18 October 2010

Percussive parking

Marseille was never a royal capital, so nobody went and razed half the place to make room for big wide streets where your cavalry can exercise and control the public, like Haussmann did in Paris. Most streets are narrow and crooked, and sometimes steep. Few streets are parallel, the sidewalks are narrow, and parking in scarce. To make it scarcer, and give pedestrians a chance, they scatter poles and other obstacles along the curbs, and make most streets one-ways.

But people still need to park, so they find ways. It just takes a little more enthusiasm to get your car into that impossibly small space. That's what bumpers are for, move until something rattles, then reverse. I haven't heard a car alarm since I moved here, nobody bothers, it would go off all the time. The sidewalks are so narrow that you'll impede traffic even if the car is only centimeters away from the wall, but that's ok. Pedestrianized streets see less traffic than normal streets. And I have seen fear in friends' eyes when they had to make a 180-degree turn up extremely steep and narrow hairpins between parked cars and 16th-century houses without sidewalks, using manual transmissions.

Consequently, there are very few new or fancy cars in Marseille. They all drive old compacts, and most have substantial body damage, like this guy:

I didn't go and choose a particularly old or damaged car, that sort of thing is normal. Marseille doesn't suffer from an SUV infestation like Los Angeles, anyone trying to drive such a thing around here would suffer a nervous breakdown after five minutes and collapse in tears. They do like Smarts, those Swiss/German two-seaters that are no longer than other cars are wide. Très pratique.

One consequence of Marseille's anthill approach to traffic is that rental cars are very expensive, like twice as much as elsewhere. I guess the rental agencies don't really expect to get their cars back after letting tourists hurl them through Marseille's daily demolition derby.

At the same time, French drivers are almost infinitely patient and polite. They'll wait if you need to crunch your car into a parking space, they'll let cars turn or cross, and they'll let cars turn in ahead of them from side streets even if they have spent the last half hour in stop-and-go traffic. Quite remarkable. Maybe a beaten-up subcompact doesn't make a good ego extension to be defended at all cost, but maybe the French are just nice people.

Except the scooters. Scooters are the plague of French cities. Scooters deserve their own posting.

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