Mr. Green Car goes to Paris—cars and trucks

By Allen Penticoff
Freelance Writer

This is the third, and final, column in a series about my observations in Paris, France. The first was about trains and subways, the second was about pedestrians, bicycles and motor-bikes. Now, a more American way of getting around—cars and trucks.

Not your everyday transportation: Another way to see the sights of Paris. (A. Penticoff Photo)

First up, nobody drives a truck for fun (who I saw, anyway). And the trucks they use are as small as they can get away with for the job. The French do have semi-tractor trailer rigs, and the buses are the usual kings of the street. But pick-up trucks were all but non-existent.

Small, very small, vans and mini-vans were used to conduct business from plumbing to delivery. Diesel cost 1.95 Euros per liter, or about $12 per gallon. Because diesel is more efficient, many cars, and particularly trucks, are diesel-fueled. Even the smallest of each has diesel versions. Small also lets them get through those tight gaps in traffic and into their incredibly small parking spaces.

We have a few tiny two-seat Daimler-Benz “smart-for-two” cars running around Rockford. I’ve driven them and found them to be quite comfortable. But we do not have the density of traffic nor the need for extreme maneuverability that the Parisians do, so they are little more than a cute toy here. But in Paris, they are everywhere, and most other manufacturers sell a similar-sized—or even smaller—vehicle. Not only are they fuel-efficient in a land of highly taxed gasoline, but the need to fit into the tiniest of parallel parking spots is paramount.

Parisians often don’t have the luxury of a parking lot with nice, neat spaces to pull in and out of. Most of the parking is bumper to bumper on the street, and occasionally the sidewalk and other unusual places. I’d see them parked with what looked like zero clearance between their front and rear bumpers, and yet get out without so much as a nudge on the other cars.

I thought I’d see plenty of banged-up bumpers, but that was not the case. They are just really good at parallel parking. They have a system of parking fee stands on many high-traffic areas where you pay your fee and put it on the vehicle. There are a number of commercial parking garages, both above and underground.

I witnessed what happens to someone who parks in a “no parking” area at a private garage door. A small (again) flat-bed truck with a special crane mounted forward comes along with a set of double slings and lifts the offending vehicle out of its parked spot and puts it on the back of the truck. A policewoman was talking to the owner of the vehicle. I suspect it was going to cost him a lot to get his van back.

Speaking of police, there are a lot of them—on foot, on horses, on bicycles, scooters, motorcycles and in small four-door sedans. Occasionally, I saw soldiers with automatic weapons at the ready. They take security seriously. We saw them often, yet did not feel there was any sort of oppression.

On the other hand, finding a public restroom could be a real problem! There were no gas stations. I saw one set of pumps at a parking garage, and later another way up by the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, but that’s it. I don’t know where they buy fuel.

Not all the cars were small. A fair number of mid-size SUVs, sedans and minivans were piloted by the Parisians. Some really nice-looking sports cars of varieties we cannot obtain here were also spotted. The majority were of European manufacture, with Peugeot, Citroen and Renault, the French builders, apparently leading the sales charts.

Occasionally, I’d see a large American car and be quite surprised by it—including an American muscle car restoration shop out in the town of Vernon. My guess is the truly wealthy want things to show they don’t care what it costs. They had an early-1960s vintage Pontiac Bonneville convertible, Mustangs, Corvettes, Dodge Vipers and Challengers, to name a few.

Probably leading the luxury pack was Mercedes, which quite a few cabs were as well. We never used a cab, but they looked to be operated independently, and most were in very nice condition—newer cars and minivans.

Back to environmental activism. I saw many small, green, diesel-powered street sweepers—and their human counterparts. Always cleaning, even on Easter Sunday.

Public trash cans are everywhere, too. Just few potties (though some of them are automatic—self-cleaning). I saw a few electric vehicles, including some electric buses up in hilly Montmartre, and some free electric charging stations here and there.

The mayor of Paris is pushing through a plan to have quick-rental electric cars available throughout the city in the next few years, using a system like the city bicycle rentals. He says there will be difficulties in implementing this progressive transportation project. They cannot think of everything that can come up in making it work, but it is something they must do—so they are proceeding forward. We’ll have to sit back and watch how it works—maybe when our fuel is $12 a gallon we’ll see the wisdom of shared-use transportation, too.

I shot some video (5:46) of a neighborhood intersection in action. You can see what I’ve been talking about in these three Paris reports. Go to and search my channel: “SailFly54” and look for “Paris Intersection April 2011.”

From the June 1-7, 2011 issue

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