Infrastructure Light Rail Strasbourg

Envied the World Over, Strasbourg’s Tram Expands Again

» Europe’s most famous tramway network suggests deficiencies in the ways Americans expand transit.

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to suggest that almost every major metropolitan area in North America either already has a light rail system in operation or is planning to implement one. Unlike the metro or commuter rail systems that are primarily confined to the most populated regions, light rail is universally appealing because of its relatively cheap construction costs and the degree to which its implementation is credited with spurring the revitalization of dying city centers. More than any other mode of public transportation light rail is assumed (rightly or wrongly) to encourage “choice” riders to choose transit over driving, so it is often the most politically palatable choice when it comes to capital expansion decisions.

Compared to the tramways that have been constructed or expanded across Western Europe over the past two decades, though, U.S. attempts thus far have generally been more expensive, less productive in terms of urban redevelopment, and less effective in increasing ridership. Are U.S. cities building their light rail lines in an inappropriate fashion, or is there something inherently different about American tastes that make similar investments less effective this side of the Atlantic?

It’s worth considering the case of Strasbourg, which on Saturday opened the latest expansion to its tramway network sixteen years after this modern rail system first began operations in eastern France. Now with 34.7 miles of lines, the capital of the Alsace Region carries about 300,000 daily riders on its network. For comparison’s sake, the City of Strasbourg has about 270,000 inhabitants; the metropolitan area that surrounds it has between 470,000 and 650,000 inhabitants, depending on how far out one wants to measure. The region is planning — and has the funds for — the extension of several of the tram lines, the construction of a new downtown link, and even a connection across the Rhine River into the German town of Kehl.

Strasbourg was the first city to implement a fully low-floor tram system; the Eurotram trains (now Bombardier Flexity Outlook) ordered for the first six miles of line that opened in late 1994 were custom-designed, though their descendants have now become the industry standard. The vehicles’ modern appearance features large windows and projecting fronts. When the decision was made to embark on a modern tramway project, Strasbourg was reversing a previous decision: The city’s 1985 transportation plan foresaw the introduction of automated VAL trains on dedicated guideways in tunnels under the city center, similar to the lines then under development in French cities Lille and Toulouse. The presumption was that a subway and elevated network would minimize damage to local business by preserving road space, while a tramway network on downtown streets would put that activity in danger.

The 1989 municipal elections were largely fought over whether to build the VAL system, which the conservatives in power advanced, or a tramway that the opposition socialists promoted. The victory of the latter, founded on the fact that light rail at the street level is simply cheaper than a completely grade-separated network and that more could be constructed as a result, ensured the development of the system as currently in operation.

The mere fact that a local election fought between representatives of the country’s two major parties, one left and one right, was a haggling match over what form of transit technology was most appropriate for this city — rather than whether anything should be built at all — is an indication of where the politics of transportation fit in France. When one political party in the United States is ambivalent about public transportation and the other is downright hostile towards it, comparing any American city to Strasbourg may be unfair. Still, it is the implementation that matters, since many U.S. cities have been able to assemble financing to fund new light rail projects; finding ways to improve their effectiveness can’t hurt.

In many ways, the tramway was a good choice for Strasbourg. Because the trains run along existing streets, they replaced automobile lanes and provided a political rationale for improvements in pedestrian space. Of the initial costs attributed to the tram line’s construction, roughly half were spent on projects indirectly related to the transit line: The planting of 1,700 trees, the improvement of three bridges, the pedestrianization of a major square, and the renovation of the streets along which the tram would run. Park-and-ride lots were built at outlying tram stops, parking was eliminated downtown, and several streets simply had cars removed.

The results are obvious to anyone who has been to Strasbourg. Boulevards that feature tramways, even in the poorer neighborhoods, are great places to be because of the clear effort that has been put into improving them along with the introduction of the train lines. Outside of downtown, trams glide along grass carpets in the medians of roads that have seen their automobile traffic diminish symmetrically with the large increase in transit ridership that has accompanied the introduction of the tram system. Sidewalks, bike paths, trees, and quality street furniture complete the picture.

