Town Mouse

Tom Hodgkin­son

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - tom hodgkin­son

‘We al­ready have a bril­liant non-car de­vice – it is called the bi­cy­cle’

One of the great­est things about Lon­don is its prox­im­ity to Paris. It’s quicker and eas­ier to get to the Gare du Nord than to Bod­min Park­way.

When I ar­rive, as I did re­cently, I am al­ways struck by how amaz­ingly Parisian Paris is. It just doesn’t dis­ap­point. It’s like when I ar­rived in New York City for the first time at 18. It was ex­actly how I’d imag­ined it: enor­mous cars, stop signs and shout­ing.

So it is with Paris. Ev­ery­one looks so Parisian, what­ever their skin colour, age or gen­der: self-as­sured, smil­ing, so­phis­ti­cated, well-dressed, with colour­ful scarves and an ironic grin. The cafés re­ally do spill out on to the street and there seem to be pre­cious few of those snack chains that blight the streets of Lon­don.

Driv­ing around in a taxi, whose driver, with his Ro­man nose, swept-back grey hair, side­burns and lugubri­ous grin looked like an age­ing French pop star, I ac­tu­ally did see the Lou­vre, the Rue de Rivoli and the Tour Eif­fel.

In the evening, I sat at a lit­tle table with a beer and smoked a cig­a­rette. I then dined alone at a small, fam­ily-run cor­ner res­tau­rant near my ho­tel in the Marais. I felt I never wanted to go back to Lon­don. This was re­ally liv­ing.

My visit to Paris got me think­ing about that lovely old song from 1919, How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm? Sung by Nora Bayes, the song was about Amer­i­can farm­ers’ boys re­turn­ing home from Eu­rope after the First World War. The cho­rus goes:

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm After they’ve seen Pa­ree?

The lyrics say how the boys will pre­fer ‘jazzin’ around and paintin’ the town’ and that ‘they’ll never want to see a rake or a plough’. That is the power of Paris. But there is one very dis­ap­point­ing new fea­ture in France’s cap­i­tal. Two heav­ily funded Sil­i­con Val­ley start-up scooter­hire com­pa­nies have pol­luted the boule­vards with their ugly ma­chines, and a cer­tain sort of go-get­ting Parisian has em­braced them with open arms.

On the pave­ments and roads, peo­ple zip past you at great speed; some scooter-own­ers have re­moved their 13 mph lim­iters and zoom along at 26 mph. Paris is a city of am­bling, tak­ing your time and be­ing philo­soph­i­cal. But now it is go­ing all starty-uppy.

Both scooter com­pa­nies have taken their brand names from na­ture. One is called Bird, im­ply­ing that the scoot­ers give you the fa­bled free­dom of that species. The other is called Lime; I guess be­cause the bet­ter-known fruits have al­ready been taken by other tech com­pa­nies: Ap­ple, Or­ange, Black­berry.

Bird and Lime have both cho­sen Paris for a trial. Bird’s founder is an en­tre­pre­neur who is well schooled in mak­ing money out of trans­port. Travis Van­derzan­den was pre­vi­ously VP of in­ter­na­tional growth at Uber which, Parisians told me, is out of favour there.

Be­fore that, he was at Uber ri­val Lyft. He raised £11 mil­lion last year to fund his Bird scoot­ers project. Paris is his first trial city out­side San Fran­cisco. His com­pany is val­ued at £2 bil­lion.

Bird’s ri­val, Lime, is funded by Uber and Google, which con­trib­uted to its start­ing fund of £250 mil­lion. It is al­ready val­ued at £760 mil­lion. The founders of these com­pa­nies claim an al­tru­is­tic mis­sion: they say they want to help re­duce con­ges­tion. That is non­sense; we al­ready have a bril­liant non-car de­vice – it is called the bi­cy­cle.

What is odd is that Paris has tra­di­tion­ally been fairly hos­tile to be­ing in­vaded by Amer­i­cans. Its taxi driv­ers put up a strong fight against Uber. And France in gen­eral has not al­ways been a fan of the com­pletely free mar­ket: Ama­zon is not al­lowed to dis­count the books it sells there. This has the pos­i­tive ef­fect of keep­ing book­shops alive. In the UK, where David Cameron fell over him­self to let the big tech com­pa­nies tram­ple all over us, Ama­zon can un­der­cut book­shops, with the re­sult that half of them have closed.

Pres­i­dent Macron wants to work hard and get Amer­i­can. A year ago, he de­clared he would never con­cede any­thing to the do-nothings, the cyn­ics or the ex­trem­ists.

Macron is lead­ing France away from the things that make it great: slow liv­ing, sit­ting around do­ing noth­ing, be­ing philo­soph­i­cal, and talk­ing. In­stead, he wants to turn France into a coun­try of time-stretched start-up guys whizzing on scoot­ers to break­fast meet­ings and check­ing their Twit­ter feed.

C’est très triste. Thank­fully, the French are fight­ing back. After a 23 per cent in­crease in scooter ac­ci­dents last year, with 284 peo­ple in­jured and five killed, it’s just been an­nounced that scoot­ers will be banned from pave­ments, even if they will still fill the roads.

The old Paris of leisurely con­ver­sa­tion, baguettes and arm-wav­ing lives on. And let’s hope the scooter start-up guys allez-vous back to Cal­i­for­nia ASAP.

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