Here are seven things you need to know about using the Paris Métro

Abesses station. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

For a panicked Briton thrown into the Parisian underground, the Paris Métro can be intimidating, confusing, and often simply infuriating. Here are the seven things you need to know – and not freak out about – if you’re planning on crossing the channel anytime soon.

1. Handles

Oh god the trains have handles. Literal handles. That you have to use in order for the doors to open, lifting the small piece of metal up slowly as you’re unsure if you’re going to break the train or lose your arm, only for the doors to snap open rapidly and viciously. You’re left standing confused and bemused, buffeted by the heavy station air – all while being furiously judged by Parisians.

Now don’t get me wrong, most Parisians are lovely. But when you see seasoned Métro veterans lifting the handle well ahead of time as the train coasts into the station, waiting impatiently for the hiss of the unlocking mechanism, it’s hard not to feel intimidated. Your average Briton, on the other hand, (read: me) can be relied upon to stare at the door, willing it to open automatically, only to miss their stop as the train rolls away.

It’s also worth noting that the doors open before the train has stopped moving. TfL officials would have kittens.

2. Double deckers

Some of the trains in Paris are double deckers and, here, that’s completely normal. Picturing such trains overground might be an easier imaginative leap for Tube-dwellers, but when you see one underground for the first time it’s a truly disarming experience.

These double-deckers are reserved for the busiest lines, running on the RER network, separate to (but overlapping with) the 16 normal single-decker Métro lines. Taking your seat on the upper deck is a disconcerting feeling at first, but when you’re almost guaranteed a seat and get a novelty experience in the bargain, it’s hard to complain.

3. Numbers and names

Part of the quaintness of the Tube is the line names, and the weird, almost-nationalism attached to whichever one you call home. But in Paris, the lines are just numbers. Boring, coloured numbers.

Station names, however, are amazing. Sure, there’s standard fare that you’d expect from tube stops around a capital city, with Bastille, République, Europe and Nation reflecting the squares from which they take their name. But Paris has a delightful little idiosyncrasy that London doesn’t have at all: the Parisians who mapped out the metro lines obviously had a real penchant for naming stations after famous figures.

You’ve got legendary authors, like Victor Hugo (Les Misérables) and Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers). You’ve got a station named after Pablo Picasso. You’ve got political figures, like Robespierre and, somewhat oddly, Franklin D. Roosevelt. (You can already see Macron rubbing his hands at the thought of having a station named after him in 50 years’ time.)

My stop, Parmentier, is named after the guy who discovered potatoes and brought them to France, saving thousands of Parisians' lives during a time of famine. There’s even a little statue of him giving a potato to an impoverished man. Inspiring stuff.


4. The Navigo

There’s no beating around the bush: the Parisian equivalent of the Oyster is a mess. For a start, there are two of them, with confusing and barely-existent differences between them. There’s the carte Navigo, for which you have to fill in a form and need to be a Parisian, and the carte Navigo Découverte (“discovery”), which costs €5 up front.

After navigating that little minefield, you then have to put credit on it. Whereas you might expect to charge it as you go like an Oyster card, reality is not that simple. You can only charge it for a week, or a month, constricted by the very narrowest calendar sense of each. For example, if it's Wednesday, buying a week pass doesn’t grant you seven days' worth of credit: it gives you until midnight on Sunday, at which point your credit is gone, ready for a new blue Monday. The same applies for a month – that credit drops off at midnight on the final day of the month. It’s a confusing system which needlessly complicates navigating the Métro – and no, you can’t pay with a contactless bank card as you pass through the gates.

5. Manual gates

Speaking of which, we need to talk about Paris’ metro gates. Many of them are manual, making you feel less like you’re travelling underground in a major European city, but rather like you’re passing through the turnstiles at an old football ground.

You have to push through the turnstile, and then push through the weird flappy door-gate thing just behind it. No, I’ve never incorrectly presumed that it was automatic and that my Navigo hadn’t worked before turning around and walking away. Why do you ask?

6. Advertising

We’re all used to seeing movie posters and “this amazingly well produced photo was shot on an iPhone that you can’t afford” ads lining Tube tunnels, but Paris has taken capitalism to a new level. This is Opéra station:

The entire station is one massive Destiny 2 advert. I mean, seriously, look at the light-up logo! Talk about maximising advertising revenue per square inch.

