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Last stop: End of the line for Paris’ iconic metro ticket

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By Anca Ulea  & AFP
Paris metro tickets were punch cards until the 1970s, but they always retained their signature shape.
Paris metro tickets were punch cards until the 1970s, but they always retained their signature shape.   -   Copyright  FRANCOIS MORI/AP   -  

It’s been a companion on many a trip through the Paris underground, inspired artists and even given its name to a popular bikini wax style. But all good things must end, and such is the fate of Paris’ iconic metro ticket.

After 120 years of loyal service, the small rectangular card is being phased out, ushering in a contactless future for the city’s public transportation.

The end has sparked reflection - mixed with a bit of nostalgia - for Paris commuters, many of whom saw it as a vintage emblem of the city.

“Sure, it’s progress, but I’m old-school,” said Brazilian tourist Jarbas Luiz do Santos, who’s been keeping metro tickets as souvenirs since he started visiting Paris 20 years ago. “The end of the metro ticket is also the end of a certain way of travelling.”

From Gainsbourg to bikini waxes

The metro ticket was born in July 1900 with the inauguration of the Line 1. It came in a variety of colours over the years and evolved from a punch card to a magnetised card in the 1970s, but it always retained its signature shape.

That 30-by-66 millimetre rectangle found many alternative uses over the years as well, from bookmark to makeshift notepad to cigarette filter. It also made its way into French popular culture, the star of singer Serge Gainsbourg’s 1959 hit 'Le Poinconneur des Lilas' (The ticket puncher of Lilas station), a lucky charm for Yves Montand in the 1953 film Wages of Fear and the cover of Raymond Queneau’s novel Zazie in the Metro.

The metro ticket’s shape even gave way to an eponymous bikini wax style, sometimes called a “landing strip” in English. The “ticket metro” was found to be the most popular bikini wax among Parisian women by a 2020 study in Version Femina magazine.

“It’s small and only lasts about an hour or an hour and a half,” said Grégoire Thonnat, a collector and author of a book on the history of the metro ticket. “But somehow we get attached to it. It’s quite irrational!”

The plan to get rid of the metro ticket has been in the works for years, and was originally slated for 2021. But the Covid-19 pandemic coupled with a global shortage of microchips forced Ile-de-France Mobilites, which operates the metro’s ticketing system, to postpone.

Sales of metro tickets still total 550 million per year, the equivalent of over 50 tonnes of paper. Reusable plastic smartcards will replace the tickets and cut down on that waste, officials say.