The difference

Essay written for the UvA BA-course Visualising Paris, with Dr. Sophie Berrebi, march 2005
At several places around the Mediterranean modern tourists can visit old cities that are partially excavated or rebuild. We can a walk under arches, climb steps where 2000 years ago a Greek or Roman soldier could have had made the same movements, and create our own image with the help of full-coloured reconstruction drawings purchased at the entrance. The tourist is taken into a imaginative world and feels for a few hours ‘just a small chain in the big story of history’. There is, however, one essential part of the real city missing in the picture that de tourist gets presented: traffic.
The succes of a city depends on a few aspects, and given the fact that every city that isn’t succesful evoques its own downfall, succes is essential in the story of a city. Geography and climate have to be bearable, a good strategic position is desirable, peaceful and healthy inhabitants are more than welcome, but the most important aspect is, without any doubt, the accessablility. Not only people from the countryside have to have an easy access to their center of the country, -the place where they can buy the things they cannot get in the village-  goods these people need have to be imported, exchanged, transported and exported easily too. A city thus needs a good network of transport both internal and external.
The better the position of a city gets in the country, the more people are eager to profit from prosperity, and try to find a living at this place. A corollary of this is that a city grows and needs more internal networks of transport.
The way in which the transport is organised in a city defines not only the succes or prosperity of this city, it is also responsible for the atmosphere, the typical, the impression that a visitor gets when he or she comes in this city.
In the following, I would like to make two remarks on this traffic in cities, taking for example my own experience with the traffic in Amsterdam compared to that of Paris.
 My first remark is about standing still.
One aspect of Amsterdam that initially might not be seen as a means of transport, but it certainly is as I will point out: water. Dug once to let the water out of the wet land, the canals soon became an efficient means of transportation, a place for exchange of goods, and for sewage. Its remains are still dominant in the image of the Dutch city. Roads and houses are built around the water -street plans very often are based on the pattern of old ditches-, there are a lot of bridges that open and close when ships want to pass, and other boats are used for leisure.
There is, however, a bigger, less appearent, but not less important implication of the presence of the canals. Even when just passing by, or living in the house above it and never leaving the room, a canal evoques a feeling of freedom, the possibility of going elsewhere.
In canals, we see a surface that reflects the houses around it, and it is only the wind or a passing boat or bird that can evoke waves. The surface is as an open, free road, open for anyone who knows how to go there. As a consequence, the water makes the observant or inhabitant aware of the possibility to go anywhere one would like to go, although this possibility does not exist in reality.
In contrast to these quiet canals, that have no fixed visible direction in which the flow, the big rivers that split most big cities in two, like the Seine in Paris does, have a well defined purpose to go to: the lowest point. The Seine has a strong current, the mass of water that it contains leaves Paris as fast as it came- in contrast to the lazy water in the canals- it moves quickly, almost aggressively, through the city. Bridges are signs of resistance; big and massive, irresistable blocks of stone.
A canal makes you stay because it evoques the feeling it could take you anywhere you would like, if you could only stand up, -it is no threat – ; the big river as the Seine makes you stay because you’re on the solid bridge, and not in the water; for this water could take you to places you would not like to visit at all.
 My second remark is about moving.
Until last year, my way of seeing Paris was defined by the underground, and the walks around its exits. People said it was the cheapest and fastest way to travel from A to B in Paris, and of course, this is true when a traveller arrives at Gare du Nord with three suitcases and the trip continues by train from Gare d’Orléans. Or one wants to go from the one end of the metroline to the other. But this tactic has its price: my image of Paris was like a pile of pieces of an old jiggsawpuzzle: some pieces of the image were missing, a few were turned upside down, and others turned out to be even double. Paris was everything but a coherent unity.
Last year, a Parisian friend invited me to come over, and he had arranged for me, as for himself, a bike as the means of transport.
Having driven a bike before in France, I knew more or less the opinion of the French towards bicycles: it is good for sports and leisure, but it would be rediculous to expect more of a piste cyclable than to start somewhere in the middle of a boulevard, and to finish hundred meters further: its existence is only explained to show how much the municipality cares for the environnement. This new experience, of driving a bike in Paris, opened, however, a whole new world for me: the world of the moving Paris.
Long boulevards, that I only knew of the long walks in search for the Metró, suddenly turned out to put pieces of the jiggsawpuzzle together. Places, that were in my head situated in different worlds -linked to the different Metro-exit taken when going there-, appeared to be no more than 5 minutes away by bike. This difference between the underground and ‘surface’ traffic I could have experienced while taking a car or taxi too, but there was a second discovery.
With the confortable bus-line as road to drive on, moving fast by bike is easy in Paris, and one feels like a modern flâneur: capable of seeing faces of pedestrians in the tenth of a second, with the certainty that this face will not be more than a face in your memory. Faces that can look you in the eyes as well, something that is almost impossible while driving a car. Highlight at the end of almost every boulevard is, as probably Haussmann might have designed it to be, the rond point, when on a bike, driving here is like moving along a whirlpool that tries to pull you down, but, as soon as you decided which exit is the good one, the safe monotony of the boulevard puts out its hand for a rescue.
Amsterdam never had a Baron de Haussmann to widen the narrow streets, nor had it catacombes to make an extensive Metro network in. When driving a bike in Amsterdam, the city appears to be made for the bike; cars are barely able to find their way through the small streets but the bikes can go wherever they want. The surface of the road might not always be as comfortable as the busline in Paris, but this limits the maximum speed of the cyclist. Speed has a different meaning in this small city, almost as if speed is dependent on the size of the city. The modern flâneur in Amsterdam can, again, take its time, and has therefore no base of existence, since speed is compulsory.
Differences in traffic define the character of a city, as I have made clear in the above. It is therefore impossible to re-create a city of 2000 years ago; traffic would not have the same urge again. Let’s move on.