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Mr. Green Car: Mr. Green Car goes to Paris, part two

May 18, 2011

By Allen Penticoff
Freelance Writer

In the last “Mr. Green Car” column (May 3 issue), I wrote about the subway and train system of Paris, France. This week, we will take a look at more individualized modes of transportation.

First, is feet. Seeing Paris by foot is the best way to see the city. The streets are all lined with shops and cafés. It is a visual and olfactory wonder world.

Many sidewalks are wide, some very narrow. There are plenty of pedestrians, and you don’t have to acknowledge they exist—unlike in Rockford, where encountering a pedestrian is rare enough, you feel you need to say something.

Pedestrians are treated pretty well by the motorists in Paris. Crosswalks are clearly identified. Usually, there are fancy steel posts to hold onto/define where the crosswalks are. If there is no light, the traffic, including bicycles, is supposed to stop for pedestrians.

Don’t count on it, but we had many times when the traffic did stop for us. Just to be on the lookout for someone bypassing the stopped traffic. If there was a traffic light, and in quite a few places there was one just for a pedestrian crossing, the pedestrians have a red “stand” light and a green “walk” light. Corresponding to this, traffic will begin to stop as soon as the light turns yellow, in general, so some pedestrians will begin to cross on the red as soon as the traffic slows for the light. But to be safe, you can wait for the green. Once the walk light turns to red, you still have 10 seconds before the traffic will get the green light. You can use that buffer—at your peril. We often crossed on a red if the road was clear of traffic, but not where there was a busy corner or traffic circle, as vehicles tended to appear out of nowhere.

Next up the transportation hierarchy is the bicycle. Many people use bicycles, maybe not like the old days, but still, it is not uncommon to see people all dressed up, women or men, riding a bicycle in heavy traffic or on one of the many bike lanes and paths.

I wanted to rent one of the ubiquitous stylish rental bikes found throughout the city. We didn’t have the right Metro pass or credit card to make them release from their stands. Though once you have your bike, you can ride it for a half-hour for free. Then, low rates after that up until you find another rack to leave it at.

During the night, they haul bikes from one area to another to redistribute them on a trailer behind a small truck. Everyone has a huge lock for their bicycle, and they lock it to something substantial—like the iron railings of Metro entrances.

Motor scooters—from the cheap and old, to very fancy ones with roofs and windshields on them—are very common to the streets of Paris. I saw a lot of three-wheeled scooters, like I once tested for a Mr. Green Car column. They were most practical in this stop-and-go environment—no need to put your feet down.

Nearly all the scooters and motorcycles would drive between the lines of traffic and move to the front of the line at traffic lights. As soon as the light turned green, they’d drag race to the next light. Literally. Then, the cars and trucks would catch up with them, and it would happen all over again.

With gasoline costing $9 per gallon, you’d want to drive something pretty efficient. Motorcycles and scooters had designated parking, and often parked on the sidewalks, designated or not.

There were plenty of larger motorcycles, too—BMWs, Triumphs, Ducatis and, of course, the booming Harley-Davidsons.

Everyone wears a helmet. It’s the law, apparently; and a heck of a good idea once you watch what happens. Many bicyclists wear helmets, too—even the fashionable ladies—but it did not seem to be required.

Small has lots of advantages in a big city, or elsewhere, for that matter. In Paris, maneuverability counts for a lot, as well as efficiency. In the next Mr. Green Car, we’ll take a look at the cars and trucks of the streets of Paris.

From the May 18-24, 2011 issue

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