Motorcycle Taxi in Paris – Getting around Presidential Traffic Jams

I had my first ‘motorcycle taxi’ ride last Friday. It turned out to be a classic experience of getting to the airport JIT (just in time). My flight was at 4:15pm and I left my meeting at the MEDA headquarters at 2:30pm. According to the driver, we would arrive within 25 minutes, no sweat.

Motorcycle Taxi service in Paris

My first thought about the Motorcycle-taxi regards the very different experience of getting “into” the motorcycle taxi, this being my first such taxi ride. The first point is that my driver, David, felt the need to shake my hand. A personal touch. The next challenge was the suitcase which was apparently much bigger than expected. However, after some stretching of the veritably industrial elastic bands, the suitcase was cabled on to the back of the bike. Then, with hairnet to boot, I slipped on the second helmet. The final ritual involved the alcoholic gel for the hands before putting on the provided gloves. Only fitting, I thought, before you split your legs and sit behind a total stranger. All aboard, we went off with a relaxed feeling – I was, indeed, very confident that we would make it in time. So confident, in fact, that I decided to make a quick stopover at my home – basically on the way to the Roissy (CDG) airport, some 30 kilometres north of Paris.

Having arrived at our home, I scrambled up and down and was back on the saddle at 2:45pm. A little tight, but we should get to the airport at 3:10pm at the latest assured David, my friendly driver. As it turned out, as we arrived at the first entrance to the péripherique (Paris’ ring road), we found the on-ramp blocked off, causing general mass confusion of honking, a lot of frustrated drivers and a quite unexpected traffic jam. We diverted to the next entrance, not without jumping a few curbs. Same problem. The entrance was again blocked. By the time we arrived at the third entrance, my heart had taken on a noticeably less consistent beat. We asked the policeman, who was nonchalantly shooing us off the on-ramp, how many of the entrances might be closed off. “Presidential Procession” was the surly explanation, accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders.

After the fourth ‘diversion,’ we wiggled and ziggled and finally found a route onto the A1 toward the airport via St Denis. At last, we experienced some free sailing. We arrived at terminal 2A at 3:18pm. Pretty good, I thought, but later than I would have wanted and less than an hour before the international flight was to take off. Catastrophe struck as I found out that the right terminal was actually 2E. Fortunately for me, David was still re-arranging his bike for his next trip. Putting the helmet back on, without hairnet this time, and jamming the suitcase between us, we zipped over to the E terminal, which, if you don’t know CDG, is a good kilometre away. Imagine my horror, when I discovered that the real right terminal was 2F, some 500 metres away by foot. The sprint was on. I arrived at the check-in counter to hear “sorry, sir, the flight is closed for check-in.” To my good fortune – and thanks to the electronic new age – I had pre-checked in and had a boarding pass. The woman accepted my situation (and my C2000 card) and I was able to go through the final formalities to board the plane. Hurray.

Anyway, the motorcycle taxi definitely saved me… I cannot imagine what might have happened had I been in a classic car taxi. It was worth it all the way. Anyone else want to share a Moto-Taxi experience? Zip on over here and tell us.

Barcelona’s City Bicycle Program – Nice Bicing

Barcelona features–like Paris’ oh so grey Vélib or London’s bright yellow OYBike–a city-sponsored rent-a-bicycle-easily program called Bicing. The small-wheeled red bicycles (photo to right) can be remarked easily, being ridden by mostly Barcelona citizens on grey days and sunny days alike. Started in March 2007, the Bicing program is notable for one thing: it is thought to be only for the Barcelona residents! Every local person (e.g. taxi drivers and pedestrians) to whom I spoke said that these bicycles could only be rented out by the locals. This is in contradiction to the brochure which clearly is written in English (as well as Catalan and Castillan, of course) and states that the bike can be rented out for all your touristic visits. Moreover, the majority of the bike stations are located at the highly touristic centres. Even the Bicing website, which is only in Catalan and Castillan, talks about the usage for tourism purposes.

