Car and Care Less in Marseille

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We did the inconceivable for Californians: we have not  purchased a car while living in Marseille! After seven months without owning wheels, I can say it has enhanced our living experience as well as saved money.

We have avoided the cost of purchase, insurance, registration, vehicle inspections, and monthly parking. (There is less expensive street parking with a resident pass, but it requires hunting for a place.) Plus, we have avoided the bother and uncertainty of having to sell the car upon our departure.

It’s a congested city for cars. The placement of the Vieux-Port, the twisted and narrow old streets in the city center, the numerous hills within the city and the ring of formidable mountains without, plus the long Mediterranean coastline make patience a requirement for car travel. As if to underline the problem, at great trouble and expense the city has built and is building underground car tunnels to ameliorate the congestion. One, the Le Tunnel Prado Carénage, connects two auto routes, is 1.5 miles long, and requires a toll to be paid. However, it has not eased the problem of bottlenecks.

Without a car, you can get anywhere in the city of Marseille, a city of 93 square miles. You have a choice of 73 bus lines some with their own dedicated lanes; sleek new electric trams with two lines; a metro system with two lines that is currently expanding; and intercity buses and the SNCF train to towns and cities near and far.

For hikes in the mountains and the calanques, we have taken the city bus (called RTM) to low density residential areas on the outskirts of the city in order to start a hike. Convenient! We buy a 10-ride transit card for 12.60 euros that can be used interchangeably on the metro, buses, and trams. Each ride gives you one hour of travel within the system.

Public transportation is well used by all economic levels and it is well designed. As you leave the metro, signs direct you to the coordinated bus lines that await outside.


The intercity bus system is called Cartreize. Buses leave for Aix-en-Provence every 20 minutes and takes only 25 minutes, or you can take the train. There are buses to the nearby towns of Aubagne and La Ciotat, as well as many others.

When a car is needed to get somewhere unreachable by public transportation or at an off hour, we rent a car by the hour from AutoPartage Provence. AutoPartage Provence is similar to the Zip car system found in major cities in the United States. To become a user you must register, pay an initial deposit and a small monthly amount. Cars are parked all over the city (our closest is a five-minute walk from home) and reservations are made online in two minutes. When you take a car, you pay based on the time the car is out and the distance you drive. Insurance and gas is included—the car comes with a gas credit card. We have made reservations minutes in advance and have always found a car available. For longer, overnight trips, AutoPartage Provence will quote you a lower rate or you can choose from several close by car rental agencies.

The other day we rented a car for nine hours and drove to Arles and back, a total distance of 108 miles. The total cost was 78 euros.

Like many French cities, Marseille has a very inexpensive short-term bicycle rental system. Theirs is called “Le Vélo” and the first thirty minutes are free. You can pick up a bicycle here and leave it there, then pick up another for your return.

We have also used the trains quite a bit. Fortunately—or not—we are both over 60-years of age, so we qualify for a Carte Senior with the SNCF. Each of us paid 56 euros for an identification card good for one year that qualifies for a 50% discount on all French trains. For example, if it’s just us, we take the train to Arles, Aix, and Avignon, as well as to Paris and Montpellier. A roundtrip to Arles has been as low as 14 euros, to Avignon 23 euros, and to Paris on the TGV in 3¼ swift hours, 46 euros. With more people on the trip, however, it makes sense to rent a car. It’s easy: you reserve and pay for the train tickets online and then a machine prints them out at the station.

While most Americans would consider the transportation in Marseille a marvel, it seems that the French are more demanding. The March 25, 2010 edition of Le Point, a national magazine, has several articles on Marseille, one titled “Le Fiasco des Transports.” It says that 95% of trips within Marseille are by auto—too many—and that better coordination is needed between transportation modes in the larger jurisdiction, the Bouche-du-Rhone department. 

This might very well be true. I just know that I am able to conveniently get to where I want to go in Marseille—without owning the wheels.

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7 Responses to “Car and Care Less in Marseille”

  1. Dave Says:

    Ok, already. You’ve convinced us. We are coming!

    D and C

  2. Loulou Says:

    Hi! Just found you during some research about living in Marseille. We think it’s a wonderful city and after living in the country in a village of 400 for the last 7 years are considering moving somewhere more urban.
    Marseille is high on our list.
    I’m working my way through your archives but I have one question if you don’t mind…how did you find your apartment rental? We own our house here and don’t want to move all of our furniture, so would like to find something furnished when we move.
    Merci!

    • ahaexp Says:

      We found it on sabbaticalhomes.com, which lists exchanges and rentals of a longer duration than other sites.

      Where are you living now?

      If you have more questions, I’m happy to answer them.

  3. Loulou Says:

    Thanks for the info. I’ll have a look at the website.
    We currently live in the Minervois region of the Languedoc. Near Narbonne and Carcassonne.
    Thanks again!

  4. jpackard Says:

    Bonjour! I stumbled upon your blog whilst doing a bit of research on Marseille and I wanted to say thank you for all the useful and entertaining writing you are doing. I too am an American (Ohio) who just transplated near to Marseille. I’m working and living in Aubagne as an au pair (nanny). I am in Marseille everyday though so I feel as if I have two homes:) I’m trying too meet people here in the city and I would love to meet for coffee if you are interested. Feel free to check out my blog at jpackard.wordpress.com. After reading your blog I can see we have a lot of common interests ( I too would love to find a way to volunteer, but I’m working on the language right now) and I could definitely use some guidance- advice on the city would greatly be appreciated (everything isn’t quite as easy for us non-french speakers:) In a few shorts months I will be an expert of Marseille and a fluent French speaker like you!

    au revoir,
    Jeanna

  5. fee Says:

    Salut!
    I’m also an English speaker (Aussie) and you have inspired me to take a university french exchange to Marseille. My only concern is that I have heard that there is a strong Marseille accent? Is this true? because i think i would have enough trouble understanding without a eavy accent
    Merci,
    Fee

    • ahaexp Says:

      Yes, there is a Marseillais accent but it’s not something to cause discouragement. It adds regional flavor to the experience. Not everyone you meet are natives so you hear all French accents.

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