Paris Officials Push Huge Suburban Transit Investment to Increase Metropolitan Mobility

» Of the dozens of rapid transit projects under construction and planned for the French capital, few are aimed directly at the center city.

The civil unrest that spread across many of France’s impoverished banlieues in October and November 2005 made clear the degree to which spatial separation between classes had resulted in unequal distribution of resources and consequent feelings of disenfranchisement by members of the country’s most needy.

Nowhere is this inequality more evident than in the sprawling Paris region, whose 11.7 million inhabitants form one of Europe’s two largest metropolitan areas.* For years, commercial activity has been growing in the massive La Défense business district west of the city, only encouraging the wealth of that side of Île-de-France. The lower class is heavily concentrated in the northeast suburbs, whose formerly industrial cities are replete with high-rise social housing complexes constructed in the post-war period. Though no French town suffers from the abandonment common in some postindustrial American cities, there are clear differences in public services provided by the government.

In many ways, this is most obvious in terms of transportation: The town where the riots began, Clichy-sous-Bois, is hours away from the city center via public transportation despite only being some fifteen kilometers from the city’s borders. While virtually all inhabitants of Paris itself have access to subway stations within a half-kilometer or less, many suburban cities have limited bus and rail service — even though a huge percentage of the population lacks automobile access.

National and local governments have made a big deal of their interest in reducing those inequities. Conservative President Nicholas Sarkozy made a big step in March 2009 in announcing a 130 km automated transit project that would form a double loop through the suburbs. This Réseau Primaire du Grand Paris will cost some €20 billion to complete and serve as the major spine for regional development over the next few decades, much as has the RER regional express network mostly built in the 1960s and 70s. Unlike the Paris-centric RER, however, this Grand Paris system would be designed to avoid the center-city and focus investment in frequently overlooked suburban zones.

Mr. Sarkozy has committed planning dollars for the project, but he has been less forthcomin in defining where he will find the funds to sponsor the project’s construction, whose cost may make it the most expensive single rapid transit project in the world. He has also clashed repeatedly with many local officials, who are worried that the government’s right to use eminent domain in station-area zones will simply produce bourgeois enclaves around them and do little for the existing adjacent communities.

The Île-de-France region, under the control of Socialists, who along with their Communist allies control six of the region’s eight départements (similar to counties) including Paris, has been more proactive in both proposing solutions and funding them. As a result, the region now has under construction seven tramways, three metro extensions, two reserved busways, and a tram-train project — all but one of which will be in the suburbs.

By 2014, once most of the projects are completed, the region will have more than 100 km of tramways operating almost entirely in dedicated rights-of-way, up from around 40 km today. Metro extensions will ring out from the city, and 25 km of bus rapid transit will reach some of the least-serviced areas.

The campaign to ramp up construction on the tramway lines now coincides with the regional elections planned for March this year, in which the Socialists hope to maintain control of 20 of 22 regions they won in 2004. The popularity of these trams, which operate much like American light rail lines, make them a clear electoral selling point.

Tramways have major benefits: the ability to handle routes in very high demand as a result of their long vehicle lengths, up to 143 feet. The T1 and T3 lines already carry over 100,000 daily riders, almost as much as some metro lines, which are usually far more expensive to build. This makes tramways ideal for routes between suburbs or dense neighborhoods, which don’t have the high peak demand required for lines running towards business districts. Their implementation in some of the poorest sections of the region, such as in and around St. Denis just north of Paris, will reduce commuting times and encourage safer, more walkable communities.

In addition, regional officials plan metro extensions on eight lines that will radiate from the city into the surrounding towns, as well as three more busways.

With the exception of the Grand Paris network, the largest rapid transit program likely to be built over the next few years is the extension of the RER E from St. Lazare train station to the La Défense district. The project will include the construction of an 8 km tunnel through some of the region’s most populated (and most valuable) areas, a huge new interchange station, and the furthering of regional rail service west to the town of Mantes. It will cost up to €3 billion.

