» 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.