In Strasbourg’s downtown, trams run along mostly pedestrian-only cobblestone streets where business is clearly doing well, in spite of initial business opposition to the project. The university is well connected to the network, and so is the main train station, which offers high-speed direct intercity rail service to Paris, Frankfurt, and Stuttgart. (Both the university’s main campus and the station had their connections improved because of changes implemented last weekend.) An entire new district called the Étoile is being constructed along formerly industrial port land around several tramway stations.

Transit planners made a conscious decision not to run the trams along highway corridors, partly because few of them enter the center city, but also because doing so increases construction costs, does little to encourage transit use because cars appear to speed by more quickly than trains, and reduces the potential for using the introduction of a new rail system to improve the aesthetics of the public sphere. Far too many American planners, from Denver to Los Angeles to Portland to San Francisco, have agreed to make a deal with the devil by placing rail lines along highway rights-of-way; doing so is often more politically feasible because it can be done in coordination with roadway improvements and does not appear to prioritize transit over car use, despite the fact that the latter is exactly what you want to do to make a transit system functional!

Moreover, Strasbourg’s system, despite running in or in place of the road, is not a streetcar. In the U.S., streetcars are deemed cheaper to build than light rail because they do not operate in their own rights-of-way but rather along roads shared with cars; this is one of the reasons the push for streetcars has exploded over the past few years. But streetcars suffer the sad fate of being stuck in traffic. Thus the cheaper solution, of course, is to build light rail like a streetcar — and then ban the cars from the lanes in which the trains run. It’s not a difficult solution from a financial perspective.

(Costs for highway-running rail are higher than street-running rail as long as the latter replaces road lanes with transit lanes. This explains why streetcars are cheaper than light rail: The right-of-way already exists. In the case of highway-running rail, stations have to include expensive connections to surface streets, bridges and tunnels have to be rebuilt, and rights-of-way need to be expanded, assuming the highway is not shrunk in the process.)*

As Jarrett Walker has written, however, assuming that the implementation of a tramway will automatically result in improved urban conditions or ridership would be foolish. For one, for aforementioned reasons, there are political obstacles to building a new tram line as it should be done because of a fear of reducing the primacy of the automobile on city streets. Second, a place like Strasbourg benefited from incredible density in both residential and commercial distribution even before the tram line was put in, which means that there was an automatic market for the service. In the United States, you can expect similar results only in very dense cities like Chicago or New York, but not necessarily in more sprawling areas where new light rail lines are likely to run. Whereas Strasbourg’s system attracts some 8,600 users per line mile, the best-ridership above ground light rail system in the U.S., in Houston, attracts only about 4,600 per mile — and that’s along a short, dense corridor. The much-praised operations in Charlotte, Phoenix, Portland, and Salt Lake City all attract less than 2,500 per mile. That means less value per dollar spent.

Just as important, the tramway mode choice isn’t necessarily the deal breaker when it comes to increasing transit ridership. Take the example of Rennes, a French city 430 miles west of Strasbourg. These, municipal leaders chose to build an automated VAL metro under the downtown and elevated above outlying streets rather than invest in a tramway. The first line, which opened in 2002, increased overall local transit ridership massively, pushing it from 160,000 daily users to 250,000 between 2001 and 2007. Now the city is building a second, €1 billion line that is expected to double rail ridership and put 73% of the city’s population withing 600 meters of a station.

Rennes’ center city is less remarkable than Strasbourg’s and the streets below or above which the VAL runs have not been substantially improved. Nevertheless, the large increase in transit use that has been experienced there suggests that it isn’t the tramway per se that makes transit in these cities successful. Rather, it can likely be attributed to the focus of both systems on serving only sections of the region that have adequate density to support heavy investments in rail transit. It may be hard to believe, but the furthest station from downtown Strasbourg on the tram system (Illkirch Lixenbuhl) is less than four miles away as a bird flies from the central station downtown (Homme de Fer). In other words, the region has focused its investments on a dense network with multiple, intersecting lines downtown, rather than a series of long, suburban extensions.*

Does this mean that efforts to build new transit lines in the U.S. cannot be successful? Of course not. But it does indicate that if we’re serious about taking the most advantage possible of the investments we make in new transit corridors, we must find ways to concentrate growth in the existing urban cores of our cities and find the political will to limit rail expansions to the areas that would respond most directly to its introduction.