For further reading on Barcelona’s Bicing, please go here: Treehugger or BlastBlog.

The Barcelona program is an overriding success if you listen to the citizens. That said, with only 1500 bikes (100 stations), there must be some challenges in terms of availability, etc. Paris’ Velib now boasts around 20,000 bicycles. London’s program, begun in August 2004, is largely focused on the western region of London (I can’t find how many) bikes there are in the OYBike program). Other cities that feature a similar bicycle program include Copenhagen (2000 bikes), Stockholm CityBike (with the same bikes as Bicing, but in blue), Lyon Velo’V (1500) and in Germany, for those traveling one-way along the Ruhr Valley, in the revier rad network, there is the Hase low-rider bicycle.

Certainly, with all these programs cropping up in Europe, you would hope the same eco-friendly initiatives might take root in certain cities in the States. In Asia, in certain cities, it might be like bringing coals to Newcastle… although with the increase in motorcycles (Hanoi, etc.) and cars, keeping the bicycle tradition wouldn’t hurt. Anyone know of any cities in the US considering or doing a similar program?

Visit to Hanoi Vietnam – Part 2

Hanoi Vietnam ScootersVisit to Hanoi Vietnam- Part 2 of a 3-part recount:

Hanoi is a thriving city, with approximately 5 million inhabitants said the two local guides (although the official statistics cite a much lower number). The architecture of the buildings is a mixture of French (windows, balconies), Chinese (inscriptions, colors) and Russian (Stalin era cheap) styles. The unifying feature is the narrow width of virtually all the houses, made with either a 3-meter or 5-meter wide berth to limit the taxation (see left photo). The houses vary from one storey to six stories, with many that have a base in the French style and the top that features Chinese traits. It seemed that virtually all of the houses are dual purpose with a shop on the ground floor and the shop owners’ dwellings either squaredHanoi Vietnam away at the back on the only ground floor, or upstairs. The rents in downtown Hanoi have moved up with the times, although still with government controlled pricing. On the tourist-haven Silk Road, rent for a typical thin shop on the ground floor is $4000USD. In the Viet Nam News of Dec 7, 2007, there was a piece on “Land Prices.” “The People’s Council carried a resolution that sets the price of land in the city in an effort to settle site-clearance difficulties and complaints of overcrowding.” Not sure how that works. “The resolution,” the article continues, “sets the price of city land at beween VND2.5MM [108E] and 67.5MM [2934E] per square metre.” These price “controls” are effective Jan 1, 2008. I was also told by my guide that a 75m2 apartment located on the outskirts of the town costs $100,000.

At the same time as being a constant photo-taking opportunity, the hundreds of thousands of scooters and mopeds dominate the street experience. According to the HCM City People’s Council Deputy Chairman Nguyen Thanh Tai, there are 2000 new motorbikers (scooters) and 200 new cars registered each day. There is an evident lack of regard for the rules of the road, where bicycles and scooters drive nonchalantly up the wrong side of the road, like fish swimming upstream. The occasional policeman can be spotted pulling over a scooter; however, their citations are as effective for bringing order as throwing a pebble into a river is effective for creating a dam. I saw more scooters do double turns up into one-way traffic to avoid the cop than scooters actually getting stopped.

And, even if the maximum speed (anywhere) were to be above Hanoi Vietnam80 kmh, you rarely have the opportunity to drive quickly. With swarming scooters, bicycles and foot traffic, everyone drives at a certain pace. No quick moves. And a lot of tolerance, though, there was lots of (mostly futile) honking as well. The honking, that said, was mostly to remind someone to move over or that there was someone coming up from behind. I never saw any acts of aggression. Nonetheless, it is a hair-raising experience to drive in and around Hanoi. Overtaking on the main road (where you can reach the dizzying maximum speed of 80kmh) means honking and flashing like mad, pushing the slower vehicle toward the extra margin on the right and then forcing oncoming traffic over to the extra margin on the left, all the while juggling the cacophony of motorcycles and scooters. For the kids riding on the front of the scooters, it was like a Disneyland joy ride, except for the very real pollution and danger. Most of the kids I saw (that weren’t wearing a mask or helmet) were carrying a big grin throughout their ride (except for this one grimacing on the right–note the family of four; photo courtesy of Frederic).

