The fast train, and other thoughts on French efficiency

Leslie Carlson

I have never seen such a large number of small cars in my life as I did on a recent trip to France. Even in the smaller towns, Smart Cars--as well as tiny Fiats, Renaults and the odd American model--rule the road.

Of course, France is a European country, and gas is about $8 a gallon, so it's easy to see why small cars have the edge. Parking spaces in old European cities, designed for pedestrians and horses, are at a premium. There are few parking garages or space for on-street parking. In any case, I was surprised to see the number of car models available in Europe that I didn't know existed. How come these zippy little cars aren't marketed here? I thought all Detroit automakers were making was trucks and SUVs, but in Europe, they've apparently had some success selling something different. Too bad they weren't available here when Toyota came out with the Prius.

All in all, I was amazed at the high quality of life that the French lived, especially in Paris, with their teensy cars and small apartments. I was only there two weeks, but the emphasis seemed to be more on the commonplace enjoyment of daily life. Good food, good wine and good company abounded.

Of course, no self-respecting French city (at least the medium-to-big ones) would exist without a robust public transportation system. In Paris, that means a subway, an extensive bus network, commuter trains to serve the suburbs and finally the TGV if you need to get across the country quickly.

In fact, I had a bad case of high-speed train envy after taking the TGV from Paris to Marseilles. This trip, which is about the same as going from Portland to Vancouver, British Columbia, takes about 3 hours. The Portland-to-Vancouver trip takes 7 hours on our moribund Amtrak system (and you can't even ride the train all the way there--instead, you have to get off the train in Seattle and ride a bus to Vancouver).

And then, of course, there's the fact that the TGV trains are clean, comfortable, safe, run on time, have power outlets and sport tables for eating or games. A comparison with the sad, decaying Amtrak system isn't even fair. And people ride the TGV: 60 percent of all trips between Paris and Marseilles are now by train...because who in their right mind would bother with driving 8 or 9 hours or with the hassle of flying?

Just think what we could do with a TGV-like train that ran down the West Coast. Can you imagine the Portland-to-Seattle trip that would take you from central city to central city on a clean, comfortable train in just an hour and a half? No cabs or buses from SeaTac, no fighting the traffic on the Seattle freeways...the possibilities boggle the mind.

A few other things I noticed: first, Paris is way behind Portland as a bike city. There were few bike lanes and many fewer bikers. I was surprised, but this might be because of the driving style of Parisians. Aggressive is too mild a word to describe it. I wouldn't want to be a biker dodging the madwomen and men behind the wheel on a daily basis. It was clear, however, that Paris (and France) have not made bikes a priority.

Second, the French run really efficient households. In our tiny rented apartment in Paris, laundry was dried on an overhead rack that was pulled up to the bathroom ceiling on a pulley; in our apartment in Cassis in Southern France, we used a clothesline on the balcony. I was astonished at how fast a load of laundry dried. In Cassis, our laundry was dry faster than it would have been in the dryer. In Paris, our indoor clothesrack dried a load in 3 or 4 hours. Inspired by the French, I'm installing a clothesline in our backyard for this summer.

Our Paris kitchen sported a state-of-the-art wall-mounted water heater the likes of which I have never seen. Turn it on in the morning and in 5 minutes, very hot water was yours. Turn it off during the day when your apartment is vacant and you are using no electricity at all to heat your water. I was astounded that even in conservation-oriented Portland that I had never seen such an appliance. All of the sudden, I wondered why I was paying for electricity to heat my water 24 hours a day when I only need it at certain times.

In some ways, European cities may have a have a leg up on American cities (even Portland) if and when the last oil well dries up.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    Leslie,

    For a different perspective on Paris, head out to Lyons. The one thing about Paris is that they have, purposely or not, pushed out nearly all of the lower and working classes and immigrants into hellhole suburbs.

    There are other costs to the French good life that you witness in Paris, including high housing costs, low social mobility, high levels of unemployment, and a much larger public sector.

