Friday, November 7, 2008
Surviving Parisian Traffic
I don't drive in Paris. In fact, I haven't driven a car at all since we left the States nearly 15 months ago. We don't own a car here and whenever we rent one, my husband takes the wheel and I ride shotgun with the map. Call us old school; we never pay extra for a GPS.
All this is to say, I can only write about surviving Parisian traffic as a pedestrian. Remember when your mother told you to look both ways before you cross the street or count to 10 after the light turns green? It's sound advice here too because you never know who's going to come barrelling around the corner at top speed with their horn blaring. Even so, Parisian pedestrians are accomplished jaywalkers. They are well matched by Parisian drivers who feel no compunction cursing, gesturing, and honking at people who find themselves in the crosswalk against the light. Most of these angry drivers are elderly women, apparently denied the opportunity to get to their next bridge game or their country house stat. Maybe they left the kettle on? All I know is that they're seriously pissed.
Traffic circles are another story entirely and one of the reasons that I'd be scared to ever get behind the wheel in Paris. Having spent many years at driving in DC, I'm pretty good at negotiating roundabouts; you just have to remember to yield to the traffic in the circle. But here, the priority is always to the driver on the right, even if they're the one entering the circle. Traffic in circular places often comes to a complete halt to yield to drivers barrelling in from the right. As a pedestrian, you can ignore most of this (and just pray that your bus or cab driver knows what he's doing) but it took me awhile to get used to the pattern of cars leaving circles and entering the radiating arms. Hang on because I have to draw a mental picture to explain.
Okay, so imagine a circle with four radiating streets and each street has a crosswalk. In DC, either pedestrians just brave it or there are traffic lights that stop cars in the circle so walkers have a few seconds to safely get across the street. But here, the traffic stops after it exits the circle, just in front of the crosswalk. I'm still not always confident that oncoming traffic is going to stop, those cars and buses with their tail ends still in the circle. Add to that the fact that no one slows down gradually; they all seem to go full speed and jam on the brakes at the light.
And then there are the traffic patterns you only learn over time. Motorcycles and bicycles aren't supposed to use the sidewalks but sometimes they do. Delivery trucks routinely block narrow streets. Buses sometimes get stuck trying to negotiate a tight turn. And imagine my shock when I saw a car coming the wrong way down our one-way street one day. What I didn't realize is that the last 50 yards are actually two-way, in order to provide access to another little one-way one-block street. Appearances can be deceptive too; at night, our quiet little street becomes a drag racing strip for people leaving the bistro at the top of the block.
Guess I'll stick to the metro.