Visit to Hanoi Vietnam – Part 1

Hanoi Vietnam MapVisit to Hanoi Vietnam- Part 1 of a 3 part recount:

For my first piece on Vietnam, I thought I’d start with a general overview. If nothing else, it’s a number of facts that you may or may not have been aware of. In parts 2 and 3, I will elaborate more on my experience in Hanoi. Happy trails… For more info, see the CIA World Factbook.

The Vietnamese economy has grown at an estimated 8% this year. The population has grown 1% over the last two years, but down from +1.5% in 2000, giving Vietnam now 85 million people. This makes Vietnam the 12th most populated country in the world. The recent spate of growth is obviously manifesting itself most intensely in the urban centers which, through poor city development planning, are overrun. And what makes the heavy population so much more impressive is the fact that the livable. flat (i.e. non mountainous) portion of Vietnam is so condensed (around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh). The Communist one-party non-democratic government has clearly merged to a more red-capitalist form of economy, with the language of State Planning (5-year plans, etc.) still very present in ironic counterpoint to the Vietnamese stock market (inaugurated in July 2000) which continues through its early growth pains.

The 5-year planning committee for urban development, however, has clearly not been vigilant or effective. In Ho-Chi-Minh (HCM), there have been random if not gratuitous conversions of streets into one-way streets, which has caused traffic swells to be diverted onto the ancillary roads. Traffic hour(s) in Hanoi are nothing short of impressive. Somewhat reassuringly, the English language newspaper (“Viet Nam News”) was able to voice some criticism about these developments. I was concerned that the poor level of transparency in the press might not allow for such open discussions. It is clear that criticizing politics remains a very tenuous if not dangerous activity. The corruption is apparently rife throughout the Vietnamese apparatchik.

Rich diversity in Vietnam

There are 54 different ethnicities in Vietnam, dominated by the Viet people with 86% of the total. [I would note that I did not see one single black person throughout my visit.] The population remains largely rural (estimated at around 25%, up from 15% in 1960 and 20% in 1995). Sixty percent of the Vietnamese population is under 30 years old. This fact alone creates a unique vibrancy to the country (and to Hanoi in particular). Given the rampant population growth, the government has imposed a limit of up to 2 babies for couples in cities. However, many couples are prepared to pay the fines imposed for having more – especially if it means to have a baby boy. In the countryside, where the agricultural activity is extensive and remains labor-intensive, the families continue to have large families to support the manual labor demands and ensure the future safekeeping of the older generations. The export in rice, in particular, is very strong. And while the trade is booming in many areas, the lack of a solid infrastructure is surely problematic for continued, efficient growth. From raw materials to Hanoi Vietnamfinished goods, the most common form of transportation is two-wheeled, providing ample photo opportunities. During the course of my visit, I witnessed on the back of various motorcycles the following cargo: a dead pig [the size of a buffalo if you ask me — see picture left], a set of 6 cages carrying close to 50 cats (destined for the Chinese tables), a huge glass pane between two riders, six television sets… Endless diversion, if also a sad state of affairs.

The standard of living in Vietnam is clearly on the rise. In recognition of the increase in the GDP (expected to surpass $3,300 per capita next year), Vietnam will move up to a middle income developing country in 2008, two years ahead of schedule, as Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet just announced (Dec 4, 2007 Vietnam News). Wages are, that said, not entirely set by the free market. The government lays down the “framework” for salaries, based on three types of work: rural, city and Foreign-Investment. The annual wage for the latter category is set at 1 million Vietnamese dong, or about $800USD.

This trip to Vietnam was a true eye opener. A wonderful hospitality and kindness among all the people I met. A true pleasure.

Rendez vous tomorrow for next part. Tam Biet (goodbye in Vietnamese)