    You (we) may decide that the benefits of these outweigh the costs, but let's not lose sight of those aspects of America that make it a nice place to live. Too often, I see this comparisons to European cities without taking these into account.

  • Bil Bodden (unverified)
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    There are other costs to the French good life that you witness in Paris, including high housing costs, low social mobility, high levels of unemployment, and a much larger public sector.

    If you want to experience high housing costs without going to France, come on over to Central Oregon where social mobility is also limited for people working for ten bucks an hour or less and no health insurance.

  • mrfearless47 (unverified)
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    The good life in Paris is also funded by a prohibitive income tax that drives most of the wealthy to various tax havens. One of the problems of using the Europeans to model the "ideal" for the US is that some of us may not be willing to pay the bill for such a huge socialist government. There are lots of things to admire the Europeans for, but the nation states that have things like Universal Health Care, good roads, small cars, good public transportation, also have enormously confiscatory income tax rates, high gas prices, and a large class of people who don't work. It is nice to pick and choose the things about the French lifestyle we like, but to ignore the source of funds to support that lifestyle is to be naive.

  • (Show?)

    For a different perspective on Paris, head out to Lyons. The one thing about Paris is that they have, purposely or not, pushed out nearly all of the lower and working classes and immigrants into hellhole suburbs.

    Paul, Lyons is a major industrial city, nowhere near Paris. I haven't a clue as to what you're inferring.

    Montmarte, the Marais, Belleville...filled with working class not to mention immigrant families. Have you actually been to Paris?

    The biggest difference between France and the US is that they've largely stopped pursuing dumb-ass and wasteful wars in pursuit of their imperial empire...and instead spend money on infrastructure, public services and, yes, a much larger public sector (mon Dieu!) Imagine the billions we've pissed away in Iraq spent building our own infrastructure, invested in our own industry, invested in our own people.

  • (Show?)

    Paul: Fair comments, given that we were definitely on the tourist circuit and didn't have the opportunity to understand the social welfare system, poverty, racism or the sexism which was an issue in the recent French national election. We were, however, renting an apartment in Montmartre, which as Frank notes, is what we in Portland might call a "transitional" neighborhood--lots of working to middle class people, plus a fair share of sex shops and hookah bars (?).

    My observations were more related to the simple efficiency of moving around and living day-to-day life. I've done a lot to make my life more efficient, but comparatively little by French standards. That in itself is a surprise to me.

  • Bil Bodden (unverified)
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    There are lots of things to admire the Europeans for, but the nation states that have things like Universal Health Care, good roads, small cars, good public transportation, also have enormously confiscatory income tax rates, high gas prices, and a large class of people who don't work.

    As the old saying goes, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." It has been some time since I saw the poll, but it indicated a majority (if I recall correctly around 50 or 60 percent) of Europeans accept their higher rates of taxes because they believe what they get in return is worth the price. This stands in contrast to many vocal Americans who would like some of these European benefits but are too tight-fisted to pay for them. They are like that young woman on an old Bank of America commercial who wanted loads of benefits but didn't want to pay for them.

  • mrfearless47 (unverified)
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    Bill Bodden writes:

    "As the old saying goes, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." It has been some time since I saw the poll, but it indicated a majority (if I recall correctly around 50 or 60 percent) of Europeans accept their higher rates of taxes because they believe what they get in return is worth the price. This stands in contrast to many vocal Americans who would like some of these European benefits but are too tight-fisted to pay for them."

    Your point is well-taken. But if American citizens truly believed in the same values as the Europeans, we wouldn't have GWB in power today. It is interesting that Europeans are electing more conservative governments that are running on platforms to reign in high government spending and to lower taxes. Sounds like an echo of the US, just delayed by a few years. These governments aren't being elected by people who like the status quo; they are being elected by a populace unhappy with the status quo. Hopefully we in the US can emulate that outcome and elect a government that is a bit more generous towards its own citizenry and a little less preoccupied with world domination by force.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)
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    If you'd like a wall mounted on demand water heater they've been available for years in gas and electric, they are quite commonly installed in the new houses we build. They are something other than cheap, pay off takes awhile.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Bill Bodden

    If you want to experience high housing costs without going to France, come on over to Central Oregon where social mobility is also limited for people working for ten bucks an hour or less and no health insurance.