7. Older trains and fewer peoples

Some of the trains running are old. Creakingly, achingly old. If you look in the corner of a carriage, you can see disused screens from the past with manually-operated lights telling you which stop you’re approaching, like those on the front of old buses.

Combined with the handles and some suspiciously flickering lights, you’re one steam engine away from a strangely antiquated experience. It’s cute – if a little inefficient. You can’t help but suspect that the Métro has had far less money pumped into it than the Tube over the years.

****

The Paris Métro certainly takes some getting used to. Yet for all its strangeness, the experience is a positive one – it’s still a fantastic way around the city.

It’s also a reassuringly universal one. In London and Paris alike, there are cramped rush hours, efficient trains and – yes – incessant reminders to mind the bloody gap.

All images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

Five lessons for cities from a decade of Centre for Cities research

The view of Vancouver from Locarno Beach Park. Image: Getty.

With the government potentially facing years of “trench warfare” in Parliament, and Brexit set to dominate the national political agenda for the foreseeable future, local leaders have the chance to play a critical role in driving the UK’s economy in the coming years. However, it’s also clear that UK cities will face big challenges in the new economic circumstances outside the EU, and in responding to other issues such as globalisation and automation.

To meet these challenges and opportunities, local leaders will need to make the most of their existing resources and powers – and one of the best ways to do so is to learn from the experiences and ideas of other places.

That’s why the Centre for Cities recently launched a new, easy-to-navigate case study library featuring over 150 examples of good practice from cities in the UK and across the world. Drawn from more than 10 years of Centre for Cities research, the library offers examples of innovative and effective urban policy making in areas such as housing and transport, skills and employment, business and enterprise, and leadership.

In the process of compiling the case study library, five key lessons for cities stood out in particular:

1) Pooling resources with other local authorities can help places achieve more than they can do on their own.

Take Cambridge, for example. Its ability to deliver housing changed in the mid-2000s thanks to the establishment of the Cambridge sub-regional housing board.

By working in partnership with neighbouring authorities (as well as with development companies and a strategic planning unit), Cambridge has been able to reach a consensus on the importance of increasing density and introducing transport-oriented urban extensions.

2) Cities should also make the most of the support and initiatives that non-public sector partners can offer.

For example, Manchester City Council worked in partnership with NESTA and other agencies to launch an innovative ‘Creative Credit’ voucher scheme in 2010. Through this initiative, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the city region were given vouchers worth £4,000 to spend on buying services from creative companies provided they spent at least £1,000 themselves. The pilot was oversubscribed and its evaluation showed a positive impact on sales and the innovation capacity of participants.

3) Having a clear understanding of the needs of people targeted by a specific programme or project will be vital in its success.

This is demonstrated by the success of Blade Runners, an employment programme set up by the City of Vancouver to support 15-30 year olds facing multiple barriers from getting into training and/or employment (such as substance misuse, homelessness, transportation costs and legal issues).

Three quarters of the participants in the programme completed training and moved into jobs, a success rate made possible by the continuous, targeted support provided by Blade Runners coordinators. This included referring participants to appropriate resources, and providing them with breakfast and lunch, living allowances, travel tickets, tools, equipment and work gear for training.


4) Even when cities do not have formal powers to make a difference, they can still use their leadership role to influence and inspire positive changes.

For example, in 2010 the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson launched the London Apprenticeship Campaign which aimed to increase awareness of the scheme. Letters signed by the London Mayor were sent to CEOs of large businesses outlining the value of apprenticeships, and the potential benefits of recruiting apprentices. The campaign had a positive impact on raising awareness among employers and helped to boost the profile of apprenticeships in London.

5) Monitoring and evaluating projects from their early stages is crucial for their long-term success.

San Francisco offers a clear example of how long term policy making coupled with close monitoring can drive change and create jobs. In 2002, the city set itself the goal of a 75 per cent reduction in landfill waste by 2010 and zero waste by 2020. Thanks to close evaluation of the projects, the city realised its efforts were not enough to reach the target, and so introduced a further 20 laws to address these issues. The city is now ahead of its schedule in meeting objectives.

You can access the case study library and to read about these examples in more detail here. We are always keen to hear about new case studies, so please do get in contact if you’d like to share good practice from your city.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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