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France's summer SigAlert

When vacation time rolls around, highways grind to a halt. The monstrous jams are a price for leisure many seem resigned to pay.

August 06, 2008|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

ROSNY-SOUS-BOIS, FRANCE — Frederic Arnold never met Julio Cortazar, but they would have appreciated each other's work.

Arnold is a French public servant, a quiet, compact engineer who wears black and an air of patient resignation. He oversees the National Center for Highway Information, which is grappling with an annual vacation exodus of potentially apocalyptic proportions.

The late Cortazar was an Argentine author, a playful, lanky globe-trotter who lived in Paris for years. In 1966 he wrote a short story, "The Highway of the South," which imagines a monster traffic jam near the capital and takes it to surreal extremes: The stranded drivers organize mini-communities, forage for supplies, make love, fight and even die in the steel sea of vehicles.

"The engineer decided not to get out of his car anymore, hoping that the police would somehow disperse the bottleneck. The heat of August combined with a passage of time marked by tires so that the immobility was ever more exasperating. Everything was the smell of gasoline, rowdy yells from the youths in the Simca, the glare of the sun reflecting off glass and chrome, and to top it off the contradictory sensation of being trapped in the heart of a jungle of machines designed for speed."

Four decades later, Cortazar's vision remains relevant.

As usual, the first weekend in August was the dark vortex of the summer stampede. On Saturday, French highways experienced a total of 434 miles of traffic jams. Government transport analysts designated the day with the worst level in the color-coded hierarchy of congestion: "Black Saturday."

"That means the traffic jams start at 3 a.m. and keep going," Arnold said with a wry grin. "Black Saturday is black all day and all night."

It's hard to imagine a vacation period worse than last year's. The troubles started in May, a month filled with long weekends thanks to obscure religious and national holidays. On Sunday the 20th, the drive from Toulouse to Paris took about 10 hours rather than the normal six.

It was Hobbesian. Gas stations were besieged, pumps mobbed, toilets unapproachably foul. Rest stop eateries were so full that families were reduced to munching stale sandwiches as they stood next to overflowing garbage cans.

The worst stretch was a toll plaza. Formal lines evaporated along with civility and order. The blacktop leading to the booths was an anarchic, shark-like swarm of vehicles. The sun beat down on steel cages containing apoplectic drivers, wailing children, overheated motors. Periods of immobility were broken by frenzies as drivers maneuvered into currents of movement, then readjusted frantically as they realized the apparent lines led nowhere.

In fact, toll plazas produce the worst bottlenecks, Arnold said. Human nature dictates that a certain percentage of drivers will not have money ready when they get to the booth -- and will fumble around trying to pay. Moreover, many foreigners refuse to pay with timesaving credit cards because of high charges on non-French cards.

"The bottom line is, everybody has to slow down," Arnold said.

If France's sophisticated system of traffic control were compared to a human body, Arnold would be the brain. He oversees a high-tech headquarters in this eastern Paris suburb that coordinates seven regional operations centers staffed by the civilian transport agency, police and paramilitary gendarmerie.

France has a first-class highway grid and, as an alternative, perhaps the world's best railroad network. But traffic is rooted in prosperity. There's the sheer number of people -- tycoons and janitors, bureaucrats and immigrants -- who take vacations at the same time (July or August) and in the same places (southern France, Spain, Italy and North Africa). Geography also subjects France to a simultaneous invasion of sun-hungry Belgians, Britons and Dutch.

Like Californians, the French are attached to their cars despite obscene prices at the pump.

"It's no longer a question of more cars, but rather increased use of the car for longer commutes, and for leisure," said Manuel Martinez, director of the traffic operations center for Ile-de-France, the region surrounding Paris.

The state-of-the-art center in Creteil southeast of the capital has a wall-size screen displaying radar, images from 900 surveillance cameras and giant maps depicting real-time road conditions. Martinez oversees an area that is slightly larger in size and population than Los Angeles County.

The dense traffic in Ile-de-France subsides in summer, except of course for the days of massive departures and returns. Then the most hellish highways are the A-6 and A-7, the southeast route to Lyon, the beaches of the Riviera and the Alps. Traffic reports during peak travel periods sound like a litany of wine industry capitals, giving Arnold a patriotic tingle.

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