» Two major axes will service 65 “biking neighborhoods” throughout the city. Dedicated bike lanes will increase from 273 miles today to 435 miles by 2014.
If Velib’ has changed the face of Paris by providing it the largest bike sharing system in the world with 1,800 stations and more than 20,000 bikes, there’s still plenty of work to be done in the French capital. After nine years of slow but steady improvements originating from an environmentally minded city hall, Paris is about to hit the accelerator pedal.
The new plan, to be presented in early June to the city council, where it is virtually guaranteed passage, will increase the number of bike lanes within this 40.7 square mile city from 273 miles today (most built since 2001) to 435 miles in 2014. Two major axes — one running east-west from the Bois de Vincennes to the Bois de Boulogne and the other north-south, will be designed for heavy traffic. One thousand new bike parking spaces will be added to the city’s streets every year, and bike boxes, allowing cyclists to get priority treatment at intersections, will be painted in across the city. Connections to the suburbs will be reinforced through the reconstruction of ten city “gates.” And starting this July, 65 neighborhoods, making up about half the city’s land area, will be converted to prioritize biking, with two-way travel allowed even on streets reserved for one-way car traffic.
By 2020, most of the city’s major streets will have dedicated bike lanes and the network will begin to extend out into the near suburbs.
Paris’ project, led by Mayor Bertrand Delanöe, is not revolutionary in concept — most of what is being done has been done in parts of the city before — but rather in scale. The sheer size of the city’s investments, which will bring bike infrastructure within feet of all of the city’s residents, is likely to continue the increase in the mode share of alternative transportation.
And the city is developing a social strategy to encourage cycling even more. A “maison du vélo” will welcome inhabitants who have questions specifically about getting around by bike; kids in elementary school will be exposed to cycling in tours and classes; the city’s employees will be encouraged to make their trips by bike, with 400 vehicles already dedicated for the purpose; and a new Villes Velib’ cooperative will encourage a dialogue between Paris and its suburban peers in an attempt to integrate the region by bike.
Paris’ Sunday street program, which has already resulted in the closing of several neighborhoods to motorized traffic on Sundays and holidays, is planned to be generalized throughout the “biking neighborhoods,” where maximum travel speeds of 19 mph will be enforced. Parks, some of which had been closed to cyclists, are now all open to bike travel.
There is no guaranteed way to increase the number of people using bicycles and other low-impact transportation modes in a city. But the wholehearted embrace of the mode through a dedicated plan for infrastructure that prioritizes bicycles, funded and guaranteed by a focused city council, is sure to encourage it. Now that American cities have begun to follow Paris with similar bike sharing programs, we need to see similar initiatives here.
» 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.
» Paris offers up Autolib’, intent on duplicating the success of the Velib’ bike program. But is car sharing counter-productive?
In the United States, cars offered by companies like Zipcar have become a common sight in city centers and around university campuses. For people without access to an automobile, these shared vehicles can provide valuable extra mobility, especially for those who are less confident on bike or for people who need to get places not easily accessed by mass transit.
A growing conflict in Paris over the installation of a new sharing system, however, raises some important questions. Is car sharing necessary or even a good idea for dense cities where public transit is ubiquitous and where most goods can be bought within walking distance? What are the best modes for service implementation?
According to Zipcar, each shared vehicle takes fifteen to twenty personal vehicles off the road. This is made possible because of Zipcar’s low rates, starting at $8 hourly and $77 daily, along with a $50 annual subscription charge, collectively small enough to convince people to abandon their cars or to avoid buying them at all. The end result, at least theoretically: fewer cars on the road, more efficient use of each automobile, and fewer parking spaces needed. It has proven a cheaper alternative to taxis and car rentals and has been quickly adopted.
The problem, of course, is that many of the people using car sharing programs once weren’t using any cars at all, meaning that the easy access to vehicle actually means an increase in overall car use. Zipcar’s campaign earlier this year to convince New York City pedestrians that they could be getting around more quickly in an automobile suggests that the service’s best market is among people who are currently walking, biking, or taking transit to get to work. Should cities be encouraging car-share programs if the end result is to convince people who don’t use automobiles today to use them in the future?
On the other hand, it is true that car sharing vastly expands the mobility of people without cars, especially at nighttime, when congestion is less of a problem and when transit is less reliable. It allows carless urbanites to buy products at places like Ikea, often situated in places difficult to reach by transit. It opens up the idea of being car-free to college students and residents of small towns.
Just as Paris took bike sharing to the extreme with Velib’, it wants to take car sharing to the next level with Autolib’. With 1,000 stations located on the street or in underground parking garages in the city and in 30 surrounding communes, the service would offer 3,000 cars available throughout the day by 2011. Every vehicle would be electric so as to reduce pollution levels. At the cost of four to five euros each half hour, with a 15-20 euro subscription fee, the service would be more expensive than its North American cousin.
