n 2012, the French city of Rennes, with its fast growing metro area of 700,000 inhabitants, recognized it had lost control of its morning rush hour. Between 7:40 and 8:05 a.m. on the sole subway line, tension was mounting in the overcrowded train. Some riders were getting into physical scraps while others struggled to make an exit at their respective stops. Quips were increasingly made about the public transport functioning as a moving circus container, but there was a deeper unease at play.
By some mysterious force that same year, thousands of Rennes’ local university students had their schedules moved back by 15 minutes. One year later, the city’s notoriously crowded rush hour had thinned out by 17 percent. The unlikely puppeteers were a unit of social engineers called the Bureau des Temps, France’s well-oiled and omnipresent but often invisible Office of Time.
“When it’s crowded, the first reflex for public transportation operators would be to increase the number of subway carriages, not to go talk with the people who have the ability to control the rush,” says Evelyne Reeves, manager of Rennes’ Bureau de Temps.
Determined to find a more fundamental solution, Reeves spent a year meeting with “time producers” at universities, hospitals, local businesses and administrative offices. What Reeves and her colleagues in the bureau discovered was that by staggering the start-time of 18,000 university students at the local Université Rennes-2, they could engineer an effortless commute for the citizens of Rennes. And it worked.
The Bureaus des Temps are the clockmakers of contemporary urban life in France, juggling the diverse daily rhythms of French citizens with those of government and private institutions. Many initiatives have been put into motion in France over the past ten years, crafted from these studied attempts to enable its cities to function better.
Working with local firms, the city of Lyon has developed a virtual carpooling system for employees who live and work in the same area. In Paris, the city’s 20 arrondissements were once accustomed to Saturday morning wedding jams – it was the only window in which City Hall would be open. Now, the halls stay open through the afternoon in 9 arrondissements, transforming scrums of bored and anxious intendeds into blushing brides. In the French capital, where some swimming pools now stay open until 10 p.m., the sports clubs and associations who use them become the defacto employees for a few hours. In the southern Montpellier, the public library is now open on Sundays and until 9 p.m. during the week, holding students and avid readers in its aisles of narrative and out of the rush hour.
With time becoming an increasingly valuable commodity around the world, in parallel with the greater use of new technologies, time management has become an essential concern, evidenced by vast supply of tips, lectures and books – something more capitalistic societies have been obsessed with since the 1980’s – but without the shrouded society of clockmakers to retool the gears of the city.
Through simple data collection, the bureaus work determinedly to identify the intricacies of their respective districts in order to improve the quality of time. They are governed by the belief that such is equal to quality of life, which in turn correlates to the virtues of a city and its ability to stay relevant and prosperous. “We produce surveys to understand how much time people are taking to get around the city, how they are using their leisure time,” says Lucie Verchère, manager of Espace des Temps in Lyon, where time and space are considered interconnected.
In the wake of World War II, the French went back to work and coined a famous expression anchored to the mundanity of their daily ritual: “Métro, Boulot, Dodo”, or “Subway, Work, Sleep.” It was this way until the city passed a law that would shorten the work week, resulting in leisure time as a new commodity. “It all started with the first Aubry law on the 35-hour working week and the new work-life balance it implied. We all knew it was going to change people’s needs and lifestyles,” says Verchère. But at first, there was a general perplexity around how to manage it.
One out of 8 French citizens now works on Sunday and more than 7 percent of employees have a night job. While the city dwellers enjoy living in a high-speed society, some pinpoint a social pressure to be time-efficient all day long.
“In the 19th century, the way people were dividing their time was easy – family, working in a field or in a factory and the church” says Reeves. But as life expectancy has increased by 31 years since then, French work time has been divided by 3 and leisure time multiplied by 4. “We’ve never had so much time for ourselves,” says Reeves, “yet we are living with a constant feeling of pressure.”
The Bureau des Temps originated in 1980’s Italy where a newly emerging feminist movement started challenging the burden of a double workday. Female breadwinners with children were caught between their responsibilities at work and at home. Recognizing the stakes, city offices organized committees to find solutions and ease the pressure of time by extending hours for city services.
In 1986, a communist deputy, Livia Turco, who would go on to become the Minister of Social Affairs, suggested the idea of “a right to time.” Since 2000, every Italian city with more than 30,000 residents has to feature a Progetto Tempi della Città, or a City Time project.
Similarly, some of the French offices started with a focus on gender equality to improve accessibility to city services such as childcare for women working unusual hours. In recent years, with gender equality inching towards equilibrium in France, the root focus has shifted to reflect a more vast and intricate society.
“We went interviewing all the [Paris] mayors with concrete questions. We did not want to philosophize,” Verchère explains of a 2002 project. After meetings with parents, childcare administrators and associations, the results were more nuanced than anticipated.
Thierry Halay, one of the project’s managers, is by trade an author of books on Paris’s history and neighborhoods, and co-founder of the Association of History and the 20th Archaeology Borough (AHAV). He recalls,“We realized that residents in East Paris – which includes a significant part of low-skilled jobs – would prefer day nurseries opening early in the morning, while residents in western Paris featuring more executives asked for late-afternoon shifts.”
But extending opening hours means longer working hours for employees, which in turn often leads to collective bargaining regarding wages and working conditions. And naturally, cities are inherently full of conflicting objectives and agendas.“You get neighbors in popular nightlife areas who complain more and more about the noise, you get bar owners who complain about legal rules of closing time and liquor-licensing laws and you get night workers concerned by their safety,” explains Thierry Charlois, the nightlife project manager of the city of Paris.
Verchère refers to the early years of 2004 and 2005 as a golden age for these Bureaus des Temps, acknowledging that “… afterwards, we realized that [the subject of] time in urban public policy is a much more cross-disciplinary issue. [So] we have become an innovation lab.”
After working on mobility and flexible working hours, the main focus of her work has been set on leading new projects such as “Gare Remix” which calls on transportation users to share clever ideas on what useful or fun things people could do while waiting for their train. Meanwhile, in Paris, the focus of the Bureau des Temps has shifted towards nightlife.
Verchère concludes, asserting the importance of these near mythical collections of time makers – “Digital technologies cannot solve all issues. Most people consider the fastest way to drop one child at school and another one at kindergarten during their morning commute without the help of an app.”
Artwork by Trash Riot.