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European Transportation, a traveler’s perspective Part 1 of 2

Jan 19, 2011
European Transportation, a traveler’s perspective Part 1 of 2

by Naomi Buell, Marketing Coordinator for VIA Architecture

This past holiday season brought me the good fortune of traveling, something that happens to be my favorite activity. The trip brought me to France and Belgium and although it was only 10 days long, it was an amazing experience. While traveling I was fascinated by the different transportation methods and I kept comparing them to what people use in Vancouver. I took a few pictures to share my experience with others, so here they are to tell my story.

Like many cities, Paris uses a bike sharing program. The swipe of a credit card will allow you the use of a bicycle. I did not see as many people on bicycles in Paris as I did in Belgium and certainly not as many as I did when I was in Amsterdam but there was obviously an effort being made to provide them and I had heard that bike use had gained more popularity in Paris over the past few years. With a small pannier in the front (perfect for your baguette and fromage), who wouldn’t want to use one?

The metro in Paris was also a very popular method of transportation, in fact it has about 6 million patrons a day. My boyfriend and I learned just how busy it was when we experienced the morning rush hour and realized that getting the two of us with our luggage onto a train packed to the brim with people may be a slightly difficult task.

We waited for about 4 trains to pass before we could get on without hitting someone with our large bags, a Canadian courtesy I was told would not have been extended by anyone local. I liked how the trains clearly indicated what stations you had passed, which were to come and what the next station was with the use of light up signage.

That aside however, I found the metro to be extremely confusing. There were different lines and different entrances and you had to look at the name of the last stop to ensure you were going in the right direction. I was extremely happy that my travel companion took charge of leading the way because I think I may have ended up lost and in tears if it was up to me. Even the statistics made my brain hurt when I looked them up:

“The system boasts 211 km (131 miles) of track and 16 lines, shuttling 3500 cars on a precise schedule between 298 stations (not including RER stations), 87 of these offering connections between lines. It is said that every building in Paris is within 500 meters (3/10 mile) of a métro station. Roughly 6 million people per day patronize the métro, which employs over 15,000.”

I also found the faregates to be hard to navigate with large bags and sometimes the ticket wouldn’t work on a new line or different direction. After a few days I had accumulated quite the ticket collection.

Opened in 1900, the Metro is much older than the SkyTrain and Canada line that we have become accustomed to in Vancouver (happy 25th birthday to the Skytrain by the way), something that is quite evident in the station design. Typically the stations are made of brick and concrete and can be a little dark and ominous. However, I have read that some of the stations look like pieces of art themselves and that the station at the Louvre includes marble and even ancient artifacts. Perhaps I was simply frequenting the wrong stations.

Parisians occupy much less space than us North Americans. They have smaller apartments and hotels, drive smaller cars and in general come in smaller packages. With a city that measures only 6 miles across, I suppose it is a necessary measure. I took this picture both because it illustrates that point and also because the cars seem to defy certain laws of physics. For example unless these cars can also drive in a horizontal direction, how do they get in and out of their parking spaces? These cars are a bit of an extreme and as far as I saw, not all that common, but indeed Paris is a city of compacts and hatchbacks. Again with room for a baguette and cheese and wine, what else do you need? Let’s just hope they don’t need to fit a suitcase anywhere in there.

One of my favorite things about Europe is the train system. You can go anywhere you want by train and for someone who loves to travel, the train stations are one of my favorite places, especially the larger ones in Lille. They feel like a “choose your own adventure” hub, with a world (or continent) of possibilities. I even love the sound before every announcement, “da da da da votre attention s’il vous plait.” If you are there in the winter though, dress warmly as the only heating seems to come from the heat lamps (the large flickers of light in the image) dispersed throughout the station and you can only feel their heat if you are hovering right next to them. The trains themselves are quite clean and comfortable and the scenery is beautiful along the trip. Below is an image of the train station in Oostente, a seaside town in Belgium.

And with the transition from France to Belgium, I will end this week’s post and continue on with my Belgium transportation experience next week.