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Speed of Insanity

photo: traffic, quai du louvre

Drivers - not parked - on the Quai du Louvre,
waiting, waiting.

Paris Life - No. 18

by Laurel Avery

Paris:- Tuesday, 23. September:- Monday was the day of 'En Ville Sans Ma Voiture' - the day when everyone in 72 cities throughout France, including Paris, was supposed to leave their cars at home and take alternative transportation, be it the Métro, bicycle, rollers or skateboard.

To 'encourage' people to do this, 188 kilometres of roads - especially in central Paris - were closed, leaving those who had to use their cars in something of a bind.

This seems to be the typical method for the French to get cars off the roads - make driving as miserable as humanly possible so people become so discouraged that they drive their Clios and Citroëns straight into the Seine and take public transportation for the rest of their lives.

This, if I may say so, is a Stupid Idea. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for public transportation, and one of the thingsphoto: traffic cop, pont neuf I love about living in Paris is that I don't have to own a car. However, Paris is not just a big theme park for tourists. There are people actually living in Paris who have jobs in the suburbs or even places in town, which are not easily accessible by public transportation.

A single lady cop handles the toughest drivers - outside of Boston.

A couple of years back, in an effort to reduce traffic and the ever-present pollution problem, the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, decided to make Paris less 'car friendly' - as if that were possible. Bus and taxi-only lanes were created, and some streets which once ran two ways became one-way overnight, or were completely closed.

Of course, creating separate bus lanes did not increase bus ridership, it just reduced the number of lanes available for cars, creating more congestion. Added to that is the fact that cars can't make a right turn across the bus lane without being in danger of being broadsided by a speeding bus - or taxi, which can use these lanes too.

I grew up in New York, where they understand the necessity to get a couple million people in and out of townphoto: no left turn signal every day as smoothly as possible, and the traffic lights are timed to keep cars moving. Not in Paris. Almost every traffic light, by the time you reach it, turns red.

It seems to me, if you want to reduce pollution, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it would be better to coordinate the lights to help traffic flow smoothly instead of making it stop and start every tenth of a kilometre - at least on the main roads.

Eye-level mini-traffic signal is for short drivers.

No wonder there is such a pollution problem! One doesn't fight air pollution by creating constant huge traffic jams.

The autoroutes are a bit better, though very expensive. The toll from Paris to Burgundy - a drive of a couple of hours - comes to more than 14€. The roads are smooth and generally well cared for, which encourages averagely sane people to often drive at insane speeds.

Now, I have been accused of being Michael Schumacher myself when behind the wheel, but some of these drivers put me to shame. I was in the middle lane, thinking of passing someone, and looked into my rearview mirror where I could see for a kilometre behind me, and confirmed there was nobody on the road coming up from behind.

Being a good driver, I turned on my signal and moved into the passing lane, and when I glanced once more into the rearview mirror was surprised to be able to see the nose-hairs of the driver who suddenly appeared out of nowhere, riding centimetres from my back bumper.

Then there is the amusing law of 'priorité à droite,' which gives the right-of-way to someone entering fromphoto: traffic, quai du louvre 2 a road to your right. Therefore, when making your way home from the grocery store you must be wary of any car, motorcycle or truck coming from the right, as they may just dart out in front of you, causing you to have to change your planned dinner menu from oeufs en meurette to omelettes.

Average scene on Thursdays, outside the Café Metropole Club's café.

For all the criticism the French get for being crazy drivers, they are generally more skillful than their American counterparts. I lived in Boston for a while, and I have never encountered worse drivers anywhere in the world. They seem completely unaware that there are any other vehicles on the road and have never heard of a turn signal.

At least in France, the drivers are much more aware of the traffic around them and will generally use a turn signal before doing something stupid. It can give you enough time to plan your rude hand gestures accordingly.

Laurel Avery © 2003
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