The new RER E tunnel will parallel the RER A tunnel that opened in 1977, now completely overcharged and rated as the western world’s most-used transit line, with over one million daily passengers.

The region’s decision to fund the RER E’s construction will drastically reduce commute times between destinations east and west of the city and the project by itself will probably attract as many passengers as the entire tramway network, which will carry an impressive 800,000 daily riders by 2014 according to regional officials.

Île-de-France’s commitment to reinforcing suburban service over building new inner-city lines is a direct reflection of Paris’ unique situation: the city has virtually all the public transportation it will ever need, even as the dense surrounding suburbs are mostly deprived of the same.

But American cities like Washington, San Francisco, and Boston, each of which have dense suburbs, could learn a thing or two from the French approach. By distributing public transportation capital funds at the regional level, many disparate areas can benefit from new rapid transit lines. Similarly, by encouraging the development of separated-lane rail and bus projects throughout the suburbs, rather than simply in the core, the idea of living car-free can be extended beyond what are typically considered the pedestrian-friendly zones at the heart of the central city.

The typically arbitrarily defined boundaries between the central city and its surroundings shouldn’t determine whether efficient transit connections are made between dense neighborhoods — and that’s ultimately what Île-de-France regional officials are making clear in their decision-making about how to distribute funds.

* Greater London is either somewhat larger or somewhat smaller depending on the calculation used.

26 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Karl Tingwald

    Great article Yonah.

    It’s really interesting to see how much cheaper the metro and tram extensions are than similar projects in the United States, although the RER E extension to La Defense is comparable to ARC and East Side Access in New York in cost and scope.

  • 'Disenfranchised!' default

    The civil unrest that spread across many of France’s impoverished banlieues in October and November 2005 made clear the degree to which spatial separation between classes had resulted in unequal distribution of resources and consequent feelings of disenfranchisement by members of the country’s most needy.

    A convenient Marxist fairy tale of injustice, but the truth is simply that the unrest was caused by the usual belligerence from short-fused radical elements of the Religion of Peace. The rest is just PC excuse making or opportunistic relabeling to push desired public projects. These are good projects that stand on their own merits, the spin is counterproductive.

    The town where the riots began, Clichy-sous-Bois, is hours away from the city center via public transportation despite only being some fifteen kilometers from the city’s borders.

    Ridiculous falsehood, who told you this whopper? A simple glance at a map shows that all of that town is within 2 street miles of stations on the two RER lines that bracket it to the north and south,. Same for the north-south T4 tram on its west border connecting the 2 lines, which was already under construction at the time of these supposed ‘Riots 4 Rail!’ Even in the worst traffic the local bus lines average more than 2 miles an hour, and it certainly doesn’t take the RER lines anywhere close to an hour to cover the dozen miles into central Paris, so such a trip doesn’t take ‘hours’ unless one stops for an extended dinner, or movie, or drug deals, or Molotov cocktail workshops, or…

  • Karl, the RER E extension is both cheaper and longer than ARC. It involves 8 km of tunnel for $3.75 billion (adjusted for purchasing power, €1 = $1.25); ARC involves about 3 km of tunnel for $7.6 billion. ARC’s higher costs stem from a) the fact that it has to cross a 1.5-km river, and b) the fact that everything in New York costs more, even under land. SAS is now budgeted at $1.7 billion per route-km, which compares with $250 million per route-km on Paris’s Line 14.

  • DingDong

    Moscow is larger than both London and Paris but I guess not in “Europe”?

  • Mooh

    This, at the very least, sounds deeply biased to me. In a city like Paris, most of the transit ridership comes from metro and heavy rail systems. The metro vs. tramway is the epitomy of the Paris vs. banlieue confrontation: the former get fast, frequent and reliable service, whereas the latter, even if often as densely populated as the center, gets a fancy -and expensive to the community- way to commute not faster than a simple BRT, with often poor service at night. The transit connections the inner suburbs (petite couronne) need are metro, not buses or tram. And to that extent, the socialist government in Ile-de-France has not been so proactive: only 3 metro extensions are currently under construction, with a stunning total of… 3.3 km! (2 mi for our non-metric friends). I understand that building a metro or heavy rail line is expensive, but one cannot say that the Ile-de-France government has done everything possible for 12 years to expand the public transportation core network.

