Observations: Paris

Place Saint-André-des-Arts, Paris

Place Saint-André-des-Arts, Paris

Paris is, of course, a magical city. We stayed in a lovely but somewhat out-of-the-way hotel in the XVIIe Arrondissment, near the Place du Maréchal Juin and Line 3 of the Metro. Connected to the Pereire stop was an RER station, Pereire-Levallois on the RER C. More on the RER later. The food was also spectacular, naturally.

We ended up buying a three-day “Paris Visite” card, with unlimited rides on buses, trams, and trains in zones 1-3 for three days. The cost of this? €26.50 each, or roughly $34. The card itself is quite tiny, and I’m surprised more Parisians don’t lose theirs. But on y va.

The Metro was everything one could want: fast, frequent, relatively uncrowded, well-lit and clean. Seriously, though, frequencies made this system so much more usable than many others. Headways across most lines were generally around six minutes – even on a Sunday – and I think the longest wait I saw was 8 minutes. The longest wait we ever had was 7 minutes, and that was after transferring and just missing the connecting train. Overall, waiting for a train was an unusual and brief activity.

Inside an MF 67. Note the door latch.

Inside an MF 67. Note the door latch.

I don’t know if it’s unique in the world, but certainly unique to my transit-riding experience were the manual door-opening latches and buttons. They varied depending on the age of the railcar, but Line 3 used the oldest cars in the fleet, the 1970s-vintage MF 67. These had actual metal latches that would be lifted from the inside as the door was arriving, and the doors would start sliding open even before the train came to a halt. Thus, by the time the train stopped, anyone exiting was already stepping off and those waiting to do so did not have to wait long.

Compare this with the incessant and unnecessary five-second delay that WMATA haphazardly insists on (also, I promise not to compare everything with WMATA, but there are some very notable differences). Not only does this delay the deboarding process, but it then halts those who wish to board. Literally nothing happens for five seconds after the train stops. This is awful for dwell times and those small delays add up.

In Paris, most cars had either the latches or, if a newer car, a push-button opening mechanism. The only exception I noticed was Line 1, which is fully automated and has platform screens, so it would make sense that that requires a more precise synchronization. Still, Line 1 seemed to have slightly worse dwell times for it.

Nevertheless, this small phenomenon – manual door opening – reflects, to my view, a higher estimation of the Parisian. RATP trusts its customers, similar to the Zurich Model’s respect for the citizen. There might be liability issues at stake in North America, but nevertheless, these short dwell times reflect a very good operational practice.

Speaking of Line 1, I did have the chance to ride it.

The Saint-Paul stop on Line 1 of the Paris Metro

The Saint-Paul stop on Line 1 of the Paris Metro

It was a brief trip, from Saint-Paul to George V, just before Charles de Gaulle-Etoile, but I wanted to see how the various modernization efforts have worked out. Line 1 is the oldest in Paris, but now probably the most modern. It is fully automated, with platform screen doors at every station (as pictured above). As you can also see from the picture, there are passengers crammed into the very front, where the operator’s cab would be on a manual line. The trains are fully articulated, and you can see from one end of the entire train to the other (my attempts at taking a picture of such were thwarted by other passengers in the way). The moral of the story is that this configuration allows for significantly more standing capacity throughout the train, and is of particular importance on the high ridership lines.

Most importantly, it is frequent. We were riding on a Sunday, and headways were 3 minutes. On Sunday! Thus, despite very busy trains and platforms, people were efficiently moved out of the way and towards their destination. This is pretty important for a line that carries 725,000 riders a day. By comparison, the heavily-traveled IRT Lexington Avenue Line in New York carries 1.3 million riders a day, but has weekend headways of only 8-10 minutes. The Central Line of the London Underground has daily ridership of around 715,000, and runs 24 tph offpeak – good also for 2-3 minute headways. Paris, and Europe in general, is ahead of the game.

Other observations: stations were clean and well lit, though trains seemed a little shorter on the whole than I’d anticipated. Transfers could be a bit convoluted, but that’s the price one pays for the convenience of multiple interchanges. The system is well-integrated enough that one can walk from Opéra on Line 3 to Saint-Augustin on Line 9 via four other Metro stations and a mainline rail station, all without leaving fare control. This would be a long walk, though. Also, air conditioning was but a distant memory, even on the TGV. Luckily, windows opened enough and trains were fast enough that one didn’t have to sit in an oppressive heat for very long.

The other shortcoming to me (albeit as a tourist and not a suburban commuter) was the RER, which I had great hopes for but which proved less frequent than I’d imagined. For one trip, we needed to get from Pereire on Line 3 or Pereire-Levallois on the RER C to St. Michel on Line 4. The Line 3 to 4 direct route isn’t so bad, but involves a few stations’ worth of backtracking, so we went to try the RER to St. Michel-Notre Dame…

First of all, the branching of the RER makes wayfinding a bit tricky. Here’s a geographically accurate map of the RER C:

The RER C

The RER C

The direction we weren’t going was obvious; that would be Pontois in the north. However, due to that loop and the subsequent branches, it was very difficult to tell which service patterns would cut to the east and which would continue to the southwest. By the time we figured out (here, you try) we wanted a train to any of Massy-Palalseau or Dourdan-la Foret, the next one was 13 minutes away. Seeing as we weren’t far removed from rush hour and all the trains on the opposite platform looked full to bursting, we cut our losses and headed back for a long journey on Lines 3 and 4.

Aside from that, however, there was little to complain about. The Paris Metro was a gem of a system that got us pretty much everywhere affordably, quickly, and most importantly (to me), without undue waiting. RATP observes a number of best practices that North American transit agencies would be wise to emulate.

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