I have to go to Sophia Antipolis, and then drop off an envelope in Valbonne on my way home. From my house in Plascassier this is a simple round trip of 20 minutes by car. Being temporarily without the questionable luxury of a car, I have to undertake this by public transport. Because the buses, like most public transport here, don’t run to a regular schedule, it’s not a question of knowing that there’s a bus at, say, 20 past the hour. So I try to call the bus operating company for the times. Which bus operator, Envibus, TAM, STCAR? It becomes irrelevant as the phones remain unanswered.
Finding transport times on a website is not rocket science. I am computer literate and have worked in travel related industries for many years, and regularly book complex international itineraries with greater ease than I can find a bus-time to Antibes. I start with www.envibus.fr and go to 'Calculez votre itineraire' from where I am asked to select my point of departure and arrival by commune and stop. This is already complicated as some parts of Sophia Antipolis are Biot and others Valbonne. To be honest, I don’t even know what commune I’m leaving from, as Plascassier is the meeting place of three communes.
As an example of how difficult it is to use the websites, I suggest the following experiment.
Select calculez votre itineraire. Assume that you want to go from the Gare Routiere in Sophia Antipolis to Antibes Gare Routiere.
First you have to select Commune of departure as Valbonne, then Arret and there are 4 options for Gare Routiere Valbonne Sophia Antipolis (A, D1, D2, D3) point of departure.
Then for "lieu d’arrivee" you select Antibes as the commune and for the Gare Routiere there are 7 different options.
Picking anything other than the one or two correct combinations out of 28 possibilities gives no result, or a lengthy itinerary involving several changes.
The other bus operator is TAM, the only operator to serve Plascassier. They don’t have their own website but a Google search reveals www.cg06.fr/transport/transports-tam.html. Not very user-friendly. I get to a drop down menu of the route numbers and the start and finish points and have to work out which line serves Plascassier. Relatively easy, it’s the 530 Grasse – Valbonne – Sophia Antipolis. Clicking on the link ‘voir la fiche horaire’ gives me the route of the 650 service from Mouans Sartoux via Mougins to Sophia. I do this several times until I realise that this link applies to text above it, and not to the general timetables.
Poor design combined with my own clumsiness, but I eventually get to the correct ‘fiche horaire’ which shows departures from Plascassier at 0910, 1030, 1130, 1235, 1305, 1350, and 1455. So much for ‘regular service intervals’, a fundamental of running a successful transport service which these folk don’t appear to have learnt. Some services only operate in school holidays. How do we know when school holidays are if we don’t have children? Some only operate on Wednesdays, as indicated by tiny letters adjacent to the departure time, some don’t operate on Wednesdays except in school holidays. I’m confused.
Eventually I work it out and go for the 1150 bus. I get to the stop at 1145 and wait in the pouring rain until 1220 when the bus arrives with three people on board – including the driver. We reach Sophia at 1240, half an hour late, barely giving me time to do what I need to do before getting the next one back.
When it stops in Valbonne I stand and wait for the driver to open the doors and she doesn’t, explaining to me that they may not transport passengers from Sophia to Valbonne as this competes with another service. This is pathetic, but as I pretend I am about to be violently sick, she opens the door and I scarper, clutching my stomach. It’s good to know my acting skills are so convincing.
The tragedy about all this is that public transport here is excellent, where it exists. It's inexpensive, except for the local trains which I find expensive to the point that an average family would probably not use them in preference to a car. It's clean and safe, and the drivers usually friendly and helpful. What’s wrong is that outside the main conurbations services are infrequent and uncoordinated, do not have regular service intervals, timekeeping is poor, and there is little or no coverage at night and at weekends. The internet sites showing the bus services are difficult to use and poorly designed, and often the bus stops do not have timetables or, if they do, they are out of date or illegible through vandalism, age and graffiti. Also, and perhaps I've been unlucky, but at least half the times I've wanted to use buses in the last few months, one of the bus companies has been on strike and I’ve stood at the stop for ages before calling the relevant number and, of course, getting no answer.
It's all very well reducing prices to the point where the services are almost free, but if that results in the companies running operations which are not commercially viable, they will reduce frequency and this has a debilitating effect on passenger numbers, the classic 'vicious circle'. The key to success of any public transport is a regular and frequent service interval allowing flexibility and synchronization of services so that one feeds the other. Here, TAM and Envibus, for example, seem to work against each other. The result is that often the buses are running with 5 or 6 people on board whilst the roads are busy. Something has to be wrong.
I used to work in Sophia Antipolis, 7 km from home. Depending on when I left home the journey by car could take anything from 12 to 45 minutes. To do the same journey by bus would have entailed three buses, taken an hour, and cost me €5.20 a day. Alternatively, I could have taken two buses and a suicidal walk from the Sophia bus station to my office, along roads with no pavements and looking over my shoulder for the speeding trucks and cars. Not really much of a reason to chose the green alternative.
In the summer, friends wanted to do a day trip to St. Tropez by public transport. An investigation taking several hours proved that it was impossible. The only way was by taking them to Cannes or Antibes to catch a train, then a bus or a boat, or a combination of both. They would have got there just in time to commence the return journey.
Close to France, several countries have outstanding public transport services, where all modes of transport from international trains down to local post-bus services are coordinated, and interchangeable tickets exist. Services are affordable, regular, frequent, and are accordingly well-patronised. The prime example is Switzerland, with Germany, Belgium, and Holland not far behind. France is in the stone ages as far as this is concerned and until this improves, the already inadequate roads are going to carry even greater volumes of traffic.
UPDATE : A few days after writing this, I went to the Gare Routiere to take photographs of the bus stands, which for several weeks had had bare wires hanging out of the poles where the electronic indicator boards are supposed to be, thinking that this would nicely illustrate my point. The day I went they’d just commissioned the shiny new electronic boards showing details of the next services to operate. They’ve had systems like this in some other countries for 15 years or so to my certain knowledge, but I’m glad to see that France is now catching up.