Image above: Homme de Fer Station in Strasbourg, from Flickr user Lauri Pitkanen (cc). * These sentences have been added after the post was initially published.

33 replies on “Envied the World Over, Strasbourg’s Tram Expands Again”

It’s amazing that they built this whole system in only 16 years. The trams were great when I was in Strasbourg this summer for 9 weeks. They don’t stop for traffic, ever. The couple of times I traveled in Strasbourg by car, it was much slower. The best thing about them is that in most places where they travel, the trams and pedestrians are given design priority over cars. On many tram streets, there are no cars allowed at all, making it a truly walkable city. Downtown, you step off the tram into a sea of people, restaurants and shops. And then you walk to where you need to go. In other cities (with transit that doesn’t share the road with cars), you step off transit, walk up/down three flights of stairs, and then either wait for a traffic light (if you’re lucky) or wait for a bus to go somewhere else.

I used to think that transit was my number one consideration for choosing a city to live in. Now I think that walkability is. But it’s hard to get walkability without transit that is a natural extension of walking.

“Transit planners made a conscious decision not to run the trams along highway corridors, partly because few of them enter the center city, but also because doing so increases construction costs”

I would have that construction in an empty highway median would result in lower costs than construction in the center of a congested urban street. That usually seems to to be the rationale for FTA projects to end up in higway medians

One has to be aware of the highway situation around Strasbourg. There are no highways with a big unused median. If there is a median, it may be 2 meters wide at best, and I don’t think there are any 6-lane highways in the Strasbourg area… everything is 4-lane. So, if one had used the highways for the right of way, they would have to be widened… and that in suburban and urban environment… That IS expensive.

Another note about Strasbourg: It is a rather wealthy city, and has quite a lot of visitors (tourism, international onrganizations etc.). This increases the demand for non-private transportation.

It’s the bridge jumps over intervening cross-streets and rivers which make expressway median construction expensive. If you literally take lanes from the roadway, then it’s not particularly expensive.

Sounds like the situation we have in Toronto, Canada, where we just elected a conservative mayor Rob Ford who wants to build subways in suburban areas (e.g. Sheppard Avenue East, an extension of an existing subway) in contrast to our previous liberal mayor David Miller who proposed LRT in suburban areas (on Sheppard East and elsewhere). This issue is very controversial here especially because of the bad perception of Toronto’s existing streetcar network which mostly runs in mixed traffic. Of course Toronto is a much bigger city than Strasbourg (about 5 million including Toronto’s suburbs vs 638670 for the Strasbourg metro area) so the situation is not directly comparable. There is a greater need for subways (and better commuter train service) in a city of this size.

“Transit planners made a conscious decision not to run the trams along highway corridors, partly because few of them enter the center city, but also because doing so increases construction costs”

I was also puzzled by this quote. Is this because with the highways you might need to rebuild bridges, ramps, etc? Can we get some clarification?

Strasourg has both the culture and density (because of age, pre-industrial rev) that supports prolific light rail systems. US has a culture of individualism and post-industrial, even post WWII development- hindering the proliferation of light rail here in the US. Those are the bigger issues to tackle before we will have a comprehensive system of rail again.

Another thing people are not looking at when they look at this system is that gas in France goes for over $7.00 dollars a gallon and is sold by the liter too so owning and operating a car is very expessive in this town also. It also very expessive to park in this French village too so from a look at cost and aggravation it would be easy to leave the car at home or not own one and take the tram system around town.

As for this system if there are 270,000 people in the downtown area and 600,000 out in the suburbs and the ridership is 300,000 then for this system then all they need is for %30 to 40% of the people to make two rides on this system a day. Or everyone in the downtown area could make one ride on it a day. It could easy happen that ridership on this system could go up to 400,000 or 500,000 a day in the next few years.

