» Three intersecting lines will serve mostly circumferential routes around the Paris city core, providing fast trips to a currently under-served clientele.
In the Western World, the most significant rapid transit project currently being contemplated is Paris’ 96-mile Grand Paris network that would extend brand-new automated rapid transit lines across and around the region at the eye-popping price of more than twenty billion euros. If adequately financed, it would be a huge undertaking designed to speed travel between locales now at the periphery of the region’s fast transit network, spurring housing and population growth in the metropolitan area’s suburbs.
Announced more than a year ago by conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, the program has no assurance of being completed. While regional authorities are currently constructing dozens of miles of new light rail lines, several busways, and a few metro extensions, almost all in the inner suburbs, the national government’s program has yet to be funded thanks to its extraordinary cost. The RER regional rail program, the last major transit program conceived for the French capital, radiates fast trains from the city core and was conceived in the 1960s, and little has happened since. Continuing the current situation could mean decades of only minor improvements in mobility for the nine million people living just outside the walls of the City of Paris.
Yet the Réseau Primaire de Transport du Grand Paris (primary transport network of greater Paris) may be coming to life. This week, the government opened public debate on the project, revealing the extensive studies it has completed on potential alignments for the rail corridors, including proposed station sites. And the Sarkozy Administration has committed to €4 billion to the Société du Grand Paris, the semi-autonomous organization that will build the project and invest in eight major development sites that will have prime access to the network.
If the program is approved, the Société would take on 40 years of debt financing to sponsor the €21.4-23.5 cost, to be paid back mostly through deals made on real estate in station areas.
The project would encompass 155 km (96 miles) of new lines that would be added to the existing automated 5.5-mile Line 14 Metro that currently runs along a southeast-northwest route through Paris. Three routes would be offered: a 50 km Blue Line from Orly Airport to Charles de Gaulle Airport, via the existing Line 14; a 75 km Green Line from Orly Airport to Charles de Gaulle Airport, via the La Défense financial district west of Paris (with 21 km shared with the Blue Line); and a 60 km Red Line from La Défense to Le Bourget Airport, via the southern and eastern suburbs. Commute times for suburban residents hoping to reach destinations outside of Paris will be decreased significantly, with average train speeds a very respectable 40 mph thanks to few stations (give or take 40, depending on the final alignment chosen) and very high frequencies thanks to automation. At peak hours on some segments, trains will arrived every 85 seconds.
Construction could begin in 2013, with completion of the full project by 2023. By 2035, the system is expected to serve between two and three million daily riders.
The alternative is scary. Little new investment in new public transportation corridors would foster extreme congestion on lines entering Paris and increased automobile use in suburb-to-suburb travel; 80% of such commutes are already made by car. The inner suburbs — made up of three départements, Hauts-de-Seine, Val-de-Marne, and Seine-Saint-Deins — are surprisingly dense, more than San Francisco at 17,000 people per square mile, enough for adequate ridership on high-capacity transit lines and not sprawling in the traditional sense. Paris itself has 53,000 inhabitants per square mile, New York City 27,500.
Nevertheless, the government’s project is not universally liked. Its focus on station-area development at major business districts and airports promotes environments designed for middle-to-upper income groups; the new system could benefit real estate investors marketing to their needs more than anyone else. That’s problematic considering the Paris region’s existing segregation of income groups, with wealthier inhabitants mostly to the west of the city and the poor to the northeast. Moreover, the extension of the northeast and southwest segments of the system far from the urban core (some of which is still farmland!) seems more likely to promote exurban development than reinforce dense areas.
The Socialist Party, which controls the regional government and at least for now seems well positioned to win the presidency from Mr. Sarkozy in 2012, has advocated a separate 37-mile Arc Express program, which would circle around the City of Paris at a much closer radius, with far more stations and average speeds of about 25 mph. That project will be submitted for public debate in the coming months.
The Sarkozy government’s project is far more ambitious and encompasses 70% of the Arc Express alignment. But it could use some cutbacks; specifically, the Green Line’s southwest segment seems unnecessary. The Red and Blue Lines are each expected to attract about one million riders by 2035 while the Green Line will move half as many; even so, the Green Line is expected to cost as much to build as the other two combined.
All that said, this program is unique as it represents a major investment in a public transit project that is primarily aimed at improving the livelihoods of those living outside of the city core, not typically the first priority of transit planners. Yet it’s an especially important goal considering the increasing concentration of the poor and lower-middle class in the suburbs (both in France and in the United States). In massive metropolitan areas like the Paris region, there are few good options for improved mobility other than the provision of fast transit between big destinations — so it’s not like the installation of “cheaper” light rail, busways, or the like would do much to aid in the ability of people to get from one place to the next.
Only with truly rapid transit can people be granted easy movement throughout regions, and that’s what this project would provide.
The lines are being planned to interface directly with existing transit lines, encouraging multimodal transfers; of the 40 or so stations that could be built, 37 are in correspondence with existing or planned fixed-guideway public transportation. Bus lines would be redrawn to shuttle passengers to and from stations. And the government’s plan to encourage new construction around stations, and in fact to use proceeds from the development to pay back the costs of the system, is at least fiscally sound, though not necessarily socially so.
Update: I felt that this discussion could be better informed by positioning the project on a map showing the relative densities of the neighborhoods and cities in the Paris region. I’ve added the map below:
(Base density image from IAU-IdF)