Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Infrastructure in Paris

I think that some Americans assume that Europeans have some kind of inherently superior way of living, and Americans are sort of inexplicably barbarous. I think that this is not right, and that what barbarism exists in the United States is perfectly explicable. Take for example this wonderful system of public bicycles that exists in Paris, although we weren't able to take advantage of it because we needed a special chip in our credit cards that we didn't have. For 29 euros a year, you can rent a bicycle at any one of these stations distributed throughout the city, every few blocks in the denser parts of town. So long as you return the bicycle within a short time (30 or 45 minutes, I can't quite remember), there's no additional charge. The longer you keep the bicycle, the longer you accrue additional costs, designed to increase exponentially to keep the bikes in circulation. Lots of people use this system to get around, and of course there is a fine metro system, and a good higher speed rail system. The investment in public infrastructure is remarkable by American standards.

And yet: people in Paris still drive a lot. They drive smaller cars, generally, that fit better on the streets. There are more scooter/Vespa type vehicles, mini-cars, and the like. All of these, naturally, get better gas mileage than the generally larger fleet we have in the United States. And guess what? Since the price of gas has risen in the United States, people have been looking to downsize their cars. Even still, because of taxes, gas in Europe costs twice as much as it does in the United States, and has for a long time. This has resulted in a better balance between cars, trains, bicycles...the full range of transportation options. And the United States is responding in similar ways to Europeans to similar inputs. Indeed, Washington DC has introduced such a system, and Matthew Yglesias, as usual, has some good suggestions about how to make it really work. I would only add that there are two reasons why biking is safer in Paris than in a US city, and it's not simply that Parisian drivers are more accustomed to sharing the road (although that's part of it). It's also that, in between parking spaces and sidewalks, there are curb-separated spaces designated exclusively for bikers, particularly along major boulevards. Also, driving speeds struck me as somewhat lower overall, so where bicycles are sharing the road, the chance of an accident, particularly a fatal one, are somewhat lower. We need to move in that direction, and I think there's reason to believe that, responding to the higher price of energy, we will.

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