» 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.