Every few weeks since we arrived in Paris, I make a point to visit the Arc de Triomphe. This might seem like a silly ritual because, you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Maybe so. Maybe it’s touristy and over-crowded. Maybe they charge an arm and a leg to climb the 284 steps to the overlook at the top. Maybe.
But, is it worth it to me? Absolutely.
Now, I like a spectacular view just as much as the next person. I too get googly-eyed over the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré-Cœur basilica and the giant Ferris Wheel at the Place de la Concorde. Even the Arc itself, with its grandeur and intricacy, is worth marveling at every once in a while. But, my fascination with the Arc de Triomphe doesn’t end here. I visit the Arc, but what I am most interested in – what makes me shake my head and hold my breath and gawk in gleeful disbelief – is the massive traffic circle in orbit around the monument.
The Arc de Triomphe is located at the Place Charles de Gaulle, formally known as the Place de l’Étoile (Square of the Star). 12 boulevards converge on the Place like the spokes of a wheel – the Avenue des Champs-Élysées at 12 o’clock, the grandest boulevard and known by locals as “la plus belle avenue du monde” (“the world’s most beautiful avenue”), and the Avenue de la Grand-Armée at 6 o’clock, stretching towards the skyscrapers and la Grande Arche in the business district, La Défense. The Arc de Triomphe, planted at the hub of the wheel, towers over the madness below.
I do not use the word madness lightly. Perhaps after 4 years of study and another 2 years in a roadway design office, I just know too much. Perhaps the French would scoff at our “American obsession” with safety and consistency on our roadways. But, as I watch all 12 boulevards, each accommodating several lanes of traffic, spill out into the 10-lane, pavement marking-less traffic circle surrounding the Arc, I cannot help but to laugh out loud! Motorcycles whip between double-decker tour buses and delivery trucks. Taxis and Ubers merge aggressively from the outside of the circle to the inside to drop off tourists at the Arc, while cars just passing through attempt to plunge, often without turn signals, towards their boulevard of choice. The sound of angry horns and screeching brakes fills the air – even on a Sunday morning. It is chaos. But boy, do I love it.
How in the world has such a dangerous system endured? Sure, all might have been honky-dory in the days of horse-drawn carriages and Model T’s that would start rattling at 40 mph, but not in this day and age. Somehow, the Parisians that dive headfirst into this roundabout everyday make it work for them, but only because they know and confidently (aggressively?) follow the rules of the road.
The most important rule is a simple one: la priorité à droite, or, priority to the right.
This is not intuitive, especially for tourists. Most roundabouts in the States, as well as most newer roundabouts in France, give priority to vehicles on the left – that is, once you have entered the traffic circle, you have the right-of-way. So, vehicles attempting to enter the roundabout must yield and merge when there is a break in the traffic. Clear as mud. But, the roundabout at the Place Charles de Gaulle is so large and so congested and so disorderly that inviting cars to merge at their own risk could be catastrophic. Instead, signals were installed on each boulevard which, on the green light’s command, tell approaching vehicles when it is their turn to plunge into the circle. It is the responsibility then of the vehicles already in orbit to be watching for approaching cars and, at the appropriate time, to come to a complete stop so that these vehicles can enter safely. Voilà: la priorité à droite.
This rule is vital to keeping the system working smoothly (or, as smoothly as possible!), but it does not, of course, ensure a fender-bender-less experience. Sometimes, one car will bob and another will weave and CRASH! Yes, it’s unfortunate… but such is the nature of the beast. There is a myth perpetuated by Paris tour guides that all insurance policies deny coverage for crashes within the chaotic roundabout. But, don’t be fooled; the reality of the situation is less extreme, although no less interesting. Instead of dipping toes into the legal nightmare that would be assigning blame, each driver is considered equally at fault and insurance companies split the damages 50-50. Guides are also telling tourists that an accident happens in the roundabout once every 7 minutes, and while I believe that this is a wee bit of a stretch, I did witness a fender-bender on my last visit to the Arc de Triomphe.
All I have to say is, thank goodness pedestrian traffic isn’t part of the equation! Well, it’s not supposed to be… Unfortunately, there will always be a handful of tourists with a death wish who are too anxious (or too cool) to use the pedestrian tunnel beneath the roundabout. Come on, guys!
I have no intention of getting behind the wheel anytime soon, that’s for sure. I am content to visit the Arc de Triomphe from time to time, maybe pay my 12-euro fare to gawk at the chaos of the traffic circle from the top.
Or, maybe I’ll save myself the stress and just admire Paris.
Ah, yes, don’t mind if I do.