The US has lots of easy parking even in the downtown areas and gas is 30% of what it is in Europe. This is one of the promberms of why you can’t really compare the US to Eruope.

“Whereas Strasbourg’s system attracts some 8,600 users per line mile, the best-ridership above ground light rail system in the U.S., in Houston, attracts only about 4,600 per mile — and that’s along a short, dense corridor. The much-praised operations in Charlotte, Phoenix, Portland, and Salt Lake City all attract less than 2,500 per mile. That means less value per dollar spent.”

While I understand the point you’re making, Yonah, I think it’s missing a huge point. You seem to be implying that U.S. LRT doesn’t attract as many riders as European systems because of some functional design difference. While I agree that such factors are important and are contributing, at no point are ideas such as lifestyle and culture considered in this analysis. Europe simply doesn’t have the car culture nor the mythos of individualism in the same degree as the United States. People are more likely to think of transit as a viable transportation mode in the EU, whereas here the popular view is that transit will be scary, stinky, noisy, and slow.

Culture is as much a factor as design.

One other brief point: concentrating on building LRT only in urban cores is not a realistic solution. Would it result in higher riderhip and better projects? Probably. The cost of LRT however is high and is therefore typically metropolitan in scale; most LRT would not be built without some kind of cooperation from suburbs. Linking suburban areas into LRT systems and combining LRT’s European model with the American commuter transit mode is how we arrived at our form of LRT. It’s a politically pragmatic choice. While it may not fit with the “ideal” outcomes, the very fact that, as you acknowledge, most U.S. Metro areas now have some form of LRT or even entire systems speaks volumes about how sucessful this approach has been in an auto-centric culture such as our own.

Houston, which has both the highest ridership per route length and lowest cost per rider in the US, deliberately eschewed the strategy you propose, and instead went for an urban light rail line.

The success or failure of LRT has everything to do with design and urban form. Culture follows what people encounter, not the reverse. While there are no American examples of successful new LRT, there are examples in conservative cities in both Canada and Australia. Calgary shines there: it has 250,000 weekday riders on 30 miles of LRT route, and an overall metropolitan transit mode share of 16%, better than any American city except New York. Show people that transit can get them to where they want to go better than cars, and they won’t think it’s socialistic or for poor people.

Is an urban-only line more beneficial than one that extends to the suburbs? If you look at things like ridership-per-mile, the answer is probably yes–a line that runs a short distance through a dense area will deliver better performance than one which goes out to suburbia, and has 30km or so between downtown and the end of the line (Portland’s MAX Blue Line is about this long, both directions, out of downtown).

OTOH, the larger, longer system provides more public utility than does a system limited to a downtown area. MAX doesn’t have the gaudy per-mile stats of Strasbourg or even Houston, and only half the total usage of Calgary, but it does attract substantial numbers of suburban commuters out of cars. Unlike Calgary or Strasbourg, transit in Portland has a complete freeway network to compete with–and does a reasonable job given the political constraints in place, both locally and nationally.

And I’d disagree with “Culture follows what people encounter, not the reverse”. The relationship between culture and environment is complex and symbiotic, not causal in either direction. While the local environment certainly informs culture, culture shapes the environment as well–the two reinforce each other. Whether chicken or egg comes first is often difficult to determine (and of questionable relevance anyway).

Portland doesn’t underperform just in ridership per mile. Its ridership per dollar spent is deficient, as well; it ranks in the middle of American cities on that metric, with twice the per-rider construction cost of Houston’s line. The political will in Portland to spend money on light rail has not been matched by political will to stop making the entire region so convenient for car access.

I’m not sure “per rider construction cost” is a particularly useful metric, if not controlled for things like density and land-use. If you do control for these things, then it can be useful at measuring the effectiveness of project management. Failing to control for these things, however, produces the result that lines limited to dense areas (such as Houston’s) will be more efficient than those which extend out to suburbia (such as Portland’s). What does that tell me? Nothing, other than the two cities made vastly different policy choices in where to build rail.