    Bob T:

    Oh yeah, can't let any of those big bad companies use up "farmland" or treeless "forest land" in those little towns which might then improve the local economy. But just think, eventually all of these little people will have to relocate to the New Urbanist areas like Portland or Eugene, leaving the open spaces to the wealthy like George Sorros, Ted Turner, and yes, New Urbanist planners and other government employees with great salaries and guaranteed great pensions for life. "Soylent Green" (1973) shows the ultimate in New Urbanism.

    Bob Tiernan

  • charlie (unverified)
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    Paul, While intergenerational mobility has isn't particularly high in France, it isn't much better in the United States. In fact the idea that welfare states prohibit mobility is false. The countires with the lowwest correlation between parents and childrens incomes are those hated Scandinavian countries. Check out an article called Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America (availabe online) by Joe Blanden, Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin.

  • Michael (unverified)
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    Paris is about 10,000 euros richer per capita than the rest of France. As someone who lived in France for a year, I'd say you got the "what is great with France vacation." If you go out to the banlieue you will see what is wrong with France. The way they treat their poor minority population is appalling. The French have an extremely progressive outlook on religion: they enforce strict separation of church and state which prevents the insanity of blind faith that is religion from entering the public sphere. While this is otherwise excellent, it is used to justify what amounts to racism towards immigrants from Northern Africa, many of whom are Muslim and many of whom are also French citizens who have been there for two or three generations. 40 percent of the French when polled come out and declare themselves racist. The French use the issue of the seperation of church and state to justify their racism, but what it comes down to is that they don't like people who aren't what I would call "pure French." A lot of the kids aren't really Muslim anyway (they are fascinated with the United States and American culture, despite Bush), in the same way that most French aren't really Catholic. So yeah, there are a lot of things that are great about France, but lets keep things in perspective.

  • JohnH (unverified)
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    Leslie only begins to describe the marvels of the French transportation system. Not only are there subways and TGVs, but the system is entirely integrated. Commuter rail trains, available at the airport (a recent innovation in America), drop you off at a subway station, where you can transfer to destinations on the subway, such as your hotel, TGV stations, or commuter lines serving the entire region. Transfers between Charles de Gaulle and Orly are made by taking a single commuter train.

    Besides having one of the most productive economies on earth, the French enjoy perhaps the best healthcare system available anywhere, and it costs the economy about half what the dysfunctional US system costs. Of course, it has a serious defect in that HMOs and insurance companies don't get to exercise their god-given right to rip you off...

    On top of this French workers typically get one month's vaction. Too bad most have to take it August!

  • oxymoron (unverified)
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    French Efficiency!?!?!

    You have got to be kidding. Thank you for making my week on a Monday morning!

    You are talking about a country whose government policies have resulted in years and years of stagnation, high unemployment and a shrinking middle class.

    And you talk about efficiency? Because they have taxed gasoline so much that only the rich can drive anything other than a scooter?

    You folks are a constant source of amusement until I realize that this is what you have in store for Oregon.

    Then I get sad.

  • LiberalIncarnate (unverified)
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    I get very tired of hearing about French unemployment. Americans, in general, know very little about research and sources. They just talk the talking points.

    The fact is, if France counted its unemployeed the way we did, only those currently on the unemployment lists and not those that are continuially unemployed as well as those only partially employed,their unemployment rate would be similar to ours. However, unlike the US, they are actually "honest" about the numbers. Yes... "honest". Hello? I am sorry, I guess most Americans seem to think that honesty is a fable in some book.

    Yes, their taxes are high, but they also have universal healthcare and education. Every 18 year old can go to college for FREE. Yes, FREE. If they chose to delay going to college, however, this benefit is not open to them.

