One terrific learning opportunity that we all seem to rush by is what happens when parts of the system go down.
By Eric Britton
Published October 22, 2007
(With a possible HSR on the horizon, here is a reflection on another city going through a transit strike. The author's recommendations make as much sense in Hamilton as in Paris. -Ed.)
"A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." I have always thought so too, and in the field in which I do much of my work - i.e., the ways that people get around in their day to day lives - it has consistently struck me that one terrific learning opportunity that we all seem to rush by is what happens when parts of the system go down.
Or in this case, when parts of the system are taken down, as in the transit strike we are living through these days in Paris.
So, for a guy like me who thinks he can learn more from observing, talking to people and learning from the street than he can stuck in a chair in most international conferences, I grabbed my camera, jumped onto my bike, and went out into the street yesterday morning to see where the action was.
Weird. It was by all signs a great day for getting around in Paris. Lots of bikes of course (the close to 1:1 Vélib/non-Vélib split is standing up pretty well), plus a fair number of skaters, a few buses, and no metros (but you can't see them anyway).
What struck me was that at most intersections the cars were moving, if anything, even more smoothly than on a normal working day. Unexpectedly too, much of the time there were lots of empty taxis waiting at stands around the city. Paris inter-muros and on the street was looking pretty slick yesterday as this pretty big transit strike unfolded, and all that in a perfect sunny Autumn day.
So, what did I learn from this great learning day (in this particular case perhaps to be thought of as a "Transit Free Day")? I'd like to share a few observations:
1. Bikes, skating and, yes, walking have shown once again that they are great ways to get around in a compact city like Paris. If you could manage that you had a good day.
2. The Vélibs helped a lot. The fact that there were so many bikes out on the street certainly made the cycling a lot safer.
3. There was quite a bit of action reported by the ride-sharing programs.
4. Also, apparently, a fair amount of hitchhiking (not really a French habit).
5. And oh yes, lots of people stayed home and gave it a miss.
6. The dynamic maps and reports of the Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP) (the Paris transit company), the Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) (the national rail company) and the street traffic map (e.g. SYTADIN, Infotrafic, and Traffic Paris) are very useful sources for the wary, connected traveler. (I have not made use of the information that is available via mobile phones, and I really should.)
The people who were paying the price were the ones I could not see on the street. Those who live outside of Paris and have to come into the city to work were waiting for metros and trains for very long times, having to walk at times quite long distances even to get to the rail station, and often for trains that never came.
Most of these people are not among the wealthiest; they are for the most part hard-working people with very modest incomes and no choice but to live out in the low-rent districts. These were the sort of people who were paying the price for this labor action. (Makes you kind of ponder, eh?)
So if I were mayor, minister or transportation czar, what would I do next? Well, broadly three things.
First, I would keep doing what is already going on in this city, but even more of it. That is putting even more thought, time and resources into the process of reinventing its transportation system (and of which you can get some first glimmers at New Mobility Paris).
Everything that they are doing under their many programs and projects is going to help to provide a more effective, cleaner and easier transport system, with more options and conveniences than the old binary (private car/public transport) system that is no longer serving well (you can see a list of many of these tools and measures in the Paris New Mobility toolbox).
Second, I would make a major effort to improve, expand and make more widely available the information/communications interface, fixed and mobile. Information on the street, in the vehicles, and at the stops. Including on the mobile phones since (a) just about everyone here already has one (regardless of income levels).
The other side of the new mobility coin is the information systems that pull the whole thing together - and if we can't make full use of the capabilities that technology has to offer us in 2007 then we are a pretty miserable lot indeed.
Third, I think I would really get to business on 3 and 4 above, but not only for strikes but because that's really the right thing to do anyway. For both planetary climate reasons and for the more immediate reasons of more sustainable cities and better, softer lives for all, we need to make sharp reductions in the number of cars on the roads in our cites.
The most effective way to do this (other than shooting every other driver as one of my more virile colleagues has suggested) is to find agreeable ways to turn private cars into shared, public even, transport.
We have a lot of tools available that can help us do the job. That's not to say that ride-sharing is either a new thing or that it had not had both successes (relatively few in the past but now fast gaining) and less successful programs and outcomes, but rather that with the new IT interface this changes everything. If you are looking for a phrase to describe it, try digital hitchhiking.
So here are the three lessons I for one have learned from this great and unexpected open university course on the streets of the City of Light. If you have comments, corrections, expansions, well may I suggest that you aim them at the New Mobility Idea Factory.
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