Category Archives: transportation

Tour de Paris

By Charlotte Parker

PARIS — I think one of the most wonderful feelings in the world must be that of when the geography of a new place begins to map itself in your mind. For me, in Paris, that process began when I found a bicycle.

My fascination with the Metro lasted approximately a week and a half. By the start of my second week, the variety of people had begun to lose its magnetic appeal, and a commute of an hour and a half each day become heavy. When the sun finally came out at the beginning of my third week, the last thing I wanted to do was hurtle under a beautiful, summery city in a grimy tube full of unhappy people.

Thus, in order to prevent myself from resorting to the world-blocking headphones so common in the Metro (NB: big, over-the-head devices in various colors are popular, especially with gold accents. If you’re really cool, you leave them around your neck even once you’ve met up with your friends — bling of choice for chic young Parisians), I went in search of a bicycle. My path to Velib, the Paris city bikes, was almost thwarted by my American credit card. In order to purchase an access card, one needs a credit card with a chip — something the rest of the world possesses but which, like the Metric system, our country has decided to ignore. Fortunately, my French friend offered to set me up — and I was off!

I will not deny that, as I pedaled along the Seine that first afternoon, an enormous smile spread across my face. I’ll let you guess if I really did sing a few verses from the Sound of Music. It was just such a wonderful feeling to zip along! My first ride took me all the way across Paris, from beneath the Eiffel Tower in the 7th arrond. to bustling Place des Fetes in the 19th. As I passed a number of the Metro stops on my regular commute — above ground, this time — I had the sensation that Paris was becoming real.

On a bicycle, the city unfolds itself with each turn of the pedals. Over the next few weeks, I began to understand where everything is in relation to each other, how distinct pockets fit together and discreetly melt into one metropolis. I became aware of Paris’ neighborhoods, as mind-blowingly diverse as the people I had observed on the Metro. One afternoon, under the big bruised clouds of a brewing summer thunderstorm, I rode along Boulevard de Menilmontant/Belleville. In this traditionally immigrant neighborhood in the Northeast of Paris, the bike lane was full of colorful litter and the air whooshing by brought a sonic amalgamation of Arabic and French. It stood in stark contrast to where I had ridden the day before, the bourgeoise 9th, where I had shared wide-open cobblestone boulevards with BMWs and the occasional Ferrari. Nonetheless, had I continued past the turn-off for my host family’s house and pedaled for another ten minutes, I could have easily connected the two neighborhoods on my growing mental map.

Two observations on bike riding in Paris:

  1. Heels are appropriate footwear. And one can make no concessions to clothing coordination, no matter how sweaty one may get; the first morning I rode to school, I pedaled behind a woman whose toenail polish matched her dangerously high platform espadrilles. She also was able to dismount and park her bike gracefully, a fact of which I was extremely envious, having just spent ten minutes attempting to get on my bike without splitting my dress and/or flashing the world (my success in this arena was questionable; a creepy man watched the whole spazzy process and told me it was “better than the cinema”).
  2. As most of Paris’ bike lines are separated from the street by a curb, you don’t really need to worry about motor vehicles. I would like to warn you, instead, about the rogue pigeons, who on multiple occasions sat calmly in my bike lane and refused to fly away until a split second before I had almost killed myself in attempting to brake. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in Paris there are a few nice pigeon crepes.

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City of Cyclists

Commuters' bikes parked outside of the main metro station in the city. (Armitage/TYG)

by Sarah Armitage

COPENHAGEN — As part of our Yale-organized housing in Copenhagen, each of the eleven Yale students here received a free public transportation pass — valid for whatever trips we might take on the bus, the metro, the S train, even the water taxi.  Three weeks into the summer, however, we have all gone to great lengths to acquire bicycles.  In short, we have discovered first-hand that there is no truer way to see the city than by bike, no more authentic way to move from one point in the city to another.  Copenhagen is a city of cyclists, and we have determined that we would not become Copenhageners until we joined their ranks.

This past weekend, I finally took my first step toward bicycle ownership.  Having heard that the cheapest sale was the bimonthly police auction of unclaimed bikes, several of the Yale students forced ourselves out of our apartment by 8 AM on Saturday morning in order to arrive at the pre-auction preview by 8:30.  We set off for the police auction believing that we were privy to some little-known secret about biking in Copenhagen.  Imagine our surprise when we could barely squeeze through the door to the one-room auction house/ police station.  At precisely 9 AM, the live auction started.  I was thrilled.  My first live auction!  Buying a bike in Copenhagen!  What could be more exhilarating?  And then we realized that the auction would be conducted exclusively in Danish, that our hastily scribbled notes from the pre-auction preview were worthless, that we could not understand the verbal description of each bike’s malfunctioning parts, and that we needed to learn how to count from zero to one thousand immediately.

I came home with a bike — a beautiful city bike with big handlebars and a gracefully curved shaft and a bell.  As I wheeled my new treasure out of the police station, however, I began to notice the rusty chain and the broken brake and the seat that was too high for me to mount, let alone ride.  And so realizing that my plan to ride my bike home needed to be aborted, I found myself grateful for the city’s well-developed bicycling infrastructure.  In Copenhagen, you are allowed to bring your bike on the metro.  In fact, as I rode home that Saturday morning, there were three others in my metro car holding onto their bikes as the train sped through the city.