    I do not consider the US an "upwardly moble" society whatsoever. I am not sure where this myth has come from or why it is still going on in the US. I have experienced social "downward mobility" despite being more highly educated than both my father and grandfather.

    Oxymoron likely has never visited any country outside of the US. Or, if he did, he was one of those ugly Americans looking for the nearest McDonalds. I have visited France more times than I can count, not just on vacation, but for work as well. I can even talk politics in French. Oh, my! An American talking French! I must be a Communist!

    France is not a perfect country, but in many ways, they have mastered the things that we have not. They too, were imperialsts. They too, ruled the world. They too, were defeated in wars and have suffered politically and economically. Yet, we refuse to learn by their example. Intead, we blindly march forward thinking that we can get it right this time. Empires rise and Empires fall. America will be no different from any other in that regard. I suggest that some critics on here read up on history.

  • urban planning overlord (unverified)
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    Getting back to the main thrust of Ms. Carlson's post, the French are given a full panoply of transportation choices, unlike most U.S. citizens. While there is much wrong with France, the only problem with their transportation system is that they occasionally let its operators strike and paralyze the country. Which is one of the reasons for Mr. Sarkozy's recent election.

    www.urbanplanningoverlord.blogspot.com

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Before Bob T. and others like him jump to unwarranted conclusions, let me state that I spent some time in the military and in government civil service (and the private sector) so I know the problems that can be found in a socialist government and have no enthusiasm for one here. However, that does not mean everything socialists advocate is wrong. On the subject of mobility, and suspecting that other European nations have done something similar, the British Labour Party instituted programs that paid grants to students to attend any university for which they were qualified. That meant many children from working class families were able to study at Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities in Britain. Many now have prominent positions in the business world and in politics.

    Bob T: I'm not quite sure what your comment was about, but on the use of land, developers in Central Oregon haven't had much of a problem getting what they need. Some developments have been installed in forested areas but most have been on open ranch land. In a recent case, owners of acreage asked to be included within a new boundary so they could be annexed in the near future and sell their land for a bundle, but they were turned town by the city because it and the developers (with whom the city officials are on friendly terms) have plenty for the foreseeable future.

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)
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    Bill Bodden - you've taken Bob T. on face value. His interest isn't in providing low-cost housing to the benighted residents of Central Oregon. His interest is in opening up large tracts of land outside of Bend, Redmond, Prineville, Sisters etc. for the creation of luxury acreage tracts for rich folks like himself. And then they can all put up gates and prevent us unwashed masses from disturbing their life of luxury.

  • j_luthergoober (unverified)
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    Of course the French are efficient; they have tremendous a tradition of science, engineering and the humanities; perhaps, arguably more far more illustrious than ours.

    One note to the con trolls in cyber-land. If the French are so incongruous to American society why do conservative intellectuals (concept used loosely here) trot out Alexis de Tocqueville to articulate their libertarian ideals?

  • Curt (unverified)
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    Urban Overlord:"you've taken Bob T. on face value. His interest isn't in providing low-cost housing to the benighted residents of Central Oregon. His interest is in opening up large tracts of land outside of Bend, Redmond, Prineville, Sisters etc. for the creation of luxury acreage tracts for rich folks like himself. And then they can all put up gates and prevent us unwashed masses from disturbing their life of luxury."

    Speaking as someone who knows a bit about Bob, I feel pretty confident saying that's not his interest.. and that you should, in fact, take him at face value. He's for real.

    And I say that as someone who very, VERY rarely agrees with him.

    Curt

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Bill Bodden - you've taken Bob T. on face value.

    Not really. When I said I wasn't sure what he was talking about I also wrote, but deleted, that I wasn't sure he knew what he was talking about either. However, I wasn't inclined to get in a p***ing contest with him at that point.

