The highlight of our recent visit to Paris was, for me at least, two bus rides I took towards the end of our five-week trip. As a student in Paris over fifty years ago (is it really fifty years?), the Paris subway system seemed marvellously extensive and, to my mind, had to be one of the best in the world. Then, it was so easy, and I took it for granted.
Not this trip. This time, I found that using Paris public transit in my mid-seventies was a significant challenge and a disturbing mark of my aging. As the weeks of our visit passed, my mood was affected by my reaction to Parisian public transit. I found myself dreaming about crowded buses and endless trips on the Métro. And thinking that this city was too big for me.
Unlike in Toronto (where public transit has become child’s play for politicians, sabotaged by years of political interference), public transit in a truly world-class city like Paris is a rapidly expanding complex venture which is constantly changing and appears to be based on a rational assessment of public needs. In Paris, now, there are 16 Métro subway lines, five RER rapid transit train lines, two trams, and endless bus routes. All snake across the city, intersect at some stations but not at others, and are accessible using some tickets but not others. All are well-used. Learning how this system works and how to use it safely is a major challenge.
We initially decided to use the buses which ran up a major street not far from our 14th Arrondissement apartment. We know that buses are slow, subject to the congestion of the streets, and often crowded. But they seemed to go more or less directly to places that we wanted to visit. And since we were visitors with no particular deadlines, when we arrived was of little concern, and we could enjoy the sight-seeing en route.
Alas, different buses on the same street have different stops, and the official schedule (which is indicated at each stop) is more aspiration than reality. When one must wait too long, there is no choice but to take a cab or search for the nearest Métro stop. On one bus ride, there was some sort of demonstration on the street and, without prior notice, the bus driver just abandoned his route and dumped all the riders several blocks from where we wanted to go. As we walked to the Musée d’Orsay that morning, my husband swore that he would never again take a Parisian bus.
Buses also seemed to be dominated by older people, many with disabilities, some in wheelchairs and many young mothers with children in strollers. There is a reason for that. The subway system is comprehensive, relatively reliable, and in the process of being upgraded everywhere with the occasional rolling sidewalk, new security doors, escalators, and signage.
Notwithstanding these obvious improvements, we became acutely aware of the demands that the Paris Métro makes on its users. The Métro is built using long tunnels linking one line to another and using many steps, often on several steep staircases. For someone with mobility issues, using a cane or walking stick, or pushing a baby stroller, the Métro is decidedly difficult. We became very conscious of which Métro stations had escalators and where they were located. Elevators appeared to be non-existent. The stairs on the Métro became a factor which favoured the buses.
Another complexity of the Paris Métro system is the size of the stations and the variety of exits (sorties) provided. At Châtelet-les-Halles, for example, there are at least ten different sorties, some of which are accessible not in the station itself but via the nearby Les Halles shopping mall. The direction of the sorties is marked but finding them may require consulting the maps posted on the walls or help from one of the many English-speaking “volunteers” there to assist visitors like us. Going out the wrong sortie can put you a long distance away from where you want to go. Nobody wants to walk outside at length under a hot summer sun.
Since the RER lines were built after most Métro lines, RER stations will not necessarily be at exactly the same place as the Métro station with the same name. Everything is marked, but visitors have to be alert to the signage and take the time to follow it precisely. Miss the correct signage, and you will find yourself going on the wrong subway line, or the wrong direction on a Métro or the RER.
Learning to use the more modern and accessible light rail RER lines is a major step forward. The RER lines extend across the City and far into the exurban suburbs. The RER line we used when we lived in France thirty years ago goes from Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse in La Vallée de Chevreuse to the west of Paris all the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the east. A “new” (to me) RER line now extends to Versailles Rive Gauche, a short walk to the palace and its gardens.
In the city, the RER lines act as an express train, stopping at fewer stops than the Métro and crossing the same area much more quickly and comfortably. So long as one’s route is in the city, the same ticket applies and there is no additional cost. It is more expensive if one is using the RER to go out of the city. To go from downtown to CDG airport, for example, costs about 10 Euros each way, but that cost covers all your Métro transport on that trip within the city itself. To get from downtown to St. Rémy costs 5.8 Euros. To go to Versailles costs 3 something Euros. If you are spending the day travelling the RER and the Métro, a day pass is cheaper than two one-way fares.
Clearly, those familiar with Parisian public transport use the RER system a lot. On our last day there, we used the Métro and the RER to go all the way from CDG to the Tuileries (near the Louvre) and back using a day pass. Each trip took less than 45 minutes (even with one change between the Métro and the RER and the need to use a long moving sidewalk at the exchange). Most of the way, it was comfortable and uncrowded.
In addition to the buses, the Métro, and the RER, Paris now also has at least two tram lines which are modern and accessible. I travelled on the T3A line from Pont du Garigliano near the Bois de Boulogne in the west to Porte de Vincennes in the east, and then on the T3B line from Vincennes to the new symphonic theatre at Parc de la Villette in the 19th Arrondissement in the northeast. That line extends further around the north of Paris all the way west to the Porte d’Asnières near Clichy. These are comfortable new light rapid transit lines which are above ground, have frequent stops, connect at no additional cost to the bus system, and provide public transit to more distant suburbs where the density of population does not warrant underground Métro service. They are also designed to accommodate crowds and wheelchairs.
The Paris trams are precisely what was planned and funded for Scarborough eons ago. In Toronto, they got scuttled by Rob Ford and other politicians of all persuasions who continually put their own interests above the needs of the public. Toronto imposed an extra 1% tax on everyone to pay for the extended Scarborough line and still squabbles about the nature of what should be built. While we have nothing, Parisians enjoy the use of their modern new trams in a timely fashion.
The final weekend I was in Paris, I mastered the bus system. After visiting the new L’Institut du Monde Arabe, located near the Seine and east of Nôtre Dame, I found a bus stop (#89) right there which went to the Porte de France, a station on the new tram line. I knew that the bus which runs right near our apartment (#62) also went to the Porte de France. So I caught the #89. For my single ticket which cost 1.9 Euro, I rode to the end of the line, discovering many interesting new developments east of the massive National Library en route. I then transferred free of charge onto the #62 to take me back to the apartment. For much of the time, I had the bus to myself. When I didn’t, I was obviously the only non-local on the bus, and my fellow travellers were very helpful ensuring the I got off at the correct stop. I felt that I was back in the Paris that I once knew well.
It was apparent throughout all our use of the Parisian public transit that the French will always give up their seats (on the bus, Métro, RER or tram) to anyone who is disabled, using a cane or even just older. On the single occasion when this did not happen almost instantly, I was in a very crowded tram, confused about where to pay using my ticket (rather than the passes locals use) and rather abruptly asked a young teenage boy for his seat. He got up complaining about “the pushy American” who thinks she can take his seat. A French woman watching the incident admonished him that his complaints were totally unjustified; as a Frenchman, he should have given up his seat voluntarily.
A related incident occurred at the beautiful Sainte-Chapelle on Isle de la Cité. I was sitting beside several young anglophone tourists who occupied five of the twenty or so chairs set up down one side of the chapel. An older, grey-haired French woman stopped in front of them and in polite French asked if she could have a seat. The girls stared blindly, did not move, and the senior went on her way. The youngest then turned to her companions and said that she did not understand what the woman had said. When I told them that she was asking for them to give her a seat, the five were embarrassed, got up and left. Clearly, it takes a village….