “well below” 1.5 degrees Celsius is likely to have a significant effect on investors’ expectations. If it works, and we’d better hope it does, investments in the fossil fuel economy ranging from coal mines to motorways will lose their value. This is therefore a good moment to reassess government support for those investments. Unfortunately, the New Zealand government doesn’t seem to be doing that. Its approach can be summed up by a Texan aphorism: all hat, no cattle.

Paris itself is fascinating. The buildings are largely 5-7 storey apartment blocks, facing the street and built close together. But the city and the dwellings within it don’t feel claustrophobic.

The apartments I’ve seen the inside of are not large – perhaps 50-60 square metres – but they feel deceptively spacious. High ceilings play a role, but good organisation is probably more important. Vertical space is used very efficiently – most walls have shelves reaching most of the way to the ceiling.

Out on the street, the buildings provide visual interest through variations on a common pattern. They are all similar sizes, but buildings’ facades and ornamentation differ in thousands of little ways. One common feature is a six-inch-deep wrought-iron grate outside windows – not much use for barbecuing, but perfect for a small garden. And, of course, there is no separation between residential and commercial uses, so every street has shops on the ground floor.

For all the boulevard-broadening work done by Baron Haussman, Paris remains a city of narrow, twisty streets. The city does not have anything even vaguely approximating a street grid. Travelling from point A to point B means figuring out how to navigate any number of intersections, all at odd angles to each other.

This can be confusing but also visually stimulating. Because the streets curve and conclude so frequently, Paris is rife with terminated vistas. Wherever you are walking, there is always a view immediately in front of you.

I’ve been getting around Paris partly on their public VĂ©lib’ bikes. Wherever you are in Paris, you’re usually just around the block from the next bikeshare station. It’s also cheap and easy to access for visitors – I bought a one-week pass for 8 euros. What makes the system work, I think, is that land uses are so mixed up within Paris. There aren’t really any exclusively residential or commercial districts, which means that people are taking bikes in all directions, all the time.

There are, however, topographical exceptions to this rule. We’re staying near the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, which is slightly elevated relative to the rest of the city. But although the hill is modest by Auckland standards, it’s still enough to ensure a persistent deficit of bikes in the neighbourhood.

The other interesting thing, from a cycling perspective, is seeing how bikes fit into the city’s very narrow streets. There are a few places – e.g. along some boulevards, or the ship canal on the north side of the city – where there’s enough space for fully separated bike-lanes. But in most places you must cycle on the street. Interestingly, there are contraflow cycle markings on many narrow one-way streets. This feels pretty safe due to very low traffic speeds.

I have no idea how or why it’s possible to run buses in this city. Low traffic speeds and narrow roads would seem to conspire against them. They battle on, but they’re certainly nowhere near as popular as the Paris Metro, which dates back a century and is still being expanded. The Metro serves 1.5 billion journeys a year. If you have to move a lot of people in a city where land is in high demand, best to do it underground.

11 comments to Postcard from Paris

  • Dave B (Wellington)

    Thanks for taking the time to write this ‘postcard’. I was in Paris a few weeks ago (not for the climate conference) and made similar observations to you. But it never occurred to me to write a piece tor Transportblog! So good on you for making the effort.

    • Mary M

      Does all the unnecessary re roading in NZ make sense or help the govt in implementing the Paris agenda of a Carbon tax and Carbon price for trading carbon?

      • Dave B (Wellington)

        Answer. NO!

        • Mary M

          It was rhetorical, to show the absurdity of the non stop flow of funding to (re)roading projects, to create the World Bank’s “low carbon economy” .
          Paula Bennett buying up “carbon credits” for a country with piss all C02 emissions -while not reducing her out breath(C02) the trees happily transmute .
          Madness.

  • mfwic

    25 years ago Mrs Mfwic and I were using the Carte Orange to get around Paris from the apartment we were staying at in a Police compound in a rough area in the the north of Paris by bus to the end of the Metro line and into town. If they could do it then why did it take us so long and so much money to get Hop going? Socialism and fraternite I guess.

    • Dave B (Wellington)

      25 years ago, many continental cities offered integrated fares between all modes using paper tickets or tickets with a simple magnetic strip. From the passenger’s point of view this worked fine. No need for stored-value smartcards and (importantly) no need for “tagging off”. You just bought a ticket for a set price which covered a defined area and a defined time-period. You were free to use whatever route and whatever mode you chose, within the purchased constraints. Your ticket guaranteed you access to “the system” for an up-front and clearly-defined price.

      The HOP (/Snapper) card offers no additional customer benefits over this yet does present some significant disbenefits as have periodically been aired on this blog. The HOP and Snapper systems primarily benefit the service-provider through being able to charge and apportion costs for every little bit of every journey, plus being able to know exactly who gets on and off where. The user needs integrated fares but not all this other stuff. Paper ticket systems such as described above actually worked better.

      • Sailor Boy

        HOP offers the advantage that I never have to carry cash or go to a ticket machine, ever. Probably saves me around 12 hours a year assuming two tickets a day and a minute each which is conservative for a wait time at a ticket booth.

  • Did you feel safe riding velorb? I saw them well patronised but it looked pretty hairy.This was the only one I saw that looked reasonable: https://goo.gl/R0deHp (Boulevard de Grenelle)

    I rode a good chunk of the Metros and RERs, but the best (?) was the 6 line with its bus wheels…. http://i.imgur.com/9dcTloU.jpg

    A lot of the metro tunnels are a bit of a maze though and adds an unfortunate amount of time to journeys. The old magnetic stripe tickets need to go too – between us our day passes each failed 1/3 days. Smartcards all the way.

    • Dave B (Wellington)

      If we must have smartcards then they should be the non-tagging-off variety. This requires a flat-fare regime within as big a zone as possible, and a cheap-enough fare that short-journeys do not become over-priced. Such regimes exist in LA and Atlanta (these being 2 cities where I have observed them).

      The need to tag-off = Total nuisance and zero benefit to users
      The need to tag-off = Ever-present possibility for getting unfairly penalised (ripped-off), either through forgetting or through tag-off-failure
      The need to tag-off = Disincentive for transport authorities to strive for cheap, fair fares. Tends to encourage miserly pricing strategy.

      In my humble opinion