There is an interesting debate here, obviously–some believe that rail corridors should be limited to short, dense corridors, instead of ~60km LRT lines like the MAX Blue Line. I tend to diagree–MAX is useful precisely because it serves several important suburban nodes–and many of the suburban areas served by MAX, most notably the stretch from Elmonica west to Hillsboro–have seen significant increases in density.

If you focus too much on financial metrics, you are liable to come to the conclusion that only already-dense cities should bother building high quality transit. I’m not sure that’s the conclusion we want to make.

WRT your second point–City leadership has generally resisted expansions of the highway network over the past several decades. Since I-205 was completed back in the 1980s, no new freeways have been added (though some existing freeways have been widened and modernized). City leadership (and Metro) has been likewise resisting a significant widening of I-5 as part of the Columbia River Crossing. There’s no support for getting RID of freeways at this time (the much ballyhooed bulldozing of Harbor Drive back in the 1970s was largely due to the roadway becoming redundant with the opening of I-5 and I-405), but neither are they expanding.

The conclusion I’m making is exactly the opposite of “Only dense cities can have LRT.” Houston is not a dense city; although the places served by the Main Street line are denser than most, they don’t begin to approach the densities of New York or Tokyo.

Portland’s car access convenience is about more than just how many freeways there are. It hasn’t upzoned near stations as much as necessary or possible, and to my knowledge has very convenient parking by the standards of Calgary or Sydney, which have some of the best results for good postwar urban transit. Calgary’s downtown parking rates approach Manhattan’s, leading to a high transit mode share. Portland’s rates, well, don’t.

The answer is very much “it depends”. Suburban lines are a fine thing, but if you don’t have the urban lines to distribute people around town, you are not going to get their full benefit. There’s much less point in having an LIRR to get to Manhattan if there’s no subway to change to to move *about* Manhattan. In LA, Metrolink’s value is massively increased by Metro. *Nobody wants to switch to a mixed-traffic bus for the second-to-last leg.* (I count walking as the last leg.) So it rarely makes sense to build suburban lines without the urban lines being present first.

The exception is probably “string of pearls” layouts, where you have a bunch of towns with dense town centers, and interconnecting the town centers gets you a great deal of mobility. Where the “suburbs” are not just low-density places, but contain their own dense clusters of destinations. England has a number of rail lines which evolved this way. It’s probably not hard to think of US examples either.

When we think of walkability in Strasbourg, you have to keep in mind that it’s an order of magnitude more walkable than anything in the US, even the densest parts of San Fransisco or New York. The entirety of the downtown area fits on an island that’s about 1.5-2 square miles. And it’s almost entirely 4-6 story mixed-use buildings on very narrow walking streets.

Having lived in Strasbourg for 3 months, I have come to appreciate it as something of a holy grail, but one that can’t really be cut and paste to cities in the US.

The key thing that they achieved in Strasbourg was the removal of car lanes. That is something we can learn from.

I definitely agree that the density and walkability of cities like Strasbourg make a huge difference in attracting transit riders. Don’t believe Wikipedia’s measure of the city’s density, since a large amount of open land is apparently included as part of the city’s “urban area”. The few dozen neighborhood nodes and corridors are packed so close in Strasbourg that even the downtown is only about 2 miles from the nearest stretches of forest and open farmland. That’s pretty amazing — most residents could walk for 30 minutes and effectively get out of the city. For the rest, they could probably do it in under an hour.

Yeah, it would be pretty hard to replicate this sort of layout in the U.S., but we should probably try. We might start seeing something like it happen in Detroit if plans go through to move people to more central nodes, trim the city grid, and convert areas to farmland. Many traditional cities grew outward in a pattern like a starfish or a snowflake

We really need to continue revamping the planning processes in the U.S. We need to get back to building villages and towns instead of the grotesque mutants that are suburbs and exurbs. Our cities have also been heavily infected with suburban-style development following urban renewal which ripped down high-density areas and replaced them with either low-density development or empty parking lots. It’s difficult, but can happen. Too bad it’ll take generations to get it right.