Biking culture in Copenhagen has benefited from a positive feedback loop that has escaped most US cities: here everyone bikes because everyone bikes.  The thousands of cyclists on Copenhagen’s streets create a city where it is safe to bike, create a political environment where the needs of cyclists are taken seriously, and create a culture where an American college student (read: me) feels that she needs to bike around the city in order to feel like a local.  Cycling in Copenhagen is the definition of a critical mass, a real-life version of the age-old proverb that there exists safety in numbers.  There are separate bike lanes on all major roads, separate traffic lights for bikes, and bike racks at every corner.  In the winter, the bike lanes are cleared of snow before the car lanes are.  Forty percent of all work commutes are made on bicycles, as are thousands of additional trips around the city in all weathers and all seasons.

Biking here is not only convenient but desirable.  Most Copenhageners have told me that they prefer biking to driving, a statement that would be unfathomable in a city like Beijing where biking is viewed as a lower class, less desirable form of transportation.  In fact, biking in Copenhagen is an equalizing force in the city, forcing politicians riding to Parliament and parents bringing their children to school to share the city streets as an open public space.  Cycling in Copenhagen is a case in point that it is far easier to revel in life’s essentials when you have already experienced its luxuries.  Rather than being a novelty item, cars have been available to the Danes for a while—and were tried en masse in the 1960s and 1970s.  Bikes are a lifestyle of choice, not of necessity.

For this reason, I really do wonder how replicable is Copenhagen’s biking infrastructure in cities around the world, at least at any point in the foreseeable future.  American cities might indeed be able to create more cyclist-friendly urban areas with some expert planning.  But as the urban development crowd often laments, cities in nations with emerging economies seem unlikely to make the voluntary sacrifices — namely, a first taste of car culture — needed to create a Copenhagen-style transportation system.  This dilemma has long raised fundamental questions about the role of public participation in city planning.  Must a city of cyclists arise organically, as happened in Copenhagen?  Or can a city planning board somehow impose this system on the citizenry through incentives, regulations, and other measures?  Living in Copenhagen has erased all of my doubts about biking as a serious alternative for mass transportation.  I have seen the end goal.  Now, with my rusty bike in tow, I have joined the chorus of people asking how we will get there.

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Musings on Commuting

by Charlotte Parker

PARIS — My mornings have finally settled into a rhythm over the course of my first week or so here.

I wake up, say bonjour to my host mother, Floriane, and her green flowered dressing gown, enjoy a breakfast of baguette, yogurt, and fruit, and then set out the door at ten o clock sharp, with Baya the floppy-eared dog barking goodbye. My commute begins with a steep uphill climb for several “blocks” along Rue des Compans, followed by an equally sharp descent into the belly of the Metro.

My host family, a retired couple in their sixties, lives in the 19th Arrondissement, a district of Paris located in the Northeast corner of the city close to the peripheral highway that divides Paris proper from the suburbs. My school sits smack dab in the middle of Paris, in the 6th Arrondissement, which means that in order to get there and back from my apartment, by my rough calculations (45 minutes x 2 times/day x 10 days), I have spent around 15 hours hurtling by train under Paris since I arrived here at the end of May. That is almost as much time as I have spent in class, and indeed the Metro has become another classroom of sorts for me, a stage on which to watch the French culture we discuss in class unfold.

Lesson one: Paris is extraordinarily diverse, especially as one moves farther and farther away from the center of the city. Until I switch lines at a hub station near Notre Dame, my co-passengers are at least half of seemingly North African or West African descent. I hear much accented French (thanks to France’s efforts to promote the French language around the world — see here for more on the International Organization of La Francophonie—even recent immigrants speak French well, albeit with accents or very specific dialects), and envy the women their strikingly patterned dresses and stiff head wraps. As might be imagined, the outer neighborhoods — traditionally in the Northeast of the city, as well as the banlieues, or suburbs — are home to more working class people and immigrants, while the center and southwest host the Parisians of popular stereotypes, in their 19th century stone apartments. This is all changing as nearly every neighborhood in Paris has recently been “revitalized” and, some might say, taken over by, clusters of yuppie hipsters, or bobos (bourgueois-bohèmes) — more on that before I leave in July! — but in the meantime, there are fewer Gallic Parisians near where I am living than near the Eiffel Tower, for example.

Lesson two: PDA is completely normal and accepted. I have seen multiple Metro make-out sessions, and even my well-coiffed co-passengers don’t bat an eyelash. This is perhaps because they are busy reading — I have the impression that France’s is a very literary culture — but might also be because, as my professor said today, “they are happy for the lovers!” Indeed, while not immediately outgoing, I have found Parisians to be demonstrative with their families, and, though slower to open up than the Italians and Argentines I have lived with, well-meaning and interested in foreigners once the ice has been broken.

Lesson three: French women wear heels. They even totter around (as I saw yesterday) when it is 7:30 pm and they have to run home to make dinner for their crazy 7-year-old son, who has made them carry his scooter and is tugging at their sleeves (trench coat, no less) — and their ankle is bound by an ace bandage. Pure dedication.

Over the past ten days, I have tried to become a bit of what I have absorbed on my daily commutes. I relinquish my folding seat if the car becomes especially crowded; I read the free newspapers stacked in the corridors between train platforms; I hide my map in a notebook; and I dress a few notches up from what I would wear to class in New Haven, which means more sweaters and scarves (even in June!). I haven’t gotten to the heels yet, but I am convinced that once I woman up and buy myself a nice pair, no one will look at me like I’m a foreigner…

Charlotte is a rising sophomore in Calhoun College. She is spending June taking a French culture and conversation course in Paris.

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