Jonathan Bray

Paris and London – opposites attract on progressive transport policies

I used to take the view that Paris was an ugly city (quasi motorways alongside the Seine, the dreary Haussmann boulevards, the Eiffel Tower) but with a lot of beautiful details. As well as a city that beyond the ‘grands projets’ didn’t have so much to offer on progressive thinking on transport. But the motorways by the Seine are vanishing, Paris has a mayor who has taken on the menace of SUVs…and won. And of course Paris remains a city of countless beautiful details. 

Reading Andrew Martin’s new book on the Paris Metro (‘Metropolitain – an ode to the Paris Metro’) got me thinking more about Paris… and how it stands in comparison to London on transport.  When I say book it’s more of a love letter really. Take this section as an example: ‘…the play of light on the station vaults (like so many overhead rivers)…the satisfaction of being on the elevated sections (those stately underground rides), or the hallucinatory charm of the Guimard entrances illuminated at night (when they seem to be encouraging decadent behaviour)…’ 

Martin skilfully weaves together his own Paris story with the social, cultural and engineering history of the Metro. His slightly lugubrious Yorkshire style is punctuated by the razor sharp observation, the vivid evocation of time and place – as well as a relaxed attitude to digression and the guilty pleasures of detail. The reader is taken from one end of every line to the other. There is a section on the unique smell of the Metro (‘Eau de Madeleine’ is added to the wax that’s applied to the platforms nightly). He takes semi-clandestine rides on terminal loops, ponders the history of colour palettes of tickets and there are digressions on the cultural significance of the silver handles (‘loqueteau’) that passengers use to open the doors on some trains. 

But back to those London comparisons. London got its Underground first and as Martin says, ‘Paris having had a long cool look at it decided to do the opposite.’ The original conception of the Paris Metro was that every Parisian should be no more than 500 metres from a Metro station and the Paris Metro has more stations than the London Underground despite Paris proper being fifteen times smaller than London. Where the Underground built deep the Metro built shallow and where the Underground has surface buildings the Metro doesn’t. The telling dissimilarities continue. Whereas the Underground started by linking main line stations, the Metro shunned them. And while the expansion of the Underground was intimately linked to green field private housing development – the Metro focussed on the betterment of the city of Paris itself. This perhaps also reflects British antipathy towards urban life, in that the Underground was about getting people out of the city whereas the Paris Metro was about enhancing the life of the city itself. However, in Paris this also created a greater awareness of the tension between city and suburb – something which has become a wider faultline in politics in many countries around the world and in which the car is a major signifier (hence the ‘war on motorists’ rhetoric). Martin quotes research which found that: ‘The further away people live from a railway station, the likelier they are to vote for Le Pen’, and the Deputy Mayor of Paris for urbanism, Jean-Louis Missika, who argues that the Gilet-jaune (yellow vest) fuel protest movement in France represents ‘a crisis of failed urbanism’. The Grand Paris Express project (now coming to fruition) seeks to address this in a decisive way through more than doubling the territory encircling France’s capital city with over 120 miles of new tracks, four new underground lines and 68 new metro stations. The idea is to better connect distant Paris suburbs to the city and to each other and better unite the suburbs with the city in a way which also meets the desire to eliminate car dependency through the provision of good public transport – everywhere. Or as then-President Nicholas Sarkozy said: “We want to rebuild the city on top of the city, remove the divide between Paris and its suburbs, reduce the divides which separate the neighborhoods, which separate the inhabitants, we want to restore unity, continuity and solidarity.” I’m not sure on this side of the channel we have grasped the ambition and scale of this project. Meanwhile the Underground’s expansion is rather more piecemeal and often reflects its historic link with private property development. Paris has also been quicker off the mark on rapid, high capacity cross-city links. The Elizabeth Line being an equivalent to the RER in Paris (which serves four main corridors). These higher minded Parisian goals are also reflected in the tendency of the Metro to the dramatic. For example in the way its overhead sections rise from the depths to float above the boulevards. Martin attributes this to the fact that engineering isn’t looked down as a ‘trade’ occupation by the French elites as it is by their British counterparts whose land owning ancestors were not subject to the guillotine. 

Incidentally whilst London may have been well ahead of Paris on underground railways, Paris was where the bus was invented (and where the term ‘omnibus’ was coined). And whilst Paris regulated its bus services (including integrated ticketing across routes) London did not. In 1869 Charles Dickens wrote a review of the two systems which whilst readily admitting that the Paris system had more advantages argued that: ‘’Who can say that, properly developed, the London system of free competition may not ultimately attain…the same degree of perfection that Paris is enforced by monopoly.’ More than one hundred and fifty years later and we are still waiting for bus deregulation to achieve such perfection.

In the post-war years it could be argued that Paris succumbed to the global trend of remaking cities to serve the car even more than London did. The Metro was described as ‘deserted’ in 1950. And despite owning a particularly beautiful house on the île Saint-Louis, President Pompidou agreed to an expressway along the right bank of the Seine and presided over the opening of the Périphérique (inner motorway ringroad) in 1973. The Francophile writer and author of a piece called ‘The assassination of Paris’, Richard Cobb, wrote that the Périphérique ‘circles Paris with the constant roar of tyres, the screams of sirens and the presence of sudden death’. Paris may have gone harder, and changed course later, in its relationship with the car – but it’s making up for it now. This year the speed limit on the Périphérique will be reduced from 70 kmh to 50 kmh by Mayor of Paris, Anne Hildago. Mayor Hildago is the Paris equivalent of Ken Livingstone – a pivotal figure in decisively shifting the balance between the car and public transport. The dominance of the car on the banks of the Seine and on those Hausman boulevards has been broken. Now when you visit you will see cyclists everywhere. In the future more of central Paris will be for people not vehicles and elsewhere the 15 minute city is the goal. Hildago is as savvy and populist as Livingstone was too – with recent referendums taking on both SUVs and the e-scooter hire companies.Is there now more convergence in the approach to transport between Paris and London than there has been in the past? Perhaps. But as ever differences remain too. London has road user charging but public transport in Paris is cheaper. London may have a more integrated transport authority but its Paris equivalents are not under the cosh from a hostile national administration. The Grand Paris Express has no equivalent in London – but then the London Underground has more suburban coverage to start with. The fascinating confluences and divergences between the two cities look set to continue. And Andrew Martin’s book is a good place to start exploring them. ‘Metro, Boulot, Dodo’ (metro, work, sleep) goes the Parisian expression. This is a book that also might make you want to skip work, or the traditional Parisian sights altogether, in favour of exploring the Metro with a map in one pocket and this book in the other.

This article first appeared in Passenger Transport magazine and a pdf can be downloaded here