Driving & Drivers, Paris
Of course, you CAN drive in Paris. Contrary to what is often said, driving is not a problem, drivers are not a problem. The traffic is not more difficult to handle than in any other city, drivers are neither nicest nor worst than anywhere else, but, however, I strongly advise you to avoid driving in Paris. A car will be more a burden than any help as the public transport system is very efficient while parking is always a challenge. Parking your car is always a big problem. As you won't find any place to park, you might be tempted to park at a forbidden spot. Then, you might find your car tied up in a nice (!) "sabot de Denver" (colloquial name in France for a wheel clamp or Denver boot) fitted on the front wheel of your car ! I do not know exactly how much is the fine to remove it but it is heavy !
A special thank to Jeff (VT Seabiscuit) who wrote the following note on the history of the wheel clamp.
The Denver Boot was invented in 1953 by a gentleman by the name of Frank Marugg. Besides being an inventor, he was a musician with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, and a pattern maker. He was a friend to many politicians and police department officials in Denver.
The Denver Sheriff's Department came to him to ask for help with their parking enforcement problem. Frank and the Sheriff decided to build a device to immobilize vehicles whose owners didn’t pay their outstanding parking tickets. He invented and patented the Denver Boot.
Frank was quite a guy, he could build almost anything, he even made his own violin, which he played for the Denver Symphony. The Denver Boot was only one of his brilliant inventions. (Ed. Note: And one of his worst).
The French TV announced the sixth fatal accident in Paris of a user of Velib bicycle self-service since its launching on July 15th, 2007.
They did not mention the number of deadly accidents implying cyclists using their own bicycle.
Any person having visited Paris will have noted that the traffic is particularly dense and often risky. Cohabitation between cyclists, busses, taxis, heavy trucks and vehicles of delivery is particularly dangerous because these vehicles are generally authorized to drive on the same lanes as the bicycles!
These accidents with Velib users were almost all due to a truck or bus turning right without having seen the cyclist on their side; the traditional problem of “the dead angle”.
If you are a tourist in Paris and want to drive a bicycle be particularly careful. This city does not have the infrastructures reserved exclusively to the cyclists such as in Amsterdam for example.
Best is to choose for your cycling days of less traffic like Sundays or the periods of holidays like August.
There is a face of Velib which is rather sad. Since July 2007 there have been
18.000 degradations, 8.000 thefts, 3.500 complaints at the police, according to the French press.
It goes from warped frameworks, twisted handlebars, punctured tires, broken baskets, etc. even bicycles thrown in the Seine.
J.C. Decaux owner of some 20.000 bicycles put into circulation has a subsidiary company Cyclocity with 500 workers for the maintenance. There are 1.500 repairs per day in 10 workshops. They even have a barge for repairs circulating on the Seine.
As a consequence of the increasing degradations, only 46% of the “Vélibistes” declare to be satisfied with the state of the bicycles, against 55% in 2008.
Amongst biking circles the feats of the now deceased (unsurprisingly) 'Black Prince' have passed into urban folklaw. He achieved infamy mainly through his illegal racing on the Paris peripherique, the city's 35 km ring-road. Averaging 190+ kph on his Kawasaki ZXR750 with a camera strapped to the tank. You would think he would do this at first light, but no, this 11-minute (and that is the full circuit) video was taken during the height of the morning rush-hour. I have yet to see it, but I'm told it makes experienced bikers whince with the pain of what could have been.
Watch out for any nutters trying to better his record.
Thirteen major avenues lead into the Arc d'triomphe. Properly speaking it is a traffic circle rather than a roundabout. Either way it is something that only the French mind could have planned - and it is only the French who could make it work.
Even on quite small roundabouts these days in the UK, the local council ensures that it is festooned with white lines, traffic lights and directional signs. They will also probably add a bloody silly lamp or sculpture to it and a crummy little sign informing you it is cared for by the local firm of solicitors - oh yeah, like they come out and weed it during their lunchbreak in their suits.
But not in Paris : Around the Arc de Triomphe you will find no white lines, apart from the ones that most of the drivers must have sucked up through their noses before attempting to navigate the place.