The goal? Liberating 20,000 parking spaces in the city and dramatically reducing the number of inhabitants who own private vehicles.
Unlike most existing programs like Zipcar, Autolib’ would let customers pick up cars and return them in different locations, just as Velib’ allows with bikes. This difference spins the concept of car sharing, making it imaginable for people to drive to work on a daily basis using the vehicles — not true with Zipcar, which forces you to return the car to where you picked it up, and within a short period of time, unless you want to pay a large fee.
Principally because of this difference, the French Green Party has come out strongly against what is a project of the Socialist Party, despite the fact that the two are politically in control of both the region and city in a coalition. According to the Greens, the 4 million euros it would cost to get the system up an running could be better used — especially since the environmental benefits of the project are questionable. They claim that while they are in favor of more traditional forms of car sharing, Autolib’ wouldn’t work efficiently because it would encourage more frequent use of motorized vehicles by people who currently take the subway or ride bikes. Instead of encouraging longer-distance trips, as does Zipcar, Autolib’ would provide inhabitants the ease of making short hops just about anywhere, minimizing the benefits of bike or train travel.
The fact that, according to a study supporting the project, more than 50% of the people interested in subscribing to Autolib’ currently don’t have a car suggests both that public transit has failed to fulfill every transit market and that car use may actually increase as a result of the system’s implementation. Autolib’ might be one solution — but further expanding transit offerings is also a possibility.
This argument rings true for Paris, where literally everyone in the city is within 500 meters of a Metro station and where 20,000 bikes are offered at the measly price of a 29-euro annual subscription. If you want to implement car sharing without stimulating more driving, it should prioritize longer-distance travel and infrequent trips; frequent trips should be covered by public transport and short hauls in the car should be taken in taxis.
In the U.S., car sharing might also have the negative effect of increasing car use in cities like New York and San Francisco, each of which have heavily transit-dependent populations that would likely be switching into automobiles, not out of them. It might make more sense to focus car sharing efforts in places that lack reinforced public transportation provisions — ideal if the goal of car sharing is to cut down on the number of people who own cars, rather than put people who currently don’t use them into them.
» National rail company SNCF plots new TGV service for province-to-province trips, with coordinated development of stations in Paris’ suburbs.
With a high-speed rail system whose capacity and breadth expands every year, France boasts of an efficient national travel network. It is limited, however, because of its historic focus on its terminal stations in Paris, which account for a large percentage of overall trips. Today, customers traveling from region to region, uninterested in stopping in the capital, still are often required to switch trains in Paris, a time-consuming transfer that typically requires crossing the capital by metro. Meanwhile, the city’s suburban residents, who make up 80% of the population of the metropolitan area, are forced to enter the city to make most rail trips.
SNCF railways is plotting a solution through the construction of two new circumferential lines and five new stations in the suburbs. As the United States government prepares to commit to significant investments in new high-speed rail corridors, it should look to Paris to examine the French capital’s planning errors and its new efforts to remediate the situation.
The first three French high-speed lines operated on the same simple model: depart from a Parisian center-city station and extend to a major city in the provinces. The LGV Sud-Est extended to Lyon from Gare de Lyon in 1981; the LGV Atlantique departed from Gare Montparnasse towards Le Mans and Tours in 1990; the LGV Nord, heading to Lille, left Gare du Nord in 1993. Each provided excellent connections between Paris and regional cities, but commuters hoping to avoid the capital altogether were left without fast options. Though the required transfers through Paris may increase the stature of the capital city, it does a complete disservice for people who want to get from region to region. It encourages air and car alternatives.
That situation changed somewhat in 1994, when the LGV Interconnexion Est opened. The 35-mile link connected the Sud-Est and Nord lines and created two new stations at Charles de Gaulle Airport and at Euro Disney in Marne-la-Vallée. The project has made it possible to travel 600 miles from Lille, in the country’s north, to Marseille, on the Mediterreanean, in less than five hours, without a transfer in Paris.
But for people attempting to get to the west side of the country, there’s no simple solution. TGV trains traveling east-west through the Paris region have to share commuter rail tracks through the south of the city. Trains heading to the northwest of the country, which is currently disconnected from the high-speed network, have to use extensive sections of out-of-the-way, slow-running track.
SNCF’s solution to the problem will involve the construction of two new lines — one circling around the south of the city, and the other traversing the northwest. Each project would eliminate transfers for province-to-province travel. In the south, Orly Airport and Villeneuve-Saint-Georges would get TGV service. The northwest line, which would share tracks with the new circumferential automatic metro being planned for the Parisian suburbs, would connect Europe’s largest business district at La Défense and the growing hub at Pleyel, each of which would be provided brand new stations.