  • The circular RER line isn’t a tram.

  • Minato

    Exactly the inner suburbs need metro not fancy trams.
    The only metro line that go enouth far is the line 8 that serve Creteil.

    Anyway as long the adminstrative power of Paris is divised, I don’t imagine a miracle.
    We have a powerfull central municipality surrounded by thousands of mini municipalities.

    What we need is a fusion of the inner city with the inner suburbs.
    Paris would be over 6.5 million inhabitants and more densely populated than any US city outside New York.

  • dist

    Thanks for the piece Yonah. It’s allways welcome to have an exterior point of view.

    And like it was more or less said here, even if the situation is quite good comapred to some other cities the general state of the public transportation in Paris (which lacked funding after the first stretches of M14 and RER E) is bad. Big parts of the system is under heavy pressure and is reaching capacity (see M1, M4, M13, M14, RER A and RER B)… and generally the construction of tram lines in Paris’ inner-suburbs appears like a joke to many Parisians. Paris’ inner-suburbs are not like the traditional Suburbia, they are somwhat as dense as Paris itself and totally lacks adequate means of transportation (if you don’t want to go into Paris).

    That’s the real challenge (after the RER E expansion… which will feed the growing unbalancing between the East and the West) here, in finally giving the inner-suburbs a coverage as good as the inner-city.

    By the way, I do too find that infrastructure project cost a lot more in the US than in Europe. I’m allways amazes to see the cost of LRT project flirting with bilions of dollars when a tram line in France costs around 25m€ per kilometer (it can be more and less depending of the project and what is included into it but still, the difference is impressive). But maybe I’m wrong, that’s only a vague impression I have.

  • AlexB

    ARC doesn’t just include tunneling deep under the Palisades and the Hudson River, it also involves a brand new 4 track train station 180 feet below the surface with a whole array of passageways, excalators, elevators, etc., connecting it to the surface and Penn Station a block away. I don’t think extending the RER E is nearly that complicated, and I bet a lot of it can be done cut and cover instead of requiring tunnel boring machines.

    I think the trams are fantastic, not a second rate system inferior to a metro. If a train or tram runs in its own right of way, it doesn’t really matter what the physical vehicle is. The tram system in Paris will soon be bigger than the entire transit systems of most US cities by ridership. That would not be possible if they were all slow streetcars. This is like they are building Portland’s MAX times three over 15 years.

    Outside of the new massive Asian megalopi, Paris is the only city in the world with this level of transit investment. That’s awesome.

  • dist

    You bet and thought wrong… RER E is a heavy project and Paris underground is very dificult, there lots and lots of things down there. It’s going to be deep boring (around 40/50m below surface so allmost as deep as the ARC project) and no simple cut and cover operation.

    And yes, it does matters if it’s a train or a simple tram. You can’t move the same amount of people with a tram and a train or even a Parisian metro. First, if the right of way is not completely separated from traffic you can’t achieve frequencies under 2 minutes where as with a metro you can achieve 85/90 sec headway. Secondly, you can’t really run 100m long train on the streets of a very big city. And since you are street level, you can’t go as fast as a totally separated transportation system. Because those trams, even if we try to keep them as separated as they can be, are still simple streetcars. They are of course better than streetcars but not as efficient (except maybe certain portion which are old transformed railways) as a metro and in a city as dense as Paris and its inner-suburbs these little differences amount for a big difference in service levels.

    But don’t get me wrong, these lines are welcome but most of them were designed, at first, to be metro lines or extension of the existing ones. Hopefully Paris will “soon” be equiped with its second Metro orbital. In 10 to 20 years from now Parisian transit system and mobility should be radically different.

  • ARC doesn’t just include tunneling deep under the Palisades and the Hudson River, it also involves a brand new 4 track train station 180 feet below the surface with a whole array of passageways

    The brand new train station has no reason to be there. If they fed the new tunnel into the existing Penn Station, and through-routed some trains onto Metro-North to reduce dwell times, then the project would cost about one third as much.