Avoid at all costs, but if you end up here by accident (and you probably will) then :
1. Keep an even speed
2. Don't other indicating - no one will notice, or care
3. Never make eye contact with other drivers
4. Feel free to cut across several cars when you find your exit
5. Beware of local schoolchildren playing 'chicken'
6. Try to forget the excess charges on your hire car.
7. Learn a few choice words of French to use to advise other road users
8. Never leave a space - anywhere
9. Remember it's worse in the rain
10. Learn to pray - And may your God go with you.
Bill Bryson explained it this way :
"Ch. 4, p. 47-8 - I know Baron Haussmann made Paris a grand place to look at, but the man had no concept of traffic flow. At the Arc de Triomphe alone thirteen roads come together. Can you imagine that? I mean to say, here you have a city with the world's most pathologically aggressive drivers - drivers who in other circumstances would be given injections of thorazine from syringes the size of bicycle pumps and confined to their beds with leather straps - and you give them an open space where they can all try to go in any of thirteen directions at once. Is that asking for trouble or what?"
I can remember, years ago, watching in disbelief at a Parisien driver approaching his parked car, finding they was about three millimeters clearance on one side and a gnat's whiskers on the other : he scratched his head.
He then repeatedly rammed his crappy Renault backwards and fowards until he had bumped the adjoining cars enough for him to get out of his predicament.
The moral of the story ?
If you have a hire car then, if possible, always put it in a car park rather than using on-street parking - it may save you a small fortune in fines impossed by the hire company for damages accrued under your hire period.
The Parisiens drive like lunatics. I have been close to being run over on several occasions in Paris (not all of them my fault, although I probably deserved to be when I ran across the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe, but that's another story...)
I swear that the average Parisien driver would rather hit a pedestrian than to lose the top surface off of his (or her!) brake pads, by having to brake at all.
Be very careful crossing roads, and be aware that the Parisiens drive very fast (Princess Diana was of course a famous casualty of the roads in Paris).
Despite all the efforts that have been made in recent years to reduce motor traffic and re-allocate urban space, the sad fact of the matter is that Paris still has a huge car problem.
Here we are a dozen years into the 21st century, and people are still storming through the streets in their pollution machines as though they were back in the 1960s and didn’t know any better.
My first photo is from the top of the Arch of Triumph, looking down at ten lanes of cars on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées – a truly disgusting spectacle. From the top of the Arch you fortunately can’t smell the exhaust fumes, but you can certainly hear the traffic noise, the same incessant humming that you hear if you happen to live near a motorway, punctuated with the individual roars of sports cars or motorcycles as they accelerate wildly when the lights change.
Second, third and fourth photos: As I have mentioned before, one of the more vicious acts of vandalism in recent Paris history was the destruction of the right bank in the 1960s for the purpose of installing the Voie Express Georges Pompidou, an expressway for eastbound motor vehicles by the side of the River Seine. Supposedly there are plans to change this in some way, but so far I haven’t seen any progress.
Update 2013: Some limited improvements have recently been made on the right bank. See my tips The right bank of the Seine and Square du port-de-l’Hôtel-de-Ville.
Fifth photo: On the rue Saint-Antoine, near place de la Bastille, I discovered this yellow sign reading “Piste cyclable neutralisée”, meaning that the bicycle lane has been neutralized, eliminated, done away with. At the bottom of the sign someone has added a handwritten question: “Quand est-ce qu’on neutralise les bagnoles?” This means: “When are they going to neutralize the cars?”
Next review from June 2012: Voiturier
I must admit that this tip will only be useful to a very few. During an brilliant episode of the BBC motoring show 'TOP GEAR' (No, it's not about drugs for any Dutch readers) the boys took three supercars through France. A Ferrari, a Pagani Zonda and a Ford GT 40. Staying the night in Claridges in Paris they had enormous trouble getting out of the underground garage in the morning. The entrance onto the road was very tight and with little ground clearance a 'grounding' was almost inevitable.
With the use of a few broken bits of pallet, and careful inching foward the Zonda and the Ford eventually made it onto the street after causeing a massive back up of bemused Parisien drivers. The Ferrari made it out - just, with a clearance equilvalent to a gnat's backside.
Don't drive a supercar in Paris - if you want to get it out in one piece.