  • Bob Tiernan (unverified)
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    Urban Planning Overlord: you've taken Bob T. on face value. His interest isn't in providing low-cost housing to the benighted residents of Central Oregon. His interest is in opening up large tracts of land outside of Bend, Redmond, Prineville, Sisters etc. for the creation of luxury acreage tracts for rich folks like himself.

    Bob T: My interest in seeing a reversal of land control (people control) laws that had no place in a free society in the first place have nothing at all to do with what a certain sect of the public might do, but what all should have an opportunity at. I simply don't like it when people look at a nice field and say, "I want to get a law passed that prevents the owner from ever changing it because I like to look at it".

    The problem with passing these laws year after year and getting people used to such controls (redefined as some sort of freedom I guess) is that the conspiracy nuts and other hobgoblin stuff come out when someone wants to repeal something so that there is a restoration of a universal liberty. For example, if Castro the leftwing dictator is tossed out in a coup by a truly liberal revolution, and a new leader announces that newspapers and journals will no longer be state-controlled, I guess people like you will say, "Oh, he only wants to allow his rich friends to control the news, so let's continue with state-controlled media".

    Whatever, man.

    Urban Planning Overlord: ...for rich folks like himself.

    Bob T: Oh, I doubt it. I have very little money. Never had much money. No pension building. No investments. No property.

    Urban Planning Overlord: And then they can all put up gates and prevent us unwashed masses from disturbing their life of luxury.

    You mean like Barbara Striesand has? Oh, as for "unwashed", I guess that's why Babs the leftie darling demands that when she walks to and from her dressing rooms during concerts the workers at the theater or arena must turn their backs to her so she doesn't have to look at them. Do you think she spits on their backs?

    Bob Tiernan

  • Curt (unverified)
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    Bob T: My interest in seeing a reversal of land control (people control) laws that had no place in a free society in the first place have nothing at all to do with what a certain sect of the public might do, but what all should have an opportunity at. I simply don't like it when people look at a nice field and say, "I want to get a law passed that prevents the owner from ever changing it because I like to look at it".

    Me: That's not what land use rules are about. There are plenty of good reasons to limit, for example, housing density. You build a million houses at the end of a one lane road, then you have to expand the road and build new schools and fire stations. And so on. There are environmental considerations -- in an area without sewers, you can't have very dense housing if everyone's on both septic systems and well water..

    Curt

  • (Show?)

    Frank

    Yes,was in Paris last summer and will be there next year. Do you really want to suggest that the main difference between France and US is the amount we spend on national defense? Seems a bit simplistic. How about this main difference: we are open to immigration, while the French record on immigration is, to put it mildly, terrible.

    My mistake on the suburbs. Michael names the Paris suburbs I was referring to--Lyons also has impoverished suburbs with high immigrant population.

    To liberalincarnate: I don't think you want to go down the higher education road, do you? The US higher education system is the acknowledged world leader, in large part due to our mix of private and public institutions. The French higher education may be free, but what percentage actually get to attend? The French government's own self study (conducted in 1988 under the Socialist government) described it's system as "elitist, confused, and bureaucratic."

    To Charlie: I did not claim that welfare states prevent intergenerational mobility. I simply noted my belief that social mobility may be lower in France due to more rigid class divisions. I did a bit of online research over the past hour,and I'll back away a bit from that claim. Let's just say the literature (that I could find) is mixed. Some claim higher levels of mobility in the US due to the ability to move between white and blue collar occupations. On the other hand, high levels of income inequality and intergenerational transmission of income (due to low inheritance taxes) keeps down relative gains.

    So I don't know the answer to the latter point.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Some claim higher levels of mobility in the US due to the ability to move between white and blue collar occupations.

    Unfortunately, for many mobility means moving downward. The problem with the preceding debate is that it is, like many others, an exercise is trying to prove one side is better than the other on the basis of one positive for and a negative against - that is, picking one or two points out of many thousands of options. Wouldn't it be better if we observed how the other side is better than ours and tried to match it and, at the same time, be grateful for our advantages where we have done a better job?

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