French Strikes May Have Unexpected Upside for Weary Parisians
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The recent transport strikes in Paris have brought havoc and misery for millions of commuters. But the short-term pain may deliver some long-term gains.
While stoppages are a headache for travelers in any city, disruption can force workers and businesses to break with the ingrained habits of the daily grind and discover more beneficial ways of working and getting around.
If people can find ways of traveling that are more efficient, cheaper, or that improve their physical fitness -- such as cycling or walking -- they’re likely to be healthier and more productive at work.
In the Paris region, there is significant room for change, with 43 million trips taken daily using all forms of transport, including by foot. On average, people in the Paris region spend 1.5 hours a day traveling.
The mode of transport has “huge implications in terms of direct health, cost and worker productivity,” said Trevor Reed, transportation analyst at traffic and data analytics company INRIX.
There are precedents for strikes changing behavior for the better. According to a study published by the University of Oxford, a significant number of Londoners stuck to new routes they discovered when some stations closed for a two-day tube strike in 2014.
The recent Paris strikes lasted more than a month and caused a complete shutdown of a majority of metro lines for consecutive days, making for a much greater shock and potentially triggering more meaningful changes in behavior.
“For a longer strike, people may be willing to pay significant fixed costs to get into alternative transportation,” said Ferdinand Rauch, an associate professor of economics at Oxford and one of the authors of the study. “People who make these investments may not switch back to their old commuting habit.”
Studying data of complete journeys, like the Oxford paper, may not be possible in Paris as travelers are generally not required to ticket out when they exit the transport network. Yet surveys of groups of commuters conducted during the strikes do indicate the potential for a lasting change of habits.
According to a poll by French mobility research firm 6t, 19% of people who traveled to work on one specific day during the strikes -- Dec. 9 in this case -- used a mode of transport they had never before used for their commute.
Those who switched to informal car sharing or cycling were particularly positive about their experience -- 59% said they could switch to cycling to and from work in normal times.
“There are many ‘first times’ that are very promising,” said 6t Chief Executive Officer and founder Nicolas Louvet. “It’s the kind of event that triggers a lot of new behavior.”
The bicycle is likely to be the biggest winner from the strikes. Cyclable, a chain of French bicycle shops, registered a surge in sales in the Paris region at the end of the year which lifted an already buoyant market. Purchases of more expensive, electrically assisted bikes surged 155% in December compared with the previous year, suggesting commuters are investing in long-term change.
“Most people buying in November and December said it was because of the strikes,” said Baptiste Pic, area manager at Cyclable.
Economists may also learn from the impact of the strikes. Rauch said there are potential lessons about the economics of agglomerations, transport and health, as well as of ride-hailing services like Uber Technologies Inc.
“Unexpected large shocks to economic systems give empirical economists the opportunity to learn more about the nature of these systems,” he said.
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