Never presume that crossing the street at a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights is safe. Parisians do not stop for pedestrians using these. Those on foot must give way to cars even when the light is green.
French drivers can be very rude, drive too fast and don't pay attention to pedestrians.
Thank God, there is an underground passageway to Arc de Triomphe ;-)
Part of being on vacation in Europe for almost 2 weeks was the joy at not having to drive a car anywhere. I have a 56 mile round trip commute every work day in the Chicago area, so I didn't even think about having a car on our trip.
I thought this photograph that Sue took on our Bike Tour around Paris the first day a study in contrast. Taken around 5:00 p.m. on a Thursday during peak drive time it shows the cluster of traffic in the Paris Metro area, the serrenity and lack of boats on the Seine River (which isn't always the case) along with the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the background.
As in most major cities, the traffic in Paris takes on a life of its own. When you're a pedestrian, you'd best try to cross the streets at officially marked paths. Mind the gap. Look right. Look left. Several times. And thank your stars when you realize you've made it to the other side of the boulevard in one piece. Then again, when you're a passenger in a car, you must also hope for the best. Aboveground and in those tunnels. Best of luck to you!
I think they should create a video game in which you rent a scooter and try to get around Paris while dodging bad drivers, tourists standing in the middle of the street taking photos of Arc de Triomphe, and the occasional French poodle that snaps off of its leash and chases Vespas.
2006 update: The Arch of Triumph is still a fun place to just hang out and marvel at the amazing traffic whirlpool that has made Paris notorious for mishaps. I actually thought about renting a car just to drive in circles around the Arch. On my second trip I witnessed another traffic accident just west of the China embassy involving a local taxi and an old man from the suburb of Meudon. How do I know he is from Meudon? He gave me his address and asked me to send him the photo I took with my digital camera! (See second photo.)
In the Champ de Mars neighbourhood, the Segways (those strange looking electric push bike type thingies) have become a locals' nightmare.
Since a couple of years - an american based - company proposes guided tours (in english only) by Segways (for those unable to walk more than 500 meters ?)
Good intention, sure !
Those tours are organized ON THE SIDEWALKS : just imagine rather large groups (20-25 units) of electric -motorized push bikes, handled by unexperimented - wearing audio guide on their ears - wanabee pilots on the loose.
While the proposed itineraries are limited to loops around the Champ de Mars (relatively flat and broad), the company operating them claims to have not more than 3 accidents a week - this may sound few to visitors, but for those living in the area that's 3 accidents a week (generally involving old people, small kids or dogs).
Petitions have been sent to the townhouse to have those tours forbidden (in Nice the locals have succeded in it) but - in Paris - the Segways have been declared disabled peoples' vehicles and thus are nearly impossible to eliminate (and with 70 Euros/person minimum for a 2 hours tour, the operator choses to pay the fines).
The fact that the company (formerly known as Fat Tire Bike Tours - they had to close once but reappeared under an other name) doesn't offer tours in French (English only) and doesn't rent locally doesn't make for a better ambiance.
So, if you intend to have one of those tours (i have nothing against their bike - on the streets- or walking tours) PLEASE ,think about us, the locals, and take care (and wear your helmet, it may look dumb on the photos, but please - again - we are fed up with callling the 112).
Paris Segway Tours
24, rue Edgar Faure
The first time we went to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, we laughed and laughed at all of the drivers coming in on the 12 major streets that converge at the Arc and wondered if anyone ever got stuck in the traffic circle going round and round and round, unable to slip to the outer circle.
On one of our trips we rented a car in Brussels and drove through Normandy eventually making our way back to Paris where we were supposed to drop our car off at Gare du Nord. As we got off the periphique road and drove towards the city, the Arc de Triomphe was ominously looming in the background, getting closer and closer until I was sure we were going to be doomed for life to going round and round and round that traffic circle.
Fortunately, we spotted the Gare du Nord, pulled off and safely deposited our rental car. Whew!
Needless to say, if you are staying in Paris, there is no need to rent a car. Public transportation is excellent and walking through Paris is one of the joys of visiting. If you want to rent a car to drive through one of the regions of France, an alternative to driving in Paris is to either take the TGV train and pick up the rental car there (we did that for the Loire Valley) or rent from the airport.