Monday, March 03, 2008

Morning Rush

Long have I longed for a real transit system. My former commute from San Francisco to San Jose and back on CalTrain was - despite its comfort - long and inconvenient. Within San Francisco, the only smooth part of the commute was the underground portion of the Muni Metro, running beneath Market Street, only to resurface and deal with traffic for most of its route.

With every trip overseas (except maybe Costa Rica, where nothing but freight moves by rail), I was green with envy at the big cities' transit systems. London's tube. Sydney's train. Barcelona's metro. Tokyo's subway. Even Prague's trams. And of course, the Paris Métro.

I romanticized these systems, looking even at other US cities like DC, Portland and New York City with emerald eyes, pining for days where a car - or even a bicycle - would not be necessary. I was puzzled why such progressive cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles couldn't, despite billions of dollars spent, put together a halfway decent transit system that ran regularly and - god forbid - on time.

The question is, now that I live in one of these fabled cities with good public transit, would I actually appreciate it during that most magic (or tragic) of times... Rush hour!

I'm a bit of a sado-masochist when it comes to creating test cases - blame it on the years I spent doing Quality Assurance engineering - so with my morning toast, I had no fewer than 3 cups of coffee. I'd just chugged the third before walking down about five minutes to the Bastille Métro station.

Bastille's a bit out of the way - Voltaire is much closer to me - but it's on the Ligne 1, which means it has newer, faster cars, meaning I can make it to my correspondance with the hideously slow and clunky Ligne 13 a little bit more smoothly and comfortably, right?


Ligne 1 westbound happens to terminate at La Défense, the massive "business suburb" occupied by the skyscrapers and headquarters of many a multi-national corporation. Unfortunately (for me) about half of Paris proper's 2 million inhabitants work there. Or so it seems from my experience getting on the Métro this morning, crammed tightly in... not quite akin to Tokyo's legendary subway stuffing, but tight enough that when the train takes off from each stop, you can still stay upright without hanging on to a handrail.

Fortunately, I start my commute a few stops further east than the biggest portion of people on the Ligne 1, business-types who work in La Défense (read: overpaid expats who live in the Marais or around the Champs Elysées). So at least I get on the train. I may be packed in like one of many black-coated sardines (it's a requirement for the morning commute in Paris to be wearing a black coat, no matter your line of work) but I can look out with extreme glee - nay, schadenfreude - at the MBAs who live and work in America Lite™, left behind on the platform to wait for the next train.

By the time I make my correspondance to Ligne 13 - arguably Paris' worst Métro line - the shoddy, slower, older cars are actually a breath of fresh air. There's room to sit, put down my bag, and actually tap my foot to the beat on the iPod.

And make it to work without my bladder bursting and leaking 3 cups of coffee all over RATP property.

Through my commute I've learned that the Métro is reflective of Paris itself. It's not always the newest, most modern, or slickest things that hold the most appeal. A lot of times, it's the battered, run down, worse-for-the-wear parts that end up being preferable.

That said, I still wish they'd replace the Ligne 13 cars with the newer ones. Or ones that don't smell quite so much.

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