Travelling with egalite and fraternite

Three weeks in Paris with no public transport brought out peculiar patterns of behaviour - and odd modes of dress
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As Paris commuters rediscover their buses, trains and metros this morning, many will probably vow never again to complain when the service is late, or full, or less than spotless. For a few days, at least, they will be pleased just to have it there.

However, perhaps the experience of the past three weeks should not be banished so quickly. For it offered something that no one in their right mind, not even the most dedicated transport economist, would have dared even to propose: a real live experiment in what happens when a capital city in the developed Western world is deprived of all its public transport. How does it, how can it function?

Last week, just before the first cracks in the transport strike opened up, the Paris regional authorities decided this was a question worth asking and set up a special committee to consider what "lessons can be learnt before this unique situation is at an end". Well, here from one observer - who is leaner, fitter and newly qualified in the science of comparative walking times around Paris - are some tentative answers.

Parisians are often regarded as the least sociable and community spirited of people. But within the first week, even they had generated an admirably co-operative approach to the challenge of getting into and around their city. With everyone reduced to the same common denominator, a sort of primitive transport communism began to develop.

After a few days it was rare to see a car with only the driver in it: car-sharing became the norm and hitchhiking respectable. People of all ages and apparent income groups could be seen standing at the roadside holding up handwritten destination boards.

Into the second week, "primitive communism" started to give way to "proto- public transport". Hitching and car-sharing were now so developed that acknowledged "stops" had been established at crucial intersections. Some drivers, and even motor cyclists, left notes on their windscreens when they parked, saying when they would leave and their destinations.

But better use of the private car and generous parking arrangements came nowhere near to solving the problem. As public transport campaigners the world over could have predicted, the result of even rationalised car use was ... gridlock.

There were mornings when the traffic jams in and around Paris totalled more than 350 miles. Journeys which had taken 20 minutes on the suburban railway took three and four hours. Peak time for jams became earlier and earlier - to 5am - but then, so did the evening rush-hour.

In the last week, a sort of equilibrium was achieved. The jams were reduced to an average of 125 miles. Those still driving had made their calculations and were philosophical. They sat in the jams reading books and newspapers and making phone calls; there was far less hooting of horns than in pre- strike times.

Of the other car users, some had transferred willingly to the infrequent commuter buses and boats provided since the second week by the city council. Others had taken to bicycles, motor cycles, roller skates or walking. Still others - but surprisingly few - took work home or stayed away: fewer than 25 per cent of Paris workers took even one extra day off work during the strike.

What they did, however, was to concentrate their energy on the one task of getting to work. City-centre shops, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and exhibitions suffered crippling losses. If there had been a longer strike, many of the facilities that make a city attractive could have been threatened.

Cost, indeed, was an element significantly missing from the "great strike experiment": not only the cost to business, but the comparative cost of travel. The alternative transport was free but inadequate; parking was also free, but difficult. If the usual regulations had been in force, more people might have chosen alternatives; more likely there would have been mass disobedience.

One of the predicted horrors of greater car use, however, seemed not to materialise. Pollution levels in the city were lower than at many times through the summer, thanks, it is said, to benevolent air currents. Before drivers persuade themselves that the weather has a greater effect on pollution than car use, though, they must answer environmentalists who say that measurement methods underestimate the "close-up" pollution experienced by pedestrians and cyclists. They want calculation methods changed.

There was one unambiguous benefit from the lack of public transport. Crime in Paris fell sharply. Increased street patrols following the bombings may have helped, but the closure of the metro and suburban railway undoubtedly limited opportunities for bag-snatching and mugging. The reported instance of such crimes was 25 per cent down on this time last year.

The question now is how far the positive effects of the strike will persist, or can be helped to persist, beyond its end. Unfortunately, the possibilities seem limited. Crime is bound to increase now that the metro and suburban lines have reopened. The more "rational" use of cars will probably decline as swiftly as it developed: drivers and passengers alike have emphasised the problems of co-ordinating departure times and the need to do errands along the way.

The number of people walking will also fall when there are quicker alternatives. Cycling, however, which is a popular recreation in France but poorly provided for in the cities, is seen as a potential area for development, as are the river buses. Jean Tiberi, the mayor of Paris, announced on Friday that both would be studied.

But their potential is handicapped: river buses, as their passengers have discovered, are slow and the destinations limited. Cycle routes will take time to develop: Paris has grand boulevards, but few parks like London's. There is also the paramount question of dress. It took almost three weeks to coax Parisians into anoraks and trainers for their new travel conditions, and unless more employers provide showers and lockers, their staff will probably relegate their cycling to weekends once the strike is well and truly over.

But if, in 10 years' time, Paris boasts cycle routes to rival Amsterdam and water buses to rival Venice, and its car drivers are just a little more considerate, then perhaps the suffering of the past three weeks was not entirely in vain. And next time the London Underground seizes up or British Rail chokes on the wrong kind of snow, think of Paris in December 1995 and imagine what would happen if the whole transport system shut down.

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