“Can someone else sit up front?” This was me talking after my third Uber ride.
There are loads of ways for tourists to traverse Paris. Autobus, Taxi, Batobus, Metro, marcher péniblement, and of course, Uber. We’ve utilized several of these, but when we have some distance to cover in a hurry, our go-to is Uber.
In 1995, I crashed my bicycle into the side of a van. The driver was making a left turn into a driveway and didn’t see me approaching from the other direction. I was going fast. Halfway down a mile-long hill, I estimate my speed at 25 or 30 MPH. I T-Boned the van, the left side of my body slamming into the metal door. Lots of injuries—internal injuries, orthopedic injuries, brain injuries—and many lingering after-effects. The most interesting of these is my flinch reflex.
In my town, at the crossroads of South Franklin and Middle Street is a blind intersection. When headed west on Middle, cars on South Franklin seem to pop out of nowhere from behind a row house. The South Franklin intersection is one of the few right-turn-on-red intersections in town. Cars approaching a red light pull out to the very edge of Middle Street, looking for traffic, hoping to proceed against the light. As I drive down Middle Street, every single time, I stomp my foot on the brake, certain that the car on Franklin won’t stop. This is the legacy of that bike crash.
Sophie just got her drivers license. She’s a good driver, and I often let her take over the wheel in tough situations. She’ll be an adult next year, and I’d like her to experience the hard stuff with a parent in the car. A couple of weeks ago, leaving Washington, DC, I let her drive the busy ten-lane highway that begins at the edge of the city and ends deep in the country. She did great… but she also tailgates.
She gets this from Susan. When Sophie had her learner’s permit, I’d constantly admonish her to drop back off the car in front of us. Susan, who grew up in a distant suburb of New York City, and has a propensity to tailgate as well, suggested to Sophie to pull up closer to the car in front—getting cozy, she calls it. When I’m Susan’s passenger, I spend most of the ride worrying that she’ll rear-end someone. With Sophie, I’ll shout out “Brake Lights!” every time the car in front of us slows down. Flinch!
This week, we’re in Paris. And riding around with Uber drivers, we’ve had plenty of, um, cozy moments. I understand the Uber business model well. The faster the driver turns over rides, the more money they make. I know they’re just trying to eke out a living, but Jesus, Uber drivers are the scariest drivers on the road.
Traffic in Paris is aggressive. If you’re meek or nice, always yielding to other drivers, kindly letting your neighbor go first, you won’t get anywhere. Literally, you won’t move. Everyone is jockeying for position, trying to make it through the next traffic light. But Uber drivers take it to a new level. They are kings and queens of what I now refer to in my mind as the “Dick Maneuver.” Stuck in a tight line of traffic, waiting for the light to change, countless times our drivers pulled into the next lane, either the one on the left for oncoming traffic or the one on the right for buses and bikes and then angle in on the car immediately in front of us.
By far, the fastest way around town is by motorcycle. Bikers squeeze their motorcycle through any tight little space available to advance in traffic. While the cars are all stacked up, eighteen inches apart at a light that takes ten minutes to get through, motorcycles weave up the line. A train of four or five bikes snakes past the cars. They queue up at the front of the traffic line, and when the light changes, they zip to the next pile up to start again.
Bicycles and electric scooters—the kind you stand on—are the next fastest way to get around. The drivers of these vehicles are just as aggressive as the motorcycles, but not as quick, so they’re constantly in situations where they’re about to be run over. For a person with a history of traumatic injury on a bike, as well as a propensity to flinch every time a crash seems possible, an Uber, especially the front seat of an Uber, isn’t a relaxing place for me.
There’s a recurring scenario in my family: As I’m driving down a country road, Susan will spot a bicycle about seventy yards in the distance. She’ll immediately point it out and tell me to ‘be careful.” As we get closer, maybe thirty yards away, she’ll ask in a slightly frantic tone of voice “Do you see that bike?” And as I prepare to pass the bike with six feet of clearance, she’ll shout “Give them some room.” Apparently, I’m not the only one traumatized by my accident.
The other day, while Ubering to the Eifel Tower, a car turned off our road creating twenty feet of free space right in front of us—or almost free space; there was still a bicycle trailing the leading car. Our driver stomped on the gas, ensuring that no one else took that spot. As he rapidly approached the bike from the rear, I gripped the handrail and stomped on an imaginary brake with my right foot. We didn’t hit the cyclist, but we tailgated her by a handful of inches for a few minutes until she got out of our way.
As we got out of the car at the end of our ride, Susan commented on how great our Uber driver was.
Yesterday, our last day in Paris, we were trying to return to our apartment from touring a basilica on the north end of the city. Traffic worsened until it stopped altogether for ten minutes. Our driver uttered “Gilet Jaune Protestation!” Yellow Vest Protest! In his mostly passable English and Susan’s almost passable French, he made us understand the ride was over. We could take the metro or walk the rest of the way.
From the moment we arrived in Paris, Eli has obsessed over the rental scooter system in use. Scooters are standing on every street corner unattended. With an app on your cell phone, you can unlock a scooter for a Euro and then pay fifteen cents per minute of use. So relentless was Eli’s patter, “Look, there’s a scooter,“ and then “over there are four scooters, we could each ride one,” that on our second night we let him give it a try. On a chunk of deserted roadway, we each took a turn (some of us more than one) driving up and down the street on Eli’s scooter. It was pretty fun.
Abandoned in central Paris by our Uber driver and overwhelmed by the thought of navigating the Metro through the throngs of commuters flooding the entrances trying to escape the protest, Eli, once again, suggested scooters.
With our map in hand, we joined the fray of alternative vehicles trying to beat the traffic on a busy Paris evening. We found a cross-town bike path and chugging along at maximum scooter speed for forty minutes. Instead of arriving home frazzled from a hectic trip on the Metro, we all felt relaxed and refreshed from our scooter experience. Leaving Paris behind, a world-class city of history and magic, art and architecture, my principal memories are of Ubers and scooters.