The French rail company envisions new terminals on the scale of Shanghai’s south station that will allow commuters direct travel to areas virtually everywhere in the country. The La Défense hub would have the honor of hosting the terminus of the LGV Normandie line, which would connect Paris to Le Havre on the Atlantic coast in just 1h15, compared to two hours today. No longer would all of the major hubs be located in Parisian city limits.
The plan has a number of substantial benefits. Eurostar trains would connect La Défense with the City of London in 2h15. The overload of trains and passengers at Paris’ existing train stations would be relieved by the implementation of new service at suburban hubs, which would reduce overall travel times for people who live outside of the city.
Many of these problems could have been solved years ago had the TGV network been built from the start with through-running trains with a tunnel under central Paris, such as one connecting the Gare Montparnasse and the Gare du Nord. That project, however, was never pursued because of its high cost. And the construction of the new south and northwest links would essentially solve the problem by allowing a detour around the central city. In its recent proposal for Midwestern high-speed rail, SNCF promoted the idea of constructing a bypass of Chicago in the project’s first phase, indicating that it had learned its lesson.
Indeed, the recent French interest in expanding access to the Parisian suburbs is indicative of the fact that singular central city stations are not always enough to satiate the rail travel demands of a region’s residents. Unlike air travel, which relies on just one or two airports per region, rail has the advantage of being able to access several stations; this allows people in different parts of a region quick access to service. If today, most residents of the Paris area have to enter the city to get on a TGV, SNCF’s proposals will open travel to people in the north and south.
In the U.S., where cities are more spread out and where public transport links are less well developed, stations outside of downtown such as those SNCF is developing could be an important element of preliminary high-speed plans. If the Washington-Charlotte rail line is ever improved to true high-speed service, for instance, a bypass around Washington to allow more direct service to areas north of the American capital could be necessary if capacity ever becomes a problem. A station in suburban Virginia would be obligatory — as long as it is placed in a reasonably built-up area to avoid inducing sprawl.
That said, as the French example shows, it may not be necessary to build those suburban connections first; the TGV has been enormously successful so far with mostly center-city stops.
Alstom’s STEEM system, under testing in Paris, will allow vehicles to run between stops without a catenary.
In January, Bombardier announced the development of a new traction system called Primove that will allow trams to receive power wirelessly by communicating with circuits buried underneath the track. The implementation of this technology would allow streetcars to travel through cities at moderate speeds without requiring the construction of overhead catenaries, whose wires are often seen as the major downside of modern electric rail transit. With its new STEEM system, competitor Alstom may be able to offer the same advantages through battery power storage — at a far lower cost.
Primove has a major advantage — the fact that its power devices are buried — over a similar Alstom system currently being used in the city of Bordeaux, which relies on an exposed third rail that is only activated as a tram passes over it. This means that Primove could theoretically be used in colder, wetter climes, places where the Alstom third rail system is likely to run into trouble. But both of these technologies are significantly more expensive to build and implement than traditional catenary, meaning that they’re only likely to be used in the most historically-sensitive areas where overhead wires are seen as too distracting.
If implemented, Alstom’s new STEEM system*, on the other hand, will require less catenary wire and no underground construction; it simply requires the upgrading of existing tram vehicles. Trains will be equipped with large batteries connected to their motors that will be charged each time the vehicle brakes, much like the way a Toyota Prius hybrid refills its battery. In addition, the trams will be able to benefit from charging during 20-second station dwell times, where trains will benefit from a catenary; theoretically, the system wouldn’t require the use of the catenary between stations.
Alstom’s technology is a major advance, and it could cut down investment costs in light rail projects significantly in areas where stations are close enough to ensure that trains can move between them without running out of power. In short, it means that transit agencies could install tracks without the relatively expensive overhead catenaries between stations, putting them only above stops, where they’ll serve as recharging units alone. This is a bigger advance than Bombardier’s more exciting announcement earlier this year because it will result in less expensive construction and operations costs.
Though the city of Nice in the south of France already has a first generation version of this system, allowing trains to run without catenaries in the city’s central square, STEEM allows for quick recharging and use throughout a vehicle’s journey, something not previously possible. The system will undergo testing on two sections of Paris’ T3 light rail line, at first using one vehicle that will simply retract its pantograph in the testing sections and operate autonomously even as the other trains on the line continue to use the catenary there.
Alstom’s technology is not yet advanced yet to work on fast-moving American light rail systems, which typically have station stops up to a mile apart, likely too far for its battery capacity to handle. Whether the system can handle the incredible wastefulness of air conditioning — something not present in Paris — is a different question. But it could be particularly useful for streetcar networks, such as the one planned in Washington, D.C., where a congressional ban on overhead wires is still in effect — something that could likely be circumvented if the wires were only present at stations. In cities like Portland where light rail stations downtown are just blocks apart, the technology could mean the ability to get rid of overhead wires in central sections of the network.