Commuting back from the office on a brisk winter Monday evening, as we were coming out of the metro, I saw a sign “Commuter special: Belgian beer + plate of chips 5euro”. Interesting retro designed cafe, right there at the very top of the metro steps. How could we resist? Perfect place to sit while we decided what to do for dinner. Two minutes later, we are sitting at an inside table in the cafe, looking out the window at the traffic, sipping our beer, waiting for the fries and contemplating the day at the office.
Looking out the window, I realized that the cafe was on the corner of a couple of streets, with evening rush hour traffic in full swing just the other side of the metro steps. It was all behind us as we came up the metro steps, so I could only see the surface roads now for the first time. Slowly, I realized it was a 7 road intersection. And a complete free-for-all.
There were no lights, no stop signs, no yield signs, no roundabout in the middle, no lines in the road. Just a large empty space where 7 roads meet. So, for example, cars zipping through from R.duTurbigo to R.Beaubourg had to duck-and-weave around cars going from R.Reaumur to R.Bailly. (Click on street view for better perspective). It was all done at a fast pace, with no indicators, no horns, no squealing brakes, and amazingly enough, no accidents! It just looked like a busy smooth flowing intersection, until you looked in detail and realised that there was no stop-and-go in the flow because there were no lights controlling any cars entering the arena. All of the 7 roads seemed to have similarly large volumes of traffic, adding to the whirling dance-of-hubris feel.
In a nod to practical reality, at least the city planners explicitly did not paint any road markings in the center of the intersection. At first, I thought that added to the hazard, but I later changed my mind. Beats me what way they could have painted lines, anyway, even if they wanted to. Honestly, I now think that if they had painted lines in the intersection, that would give people a false sense of security, some sense of “what is right, what is wrong”. Instead, by leaving it completely unmarked, all drivers were equally on edge, equally unsure of his right-of-way status, which is probably the best you could hope for. Each road connecting in/out of the intersection was painted correctly, but when they reached the edge of the intersection, the road-line-painters just stopped.
Once the initial surprise wore off, and I stopped wincing at some of the near misses, I noticed some interesting details:
- There was a traffic island on the NorthEast corner, so cars going from R.duTurbigo to R.Reaumur had to do a U-turn around the island, all in the middle of the arena. It wasn’t painted, had no signs/bollards, so was easy to miss in all the excitement, yet no-one hit it.
- There were pedestrian crossings all over the place. Mostly, they were near the edge of the arena, and conveniently blocked from sight by advertising billboards on the sidewalk. This meant that a driving zipping through the intersection had to also be prepared to stop suddenly at the zebra crossing if they turned the corner and found a pedestrian right in front of them. And the car behind had to be prepared for that also!
- Occasionally, a car would weave through the arena to reach its chosen exit road – only to realize that it was the wrong exit road! At that point, they just stopped and reversed back into the arena, until they had a clear shot at the correct exit road. They would then swing forward to the correct exit road and leave. This happened 6+ times while I watched, and no-one even honked at that.
Despite all the duck-and-weave driving, there were no accidents over the course of the beer-and-chips. Not sure what it says about the standard of driving in Paris, the same situation in Ireland or the US would have been a complete demolition derby disaster. If that cafe ever setup a streaming webcam, it would be well worth watching! I left the cafe, carefully looked both ways before hurrying across the zebra crossing, and vowed to never drive in Paris!
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