So the take-away is that trolleys should have their own lanes (possible shared as an express lane with buses, but with no cars in the lane and express priority at intersections), and that a high stop density service requires a high density of potential riders in order to provide the most effective use.

There’s a few logical steps missing from there to the conclusion that rail should only be built in areas where high stop density service is the appropriate type of rail.

Well, consider Chicago. We had the opportunity at a circulator-type LRT for the central area of the city. Governor Edgar put the kibosh on that. But it would have served the densest and fastest growing parts of the city and provided a long overdue link between Metra stations and the ‘el downtown.

Now, the central area plan features a Clinton Street subway, which again would serve a rapidly growing part of the inner city and connect Union and Ogilvie stations to the ‘el, this time directly. But it’s only a plan. More likely to happen soon are extensions on the fringe of the system — the fringe of a system that already goes too slowly to be viable to use from one end of the line to the other. Nothing like as useful as Clinton Street, which would enable people to completely cut the car or the taxi out of journeys involving commuter or intercity rail and speed connections among el lines while finally giving the near west side its due in transportation terms. What 130th street and Old Orchard need are fast regional rail links, not a one hour el trip.

The key takeaway as I see it is to do a better job of serving the central area of major cities, quickly. Better quality. More regular headways. Faster service. Better connectivity.

I think the takeaway is more about “find[ing] the political will to limit rail expansions to the areas that would respond most directly to its introduction,” Yonah’s closing statement. This doesn’t mean central areas.

Yonah discussed (in various sections) how the Strasbourg tram serves the most dense parts of the city, where a market for new transit service is already present.

I think DBX and Steve Vance may be trying to make the same point. But it depends on what each of you mean by “serving the central area.” Do you mean “service between outlying areas and the central area” or “serving trips within the [greater] central area?” Did DBX intend it to mean the latter and Steve think that DBX meant the former? If not, I’m throughly confused by these two posts!

Where would you put regional rail to Old Orchard? 130th has the IC, but Roseland has nothing. And of course, a lot of people from the mid and far north sides commute to Skokie, so downtown links aren’t as important as local. But this isn’t relevant to LRT directly. An enclosed walkway or people mover (I’m thinking more moving sidewalk) to Clinton (Blue Line) would be more useful for Metra/CTA connection than LRT.

The way to improve “regional rail” (such as it is) to Skokie is by making CTA’s 4-track north mainline (current Red-Purple Express) run more like NYC’s 4-track mainlines, with frequent local+limited stop services during most of the day and on weekends. CTA’s current operations largely waste the 4-track capacity of this line between Belmont and Howard. Hopefully the line’s planned rehabilitation can be accompanied by a re-thinking of the service plan in a way that better leverages this idle capacity in one of North America’s most intensively used transit corridors.

Seconding FG’s point, there’s a pretty strong north side-Skokie market, and the Old Orchard extension would also give the Yellow Line a stronger counterweight to the Howard terminus, resulting in better utilization of existing capacity, especially if an infill station is added in south Evanston. It’s also worth noting that Skokie has, despite the Yellow Line being its only sliver of rail, really latched onto transit-oriented development as a guiding philosophy, and from what I understand they want to direct any future growth in Skokie into the Oakton and Old Orchard-west of Edens Sure, it’s still dispersed by European standards, but the line’s descended from an interurban, so in a sense it’s always been that way and Chicago has no choice but to work around that heritage.

Back on topic about light rail and central cities, though, the Governor Edgar explanation must be the umpteenth reason I’ve seen for that plan’s demise. I’ve also heard that it was tanked by the Streeterville resident’s association, escalating costs from the addition of a State Street segment to appease the merchants, Gingrich’s takeover of Congress, and (my personal favorite) Daley being spooked by the size of light rail vehicles when visiting another city. Talk about a plan in the political muck. I have to disagree with you, DBX, over how useful it would have been. The central city light rail would have simply been a larger, very expensive version of the 12x circulator buses currently running from to and from the West Loop stations. I’m skeptical of the need for more rail transit downtown—I think that better signage and organization of routes (like this proposal for making Canberra’s downtown bus routes more legible) would do a lot—hopefully the bus lane grant we just got will get us started on this. There’s a good argument for using buses for circulation—Chicago’s always going to have a lot of them and it allows for direct trips to a number of different destinations at a lower capital cost—rather building too lines to North Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier (or choosing a compromise route), just have two buses going to each. Again, Chicago’s a prisoner of its history—historically, much of the circulation from the rail terminals was done by coach, and it’s still that way.

