Car poor

Our car-based society is a reputed sign of affluence. Maybe not.

by Chris Klein

he car is a symbol of our freedom and affluence. Go anywhere, any time albeit slowly, if your destination is north or east county in the afternoon. Mass transit is reserved for those who can't afford a car, or are too young or old to drive and can't afford a driver. If you're in this category, you can just wait for a bus or, if you're geographically lucky, a trolley. Given the alternatives, a car seems the ultimate convenience. Until you experience something better.

I just returned from a trip to France, where I had just such an experience. My wife Carolyn was on a two-week performance tour of central France with her choral ensemble, and I went along as a "groupie." At the end of the tour we spent four days in Paris.

Based on hearing years of idle chatter about the French, I was expecting to dislike the country in general and Paris most specifically. I'm pleased to report that EVERYTHING I "knew" about France and the French was dead wrong. (I wasn't treated rudely by anyone despite the fact I didn't speak the language.) Our visit was a unique pleasure, and I hope to return some day.

One big surprise and pleasure was the Paris transportation systems. The city is crisscrossed and circled by no less than 14 subway lines and some 30-odd bus routes. We used the subways Metro extensively, and I have never had a greater feeling of transportation freedom. Everywhere we wanted to go in the city was no more than a 5 minute walk from a Metro stop. Trains arrived every few minutes, even in the evening and the Metro runs until 12:45am. You can go clear across the city in about 25 minutes. Our one and only financial transaction was to buy a 5-day subway pass. After that, it was walk in, ride and walk out.

It was wonderful: no parking, no road rage, no traffic jams no traffic. On the subway you could read, listen to music, sleep (if you have someone to wake you up), people-watch (my favorite) or just veg out.

Outlying areas are served by an additional four train lines, with branches serving a total of 20 final destinations. During the day, trains come every half hour or so. We took a train to Versailles; it was comfortable, very fast and very smooth. And, like the Metro, all electric.

So, on the one hand we have our expensive, gas-guzzling, polluting, high-maintenance, do-it-yourself cars. On the other, smooth, fast, convenient, non-polluting, maintenance-free Metro. My final take is that we don't have cars because we're rich, we have them because we're too poor to afford anything better. We are truly "car poor."