Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The summer ritual

The French traffic forecasters labeled Saturday, July 30 as “black”. The scale progresses as follows: green, orange, red, black. Only a handful of days in the year qualify for the dubious distinction of "black", and the day that traditionally signals the return of the July vacationers (“les juilletistes”) and the departure of August vacationers (“les aoûtiens”) is one of them. The traffic gods were not kind to the French motorist on this particular black Saturday. In all, there were 800 kilometers of traffic jams on the nation’s highways on July 30, just a little short of the distance from Paris to Marseilles.

Saturday is the heaviest traveling day during French vacation periods because most holiday rentals begin and end on a Saturday. If you rent your studio/apartment/villa from a real-estate agent, you generally have to get to the agent’s office before closing time, at say, 7PM or 8PM if you’re lucky, to get the key. If you don’t, you’ll have to make other arrangements for Saturday and Sunday night, because the agency won’t open again until Monday morning. Even if you don’t need to pick up the key, you don’t want to sleep in a hotel en route (although Lyon is a nice place to do it if you have to!) and miss a day you’ve already paid for. Great way to start your vacation, especially if you have the misfortune of having to do it on a tight budget.

The government has dreamed all kinds of schemes to encourage people to stagger their departure and arrival times. Color-coding is the most visible and audible system. Alternate routes are also recommended. The tolls, astronomically high from an American point of view (but the roads are in great condition) are lower at “off-peak” times.

This is my personal favorite: on the radio, announcements drone on about how motorists should wait until, say, 3 or 4PM before getting behind the wheel. This is great advice if you own your own apartment or villa on the Côte d’Azur and can wander in at any time of the day or week. The peak/off-peak toll system is just another added benefit for this needy minority. For the masses, however (see vacation rentals, above) this is not an option. Instead, the barrage of warnings simply encourages them to leave even earlier than they might otherwise have planned. Instead of leaving Nantes, Nancy or Nanterre at 9AM, they’ll leave at 7 or 6 or 5AM. And the result is the same, year after year after frustrating year.

To alleviate the situation and reduce driver stress and road kill, palliative measures are taken. Most trucks are prohibited from using the motorways on “black” and (I think) “red” days. Toll-booth operators distribute water, candy and other goodies for the back seat, plus an avalanche of documents dispensing advice. At the motorway rest stops, entertainers are on hand to help pass the time and take your mind off of how many hours you have been on the road and how many more you will need if the traffic stays as it is.

Now I must be ignoring some constraint so obvious it would hit me in the face if I would only deign to go out there rather than blog about it from the safety of my keyboard. Nevertheless, I humbly submit my proposal to solve this nagging, perennial problem. Furthermore, my proposal is right in line with French tradition, as it involves solving what is essentially a market inefficiency with a government decree. At worst the government would have to get a new law passed, but that shouldn’t be too much of an obstacle, now that Nicolas Sarkozy is interior minister. I’d trust him to think of some catchy phrase that would stir up lots of animosity and media attention. The government could introduce the bill shortly before a Parliamentary recess, have it be debated until the MPs go on vacation, then declare the law enacted (If the French constitution doesn’t have a provision like this, it really should get one; it’s very useful, but I digress, again!).

My proposal is this: firstly, require that half of holiday rentals in the most popular tourist destinations start their week on Sunday and end their rental week on ... you guessed it ... Sunday. Secondly, require that all holiday rental offices and real-estate agents that must deliver keys to arriving vacationers stay open not until 7 or 8PM but until midnight on both Saturday and Sunday. Simple, right? Is this brilliant or what?

Possible objections: 1) Labor law prohibits opening on Sunday, the day of rest, or staying open late. That’s why stores are all closed on Sunday, with rare exception. Get over it; hotels are all open on Sunday. 2) It would be too complicated to administer. Bakeries do it, pharmacies do it (I hear music), why not real-estate agents? 3) National security. Bingo, that must be it.



At 9:55 PM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

What a pain! That certainly explains this:

Suicide rates for men and women:

France: 26.1 and 9.4
USA: 17.6 and 4.1


At 8:51 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Um, of course, up to a point.

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

You know I'm just ragging you, Steve. Why? Because you get to live in Paris and I don't! &%$#@!

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Emma said...

Steve, imagine trying to get your idea past Aubry's staunch 35-heure (35-hour working week)supporters :-)


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