I’ve been meaning to write a post on transportation in Paris for quite some time but didn’t have the motivation until now. You see, last night I had a little issue with the public transportation on my way home from the city after midnight. And last week there were a few other issues that have led me to declare public transportation in general is probably not for me. Let’s discuss the options for transportation in Paris and TRY to determine which might be best…
There are something like 5 million cars in the Paris metro area. One long rush hour commute through the city and you will see most of them. Traffic is horrendous. I remember my first trip to Paris and we got caught in rush hour traffic on the way back from Versailles. The palace is less than 30 km from central Paris and should take just over half an hour drive if traffic isn’t an issue. But we were stuck for over 2 hours. And there is nothing worse than having limited time in a city and spending a large portion of that time on the highway in traffic!
Besides the traffic issue, there are other negatives to driving in Paris. First of all, the minimum age for driving is 18 in France. Going to auto-école is an expensive and timely procedure. Unfortunately this means that a large portion of drivers in Paris are not properly licensed. The majority of cars are standard transmission, round-abouts are EVERYWHERE and parking is scarce. If you want to be guaranteed to see an accident at least once per hour, just stand at the Place Charles de Gaulle-Étoile around the Arc de Triomphe for a while. Twelve roads intersect at this enormous lane-less round-about causing madness and mayhem. There are even special car insurance rules for accidents that happen here since they are so prevalent. Last but not least, the cost of cars and the cost of gasoline are expensive compared to American standards. The average new car costs about 23,000 euros which is actually equivalent with the average American price of $30,000. However, the cars in France are much smaller, thus less bang for your buck. Good thing the gas mileage is good because gas is about 1.60 euros per liter right now. That rounds to be over $8 a gallon!
So, perhaps driving isn’t the best idea. I am actually surprised that as many people drive in Paris as do considering the prevalence and low cost of public transportation. The price for a single journey ticket on the Paris metro system is 1.70 euros, about $2.20. I have not rode on a lot of metro systems but in my experience Paris is cheaper than Barcelona, Brussels, London (by a long shot), and probably many other cities. There are many ways to reduce this cost even further. Packets of 10 or 20 tickets can be purchased at a time for a discounted price. Day passes, Navigo reloadable passes with weekly, monthly, or annual options make unlimited travel a possibility for a low fixed price.
Châtelet Les Halles Metro/RER station is the largest underground station in the world. We like to call it “Shitlay” and complain about how busy, dirty, and complicated it is.)
The Paris metro system is the second oldest underground network after London, with the first station opening during the World’s Fair of 1900 without ceremony. With 16 metro lines, there are just under 300 stations covering 34 square miles of the city center. Stations are no further than 500 meters apart and some ghost-town stations have not been in use for years. 1.5 billion people use the metro every year. Trains run about every 2-3 minutes during rush hour and 8-10 minutes on off hours, holidays, and Sundays. It is dirty, it is smelly, sometimes it is downright dangerous, but damn it is convenient.
The way I arrive to the city every day is by RER (Réseau express régional) train. These express trains link neighboring villages and neighborhoods with central Paris. The RER network has 257 stations, 33 of those within the city. Over 365 miles of train tracks are used, with less than 50 miles of that underground (each of the 5 lines pass through the city center underground). RER and metro stops are sometimes combined, making for seamless travel between the two. RERs are usually more comfortable and quicker as they do not stop as often. (signs below light up to show you which stations the train will stop at)
Maisons Laffitte is on the RER A line, the busiest line in the network by far. It carries up to 55,000 passengers per hour, the highest such figure in the world outside of East Asia. Even with the addition of double-decker trains in 1998 and a frequency of more than one train every two minutes, central Line A stations are critically crowded at rush hour. I generally try to avoid using the RER during peak times, which is pretty easy with my tutoring schedule anyway.
Train travel during the middle of the day (left) and rush hour (right)
An inconvenient problem with living in the suburbs is the fact that RER trains do not run as late at night. Rumor has it that they do not run from 1:00AM to 5:00AM so some folks just stay out all night and catch the first train in the morning. That is not my style, so we usually head out of the city by midnight. Last night’s journey was a bit different though as unexpectedly no trains were headed our direction when we went to leave the city. Uh oh! We hopped on a train that headed the closest to our town and vowed to figure it out from there. I experienced my first tram ride when we decided to try that route towards a stop that apparently had buses towards Maisons Laffitte. But of course the buses stop running at 11:30 so we were stranded and ultimately had to hail a taxi for the remainder. Public transportation can be convenient when it works but it is a major pain in the butt when it doesn’t.
There are many things that I miss about being home in the US, but most of all I would have to say I miss the freedom of having my own car. I’m so spoiled to be able to drive wherever I need to go without hassle. It’s an experience living in a big city and navigating public transportation daily, but I wouldn’t say that I’ll miss that part of Paris when I leave!