Building their way out of a recession


France seems determined to fund large and small infrastructure projects to build its way out of the recession. So while a lot of the shops are closing down, or look like they’re about to, the roads are being dug up all over the place. There are even rumours that we in Auxelles Bas will be put on the mains drainage system in a couple of years.

In Belfort, the thrust is towards a laudable public transport policy, with buses and hire bikes (no trams, as far as I can tell) to go along with the recent extension of the TGV to the city. There are also road and traffic calming projects out in the villages and suburbs. The French motoring class only have themselves to blame for some of these crazy schemes.

For example, in Giromagny, there’s a long stretch of straight road, speed limit 50 kmh, along which drivers tend to speed, in spite of the fact that people live along there, and there are cyclists, dogs, children, and pedestrians crossing the road to go to the Intermarché. So the planners have put in chicanes, arbitrary stop signs, changed road priorities, etc., just to make it impossible to build up any speed. In Chapelle sous Chaux, for similar reasons, they have chicanes, horrible steep speed bumps, and more work in progress. If only French drivers would take the hint and slow down.

I’ve always thought Belfort was a bit of a dump. A pedestrianised shopping black hole, but the current infrastructure works are revealing some of its beauty.

Across the river, where we don’t usually venture, there’s a charmless Monoprix (though the food hall is worth a visit), and not much else – or so I thought. Actually, there’s what they call la vielle ville, the old centre of town, before ill-fated 1980s infrastructure projects killed it off, so it goes.

Those 80s blocks of flats, conveniently located for the new 4As shopping centre, with its cinema and bowling alley, the health centre, library, and social security building, are now pretty fucking horrible, with the 4As largely deserted and the cinema long closed down. You still go through it to get to the pedestrian zone, where most of the retailers still are, but walking around the old town the other day, I couldn’t help thinking that if I was running Cache Cache or Sephora, or Fnac, I’d rather be over there.

The old town has more attractive buildings, narrower streets, what might be a pretty central square (if it wasn’t also a car park), and lots of restaurants. There is also, it turns out a proper hat shop (I bought a €59 hat, to support the local economy), a children’s book shop, and a few other places to have a browse. In addition, the fortifications, the Lion, and an Italian deli.

It comes down to this. The car is the problem, and has always been the problem, with modern city life. You don’t need a car in a city. They block up the streets, make too much noise, and turn towns like Belfort (and my home town of Dunstable) into ugly monstrosities. Bowing down before the private motorist, town planners from the 60s onwards ripped the hearts out of town centres and created, what? Nothing but an empty shell, a memory of better living.

If you drive to a city, your car should be left on the outskirts. If you live in one, you should walk, bike, or take the bus/tram. If the streets were quieter, if you could cross them without dodging parked and moving cars, they would be a better place to be.

Everybody in a car, and I include myself, is a cunt, just for being there. As you crawl over speed bumps, dodge through chicanes, and stop at arbitrary junctions, it should be obvious to anyone in a car that the problem is you.

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