The French Connection

Traveling in France always gives me perspective on what we are doing on this side of the pond. America looks like a very appealing teenager full of promise, energy, creativity, yet still unpredictable in making smart decisions.

Driving through numerous small villages, some smaller and some larger than Del Mar, I was struck by France’s very clear understanding of the relationship between cars and pedestrians. So many village centers are planned to give priority to walkers over cars. Cars are the way one gets to the town, but once there they give way to bicyclers, pedestrians, and outdoor cafes. Drivers know where they rank and rarely show frustration with their second- class status. This stands in stark contrast to so many California towns, including Del Mar, where the car is king.

Getting through French towns smoothly by car is facilitated by numerous roundabouts which keep you moving at a steady rate, but at a speed that is safe. Rarely does one see a stop light and only occasionally a stop sign. In two weeks of driving I must have navigated literally hundreds of roundabouts, mostly small in circumference and most attractively landscaped. Driver behavior is very conditioned to observing the incredible efficiency of the right-of-way protocols. Pedestrian-activated crosswalks on both sides assure walkers convenient and safe ways to pass over the street. I did not experience any back-up at these intersections, even at busy commuting hours. Of course, their excellent freeway system is available for those who want to travel faster and farther.

Town centers in small French villages are usually a mix of one- and two-story buildings, narrow streets, with a variety of resident-serving businesses and small offices.

Lots of craftsmen are nestled in small spaces. Small residential units pepper the center, some on top, some in the rear. Always there are small cafes with outdoor movable chairs and tables that come in late at night. Lush landscaping frames town centers with benches for weary walkers. I see evidence of a strong preservation ethic, especially for centuries-old buildings. Quite a few villages have installed bollards, short electronic posts that can be activated to control when cars can have access to streets at certain times of the day.

Parking is usually a challenge, sometimes with nearby lots or structures, sometimes with flexible parking hours at busy times or on market days. Bus routes enable some shoppers to get in and out of town with their purchases.

There is much to be learned from these villages of our European cousins for shaping our town’s future. However, when I review the vision statements in our 1976 Community Plan I wonder if someone else wrote a column like this in 1975.

(By the way, on Oct. 7 Camino Del Mar will be reduced to two lanes for an Art and Taste of Del Mar celebration, one of my favorite days because we can experience how Del Mar could be if we were truly a walkable town.)