    Outside of the new massive Asian megalopi, Paris is the only city in the world with this level of transit investment. That’s awesome.

    Madrid, Barcelona, and Naples are all building multiple subway lines. London is building a deep-level subway project, Crossrail, that is like the RER only much more expensive per km. Even New York’s investing large amounts of money in transit. It’s just too inefficient to get a lot of new route-km out of it – the per-km cost of a subway in Manhattan is 5-7 times the per-km cost of a subway in Paris.

  • Non-Parisians trying to parse this debate should understand that the Paris “tramways” are largely in exclusive right-of-way with relatively widely spaced stops (>500m) so they’re what Americans would call light rail, and are considerably faster, more reliable, and more spacious than the classic European/Australian tram, which is often in mixed traffic.

    No, it’s not the metro, but when you look at the overall size of the transport investment being made here, and the scale of the issues to be addressed, it’s a reasonable start.

  • Max Wyss

    to Jarrett: …and the maximum speed of the tramway vehicles may even be higher than the metro’s.

  • Minato

    Modern Tram will never have the speed and the capacity of the modern metro. (No metro line carry only or less than 100,000 passengers per day if we exclude the tiny bis lines)
    Some tram are faster than the metro I admit but these tram were build on old railway infrastructure.
    So already segegrated with bigger distance between the stations than the metro. (excluding the modern line 14, faster than any tram line)

    The metro in the inner city was built in the early 20th century with low distance between station.
    Today the average distance between the station in the “suburban” extention is about 1 km, not the 300-400m of the past.
    The inner suburbs of Paris are more densely populated than most north american inner city.
    It is comparable to what you have in New York with the Brooklyn, the Bronx, the Queens and the dense part of New Jersey.

    The problem of Paris is more than the transportation, it is structural.
    The official City of Paris is smaller than the dense core of Paris. (it seem complicated)
    Imagine if New York was only Manhattan, it is what we have actually in Paris.
    The actual size of the City of Paris is smaller than San Francisco, Boston. Cities already view as too small in USA.

    • Nathanael

      Remember, back in the 19th century trams were built out *before* starting metros. Build metros where the demand is so great that you need them; build (exclusive-lane) trams where it isn’t.

      Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens could use more light rail trams. New Jersey has two (Newark Light Rail and HBLR).

      In NYC, only Manhattan and Queens actually need more metro lines; Queens because it basically only has two lines which are parallel a couple of blocks apart, and Manhattan because it’s *REALLY* dense.

  • Max Wyss

    Speed and capacity are two dimensions of the system, and higher speed does not mean higher capacity. And the maximum speed a vehicle is designed for is even something else.

    Can I assume that the structural problem is worsened by the organization in France (ville, département, région) and their legislative and financing scope?

    BTW, as far as I remember, Boston, too, is a very small city.

  • Max, I believe the political organization of France makes Parisian investments easier, not harder. The central government is strong and Paris-dominated and local governments are weak, so unlike in Germany or Switzerland there’s no pressure to spread out investment. Paris gets a world-class rail network, the next 3-4 cities get an okay network, and the TGV links those cities efficiently; everyone else gets poor and deteriorating rail service.

  • Minato

    If it was true Paris metro area would not have the transportation problem that it has today.
    Paris and London are two cities that need the most investissement for transport in Europe.

    London need renovation and reorganisation.
    Paris need renovation and extention.

  • Paris already has one of the highest rail ridership to population ratios in Europe, together with London and Berlin. Which of the three has the highest, it’s unclear – all three have an about equal split between metro and commuter rail service, and the figures count inter-system transfers twice.

  • Adirondacker12800

    The brand new train station has no reason to be there.

    It gets passengers – the reason passenger trains exist – out of the current Penn Station. There will be more passengers once the tunnels open, they are predicting LIRR ridership at Penn Station will remain the same when East Side Access opens and NJTransit train ridership will eventually double.