Strasbourg also lucked out with its wide boulevards—Chicago lacks these. A lot of Chicago’s major streets are comparatively narrow and are often of pretty variable width, so even pre-parking-privatization it was pretty hard to figure out how to put transit in its own lanes. If only we had modernized our streetcars like insert-European-city-of-your-choice-here—with snaky European-style modern trams running down roads, it would have been easier to muster the political will to give transit its own space in the street. I’ve seen proposals for using our boulevard system for trams, but the boulevards don’t really line up with the best-performing bus corridors.

It would be scary if Mayor Ford in Toronto closed down the streetcars. :( Most American cities are really just pro-transit cities, not real transit cities, even compared to the BRT proponents’ “ideal” example, my home city, Ottawa. Some like John Bonsall assert that Ottawa is “the envy of the world”. I contest this assertion, but I have to admit, rail is not working as much in American cities since they still continue to be auto-centric. If the Interstates had not been built as much, then there would be better results for transit.

It’s not just the Interstates — even electric streetcars and the old U.S. Highway System drew people and businesses away from town centers. Zoning has screwed up most American cities, enforcing low densities and huge parking lots, and restricting efforts to become more transit-friendly. I’ve even heard that federal home loan programs have been biased toward the suburbs since before World War II.

Despite which, streetcar suburbs were pretty much the nicest places to live in the country — where the streetcars are still present, they are among the most expensive.

I can live with streetcar suburbs. I grew up in an ex-streetcar suburb. The key difference from modern suburbs is that they don’t have such vast wastelands of PARKING.

Can anyone explain why rail construction costs are so much lower in Europe (and even Canada) than the US?

Labor cost? Construction materials? Economies of scale? Policy (as in, no FRA car weight mandates)?

I feel like they all play a role, but does it really add up to the differences we see?

There was not only Strasbourg getting a new streetcar/light rail line this past weekend. Within a few hundred kilometers the following openings happened (note that last Sunday was the beginning of a new European train schedule period, and that is the reason why many projects are opened on that date):

• Mulhouse: Tram-Train to Thann, offering coordinated schedules between SNCF locals and Mulhouse light rail operation.

• Zürich: third section of Glattalbahn, between Zürich Airport and Stettbach, connecting several recently and coming soon development areas. The new track section goes from Auzelg to Stettbach, containing Switzerland’s longest rail viaduct (which is in its way a pretty crazy building, as it passes over an SBB main line, through industrial area, connects to the top level of a big shopping center, then passes over a highway, and under a major power line). The new line connects 5 S-Bahn stations (almost every S-Bahn line getting into Zürich is touched by the new line 12) and major commercial sites (several world companies have their European headquarters nearby to one of the stops), and shopping areas as well.

• Bern: Two lines to the western parts of the city, replacing overloaded bus lines (Bümpliz (mainly residential area) and Brünnen (residential and commercial (big shopping center)). Also, the streetcar/light lines were completely reorganized, including the famous “blue train” to Worb. Note for the traveller: make sure that you have the newest line map at hand; your Bern city guide will be outdated).

• Genève: A short connector near the Cornavin main station. But this piece will become part of the two lines opening in a year.

• Frankfurt: Extension of the U5 line (which is essentially light rail), serving among others an IKEA store (and having shopping cart docking stations on the platform).

• Stuttgart: Extension of the U6 line (which is essentially light rail).

• München: Extension of the U3 subway line.

There could be a few more extensions in Germany, but I didn’t find references to them.

So, a lot was going on…

The extension of the U5 line (which is essentially light rail), serving among others an IKEA store (and having shopping cart docking stations on the platform) in in Cologne (Koln), not Frankfurt.

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