Getting around in Paris

Patrick O'Brian

The amount of people there are in Paris struck me from the very beginning, and I still haven’t quite gotten used to it.

In my hometown of Ottawa, the streets and the sidewalks aren’t too busy (except during rush hour), whereas Paris seems to be full of people all the time, and the streets congested with cars.  Along major streets there are wide sidewalks, which when not playing host to a local street market are almost always full of pedestrians.  The métro, especially the number five which links big hubs like Place d’Italie, Place de la République and Gare du Nord, is sometimes so full that several passengers will choose to wait for the next train.  It may be crowded, but at least there aren’t pushers like in Japan.

Parisians are used to the crowds: they know the drill and don’t get frustrated when they have to stand while taking public transportation.  I was amazed at how they are all familiar with escalator etiquette: stand right, walk left (Is that so complicated, Canada?).  The many escalators that lead passengers to trains, buses and subways are almost always full,  For my first few weeks here, the crowds made me uncomfortable and I would go out of my way to avoid them, but now I seem to be getting more “blasé” about things, like a true Parisian.  That being said, I try not to go to the supermarket at 7pm: it’s difficult to move, and the queues stretch back into the aisles.

Paris’s old zoning laws have always limited the height of buildings to be around twenty metres (six storeys), so that the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks are clearly visible from anywhere.  However, this means that Paris doesn’t really have a central business district like Bay Street or Wall Street.  Having no real “downtown,” it seems that downtown is almost the whole city, and in addition there are also two big business areas with skyscrapers in the near suburbs.  In rush hour, every direction is slow.  Many Parisians live in Paris, but have to work in big office buildings in the suburbs; the majority actually commute from one suburb to another and must change trains in the centre, close to  the Louvre and Notre Dame.

When my girlfriend was in her first year of university, she took one train south-east, and then another west to get to class: this took her almost ninety minutes each way, and she continued to do this for seven years.  Thankfully, governments from all levels have just agreed on the new “Grand Paris” plan to build commuter trains encircling Paris, linking the suburbs together.  Her trip would probably have been about twenty minutes had she been born fifteen years later.
Paris has eleven million people within a twenty-five kilometre radius, even though only 2.2 million live in the city proper.

In about the same area, Ottawa houses only nine hundred thousand.  It may not be a fair comparison, because I have lived in Ottawa for thirty years, but in my hometown I usually run into someone I’ve seen before whenever I leave the house whereas I have yet to see this happen in Paris.  In Ottawa, this made me feel comfortable, but at the same time bored with my surroundings while in Paris I always feel stimulated and curious (even a little nervous). Anonymity can be very refreshing……