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Mr. Green Car goes to Paris

May 4, 2011

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

Every now and then, Mr. and Mrs. Green Car travel to someplace distant and exotic. The world is such an interesting and complex place. Different vistas, new and interesting people, and great new food to taste.

We had been west a couple of times, as far as Tahiti and French Polynesia, but never farther east than the coast of Maine. Using the last of many years’ worth of frequent flier miles, we decided that France, Paris in particular, seemed a good destination.

Long ago, I thought England would be my first European destination. However, as I grew older, eating became a more important aspect of my life.

Paris is definitely the place to go if eating is your priority. In Paris, public transportation is not only available, but beats driving and trying to find a place to park—no need to rent a car.

So, when we arrived in Paris and took the Air France “Les Car” coach bus to near our destination in the city’s 12th arrondissement, the price was much more reasonable than cab fare. And once we figured out where to get the bus, it was pretty simple after that. From the train station where it stopped to our apartment was a 20-minute walk.

In getting around the city, one must first have a map of the bus and subway lines. We luckily had a map that had the streets and sights along with the subway lines.

Both the subway and bus routes are called the “Metro.” Other than one crowded No. 69 bus from the Bastille to the foot of the Eiffel Tower, we’d always use the subway and trains ever after.

The buses had issues I won’t go into, but we often were not near a bus stop for a bus that was going where we needed to go. The Metro subway (hereafter I’ll just call it the Metro) was fast and easy to get around on—even with the labyrinth of connecting white-tiled tunnels when making a transfer.

Right away, I bought a 10-pack of tickets that offered a substantially reduced price (about $1.80 each). In the end, we will use a total of 40 tickets for the two of us to get around.

While the bus routes offer views of the sights, the Metro offers speed and convenience. Metro trains come along every few minutes. While they have many stops, they go pretty fast between them. Often you get a chance to sit. Most stations have a display showing digitally how much time before the next train arrives, usually never more than 5 minutes, often only 2-3. There was little reason to rush.

Photos by Allen Penticoff

First, you had to look at your map to see where the end destination of the train was going. That would be the signs you would look for to find the proper platform. Then, any connecting or exit stations. Most of the time, since we were not repeating the same trip, I’d do research well in advance and write down notes so I did not have to fumble with maps once we were on our way.

All the trains stay on the same line—and do not go in loops—just back and forth on the same line. There are varying ages to the cars and the lines. Some are old and clunky, others are smooth, new and sleek. They all ride on rubber tires, so they are relatively quiet, until they brake for the station.

Subways have long been used by major cities to move great masses of people quickly and efficiently. Add in the fact that since the Metro trains are electric powered, and the power comes from France’s nuclear power plants, you have a very green transportation system.

Combined with the buses, and your feet, there really is no need for a car. Paris is the most densely populated city in Europe, and among the highest in the world. Nobody would get anywhere if they all drove a car. As it is, they have plenty of traffic and traffic jams on the freeways. Although I saw little serious congestion in the heart of the city, I suspect there were areas, such as around the Arc de Triomphe circle and Avenue Des Champs Elysees, that could be totally locked up at times.

There are no express highways through the city center. Some tourists chose to use a boat taxi on the Seine River called “Batobus” for getting around.

The Metro lines, both bus and subway, can be packed at rush hours as lower-wage workers live on the great city’s outer edges. Those who can afford to live near the city center. Not to say they don’t have affluent suburb commuters as well. Another subway system, the RER, offers subway and surface lines that are more express, and charge more for the privilege of speed.

An even speedier way to travel is to take a bus or subway route that goes to one of several major rail stations and the airports. From here, the suburban runs to commuter areas are handled by the SNCF system and the long-distance, high-speed rail lines of the TVG. I really wanted to ride a 200-mph train, but we never got a chance to leave town but once, and that was on the SNCF to Vernon (that got up to about 80 mph), followed by a bicycle ride to beautiful Giverny. But the SNCF ride did show how all the pieces fit together in a coordinated transportation network. The train was very nice, too—airline quality.

Mr. Green Car fully supports our regional efforts to bring passenger rail back to Rockford, and the national efforts to create a high-speed rail network.

Airlines are terrible when it comes to carbon footprint per passenger mile. I believe air travel should be reserved for ultra long-distance travel—as we are now, crossing the Atlantic in a few hours.

Trains are very efficient, electric or diesel. The French use both—electricity in urban areas, switching to diesel in rural areas. I think travelers would prefer to stay on the ground and avoid some of the many hassles and delays associated with air travel.

Building this rail network is long overdue—we are considerably behind the rest of the world in this regard.

From the May 4-10, 2011 issue

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