q New Reflections on Old World Roads

New Reflections on Old World Roads

A typical street in Lille. No Navigators or Escalades allowed. I just returned from an 11-day business trip to France, where I was able to get a glimpse of what roads, cars, driving, and transportation are like in a couple of European capitals. There is nothing like traveling to a different country to make one […]

New Reflections on Old World Roads

A typical street in Lille. No Navigators or Escalades allowed.

I just returned from an 11-day business trip to France, where I was able to get a glimpse of what roads, cars, driving, and transportation are like in a couple of European capitals. There is nothing like traveling to a different country to make one realize the advantages and drawbacks of one’s own land.

First off, Americans are used to having space, and plenty of it. In fact, the United States enjoys an embarrassment of riches when it comes to personal and public space. Because Europe’s infrastructure existed for centuries before the motorized vehicle came along, its city and country roads alike are extraordinarily narrow, even on the highways. There’s literally no room for error for the errant or distracted driver sharing the road with big transport trucks, and God help you if you’re not good at parallel parking on anorexic streets, or maneuvering in spaces tighter than Britney Spears’s jeans.

New Reflections on Old World Roads

The little Fiat 500C, not available in the US.

In fact, there is a scale of economy that consistently runs through European living; houses are smaller, bathrooms are miniature, and cars are Lilliputian by American standards, often with efficient diesel engines. So much less waste and a more careful use of resources, especially with petrol being about 5 US dollars per liter (not gallon). It was refreshing to see very few SUVs (a Cadillac Escalade or Ford Excursion couldn’t even fit on many streets, let alone get into a parking garage). For any real distances in France, most people take trains everywhere—the French rail system has few rivals. In downtown Brussels, rows of bicycles were lined up on the streets, available for rent, vending-style. Effective, efficient public transportation—what a concept!

The majority of the cars are compact: tiny, cute hatchbacks that might be a little weird-looking to Americans, especially the French Citroens, Renaults, and Peugeots, which are very much alive and well in France. At nighttime, the residential areas in Lille were crammed with these vehicles in every nook and cranny, parked on sidewalks, up curbs, double-parked, and in every conceivable spot one could imagine, like a plague of metal locusts.

New Reflections on Old World Roads

You never know what you might find in a Parisian garage. Ferraris and Cadillacs living in sin.

I noticed regional differences. In notoriously congested Paris, many get around on motorcycles and scooters, which careen quite recklessly between highway lanes and weave about on city streets among streams of cars and pedestrians. In cosmopolitan Brussels where many European Union bigwigs live, larger BMWs, Mercedes, and Audis are more common. In flashy Paris, if you’re someone with a lot of bucks, you might flaunt it with a Bentley, Rolls Royce, Aston-Martin, Ferrari—or a Mustang. A visit to an upscale Parisian parking garage revealed lots of fun goodies, including some 1950s and ‘60s classic American muscle cars.

New Reflections on Old World Roads

Another unexpected find in the bowels of Paris: a pink Dodge.

The most refreshing thing about European roads was seeing that people, for the most part, actually know how to drive. A French native told me that over 95 percent of vehicles in France are stick-shift. Automatic transmissions are starting to be an option on some cars, but she herself has never seen one there. One person I rode with in Paris thinks having to drive a manual really keeps your concentration on the actual task of driving, since you are constantly engaged with the throttle, shifter, and clutch. “Americans just sit in their seat and think that’s all they have to do,” he grinned. Think about it—it’s a whole lot harder to eat a sandwich or hold a cell phone if you have to steer and shift too.

New Reflections on Old World Roads

Quiet Sunday afternoon congestion in Paris.

Here, the passing lane means just that—a lane for passing, not just for getting around slower vehicles and then planting yourself absent-mindedly like a road potato. Drivers are not shy about flashing their brights at dimwits who didn’t quite get the message. A rule of the road is to never pass on the right, and if you do, you will hear about it. When there is congestion up ahead and you are the last car to slow down behind the backup, you put on your hazard flashers to alert the vehicle behind you.

New Reflections on Old World Roads

Alternate forms of transportation in Paris.

In general, European drivers seemed quite courteous, and much more aware of traffic around them than typical American counterparts. In the whole time I was there I saw only one crash, and it was a bad one: a thoroughly crushed car had flipped over onto its roof on a wet highway at night. Still, this was nothing compared to Seattle, where I might easily see several such accidents in a single day.

America, take note.

 

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Mi Ae Lipe

Mi Ae Lipe is a citizen advocate living near Seattle, Washington. She blogs on Driving in the Real World, Tweets daily driving news and tips at @DrivingReal, and writes a regular column on street driving for BMW CCA’s Roundel magazine. She frequently collaborates with government organizations, NGOs, and individuals. She and fellow citizen Mark Butcher are recipients of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 2017 Award for Public Service for their work in

Comments:

  1. Good stuff! Make me reminisce of my travels in France and Italy in 2008.

  2. If you are not already familiar with the work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, I think you will find it both fascinating and relevant to your topic. He pioneered concepts that have become known as the "shared space movement." Monderman believed that that traditional traffic safety infrastructure is often unnecessary, and can even endanger those it is meant to protect. He believed, and demonstrated through his work in Holland and elsewhere, that people would drive more safely is they were forced to deal with uncertainty and confusion through social interaction with other drivers and pedestrians. This, of course, is an oversimplification of his work. For a more detailed explanation I recommend an article by Tom Vanderbilt called The Traffic Guru, that appears on the Wilson Quarterly web site.

  3. Thank you so much, Eric, for the link to the article. I will enjoy it for sure, and I am already a fan of Vanderbilt&#39s book about traffic. I too have often wondered what the point is to having so many traffic signs … after a while, I don&#39t think we see them anymore and we ignore them anyway. Along these lines, one of my biggest gripes is the way current infrastructure seems to pit pedestrians and cars against each other: to this end, I believe every busy intersection should have lights set up for all-way, dedicated pedestrian crosswalk time, so drivers don&#39t get annoyed by people, and pedestrians don&#39t feel like they&#39re about to get mowed down by impatient drivers. This is just one example of how roads could be shared better by everyone.

  4. Thank you so much, Eric, for the link to the article. I will enjoy it for sure, and I am already a fan of Vanderbilt's book about traffic. I too have often wondered what the point is to having so many traffic signs … after a while, I don't think we see them anymore and we ignore them anyway. Along these lines, one of my biggest gripes is the way current infrastructure seems to pit pedestrians and cars against each other: to this end, I believe every busy intersection should have lights set up for all-way, dedicated pedestrian crosswalk time, so drivers don't get annoyed by people, and pedestrians don't feel like they're about to get mowed down by impatient drivers. This is just one example of how roads could be shared better by everyone.

  5. If you are not already familiar with the work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman, I think you will find it both fascinating and relevant to your topic. He pioneered concepts that have become known as the "shared space movement." Monderman believed that that traditional traffic safety infrastructure is often unnecessary, and can even endanger those it is meant to protect. He believed, and demonstrated through his work in Holland and elsewhere, that people would drive more safely is they were forced to deal with uncertainty and confusion through social interaction with other drivers and pedestrians. This, of course, is an oversimplification of his work. For a more detailed explanation I recommend an article by Tom Vanderbilt called The Traffic Guru, that appears on the Wilson Quarterly web site.

  6. Good stuff! Make me reminisce of my travels in France and Italy in 2008.

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