    If they fed the new tunnel into the existing Penn Station, and through-routed some trains onto Metro-North to reduce dwell times…

    Except for those pesky passengers who will want to get off the train when they are headed to Manhattan and get on the train when they are headed out of Manhattan.

    • Nathanael

      NJT’s 34th St Station has no reason to be there.

      Penn Station is having its passenger flow problems fixed by the construction of “Moynihan Station”. Train capacity could be fixed trivially by doing run-through operations, although this would require re-electrification of LIRR. Which should be done anyway.

      Of course, the original proposed Penn Station-Grand Central connection would have actually saved operating costs while maximizing ridership *and* getting passengers out of Penn Station. *And* it was the cheapest to build.

      This was rejected out of hand despite being the best alternative according to the studies, apparently because of fear of building the curve between the two stations. Sheer stupidity.

  • NJT train ridership can’t double if the system is restricted to one double-track tunnel, as it will be under ARC (unless NJT chooses to maintain two train stations one on top of the other, which is all manners of stupid). The proposal involves handing half the NJ-Midtown capacity to an underused Amtrak.

    The pesky passengers aren’t what keeps dwells high. This of all threads should be the last place where you’d ignore the fact that Chatelet-Les Halles maintains short enough dwells for 30 tph on two tracks for RER Line A, despite much higher boardings + alightings than Penn. The problem at Penn is that all trains dead-end there, forcing a time-consuming direction change.

  • Adirondacker12800

    NJT train ridership can’t double if the system is restricted to one double-track tunnel, as it will be under ARC (unless NJT chooses to maintain two train stations one on top of the other, which is all manners of stupid).

    There will be four tracks. They will be doubling the number of trains by 2030 or 2035. Some of the trains will go to the new platforms and some of the trains will go to the old platforms.

    NJTransit already has three terminals in Manhattan. People don’t to the Port Authority to catch a train and they don’t go to Penn Station to catch a bus. None of them go to either expecting to get on a PATH train. None of them get on trains going to Jamaica. They’ll look at the departure board at the entrance on 35th St and go to the correct track.

    Chatelet-Les Halles maintains short enough dwells for 30 tph on two tracks for RER Line A

    Les Halles has platforms that are reminiscent of aircraft carrier flight decks. Penn Station has platforms that are narrow filled with a forest of girders and have inadequate stairs. When the train arrives in Les Halles most people stay on it. When the train arrives in Penn Station everybody gets off. The trains into and out of Les Halles – in normal operation – don’t have to negotiate complex interlockings. Penn Station has a bit of interlocking to run over to get to or away from a platform.

    • Nathanael

      No, there will be two tracks to the dead-end deep-tunnel Big Dig station for NJT. Operationally separate from the Amtrak tunnels. Amtrak has said that NJT’s tunnels are a waste and that they’re going to need two more tunnels to Penn Station *anyway*.

      ARC got seriously messed up due to turf wars. It was *supposed* to consist of:
      – two new tunnels (total of 4) from Penn Station to New Jersey;
      – two new tunnels (total of 2) from Penn Station to Grand Central.
      – through-running from both LIRR and Metro-North to New Jersey.

      Through-running would reduce dwell times massively in *both* Penn and Grand Central, distribute passengers “correctly” and take the load off of the NYC Subway, etc.

      This project was diverted into the stupid, over-expensive NJT-only design due to TURF WARS among NJT, LIRR, Metro-North, Amtrak, and goodness knows who else.

  • The bus/train split is bad enough in itself, and is one of the many reasons bus/train transfers don’t work well in the city; why is NJT trying to repeat it? The old paradigm of people taking trains only to go to a generic downtown is why Greater New York’s transit mode share is so low by any non-US standards.

    At Chatelet-Les Halles, more people get on and off than at Penn. The same is true for Penn’s subway stations, whose platforms do not look like flight decks and do not have many stairways. The issue is the total number of boardings and alightings, not the ratio of boardings and alightings to total traffic.

    Complex interlockings are not why Penn has long dwells. They create conflicts and reduce capacity, but they do not increase dwells.

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