Metro Rail Paris

A Grander Paris Through a Rapid Circumferential Metro

» French national government and Paris region officials agree to more than €30 billion in transit improvements by 2025.

From an international perspective, there are two really significant things about the newly approved plans for a radial rapid transit system around the French capital: First, its primary service area will be in the suburbs rather than in the center city; second, it will prioritize very fast transit times over local area connectivity.

These characteristics make last week’s agreement by regional and national officials to construct the Grand Paris Express network of rapid transit lines a truly significant pattern break in thinking about how to engage in the creation of better public transportation systems. Will this €22.7 billion ($31 billion) transit line, in connection with €12 billion in upgrades to the existing system, make Paris a model for local mobility? Or does it represent poor decision-making on the part of French authorities?

The agreement will require €9 billion in contributions from the state, €9 billion from the region and other local governments, €7 billion from new taxes mostly derived from tax-increment financing around station areas, and €7 billion from debt. It comes after years of political debate over how to better serve Paris’ near suburbs — and at the end of a series of public meetings on the question which will come to an end on Monday. Two proposals have been put forward: Regional authorities have been pushing what they call the Arc Express, a 37-mile route that would run a tight circle around the city and serve 50 stations or so; the national government, on the other hand, argued for its Métro Grand Paris, a 96-mile extension of the Metro Line 14 serving airports and far-off suburbs with only about 40 stations. To make matters even more complicated, a group of architects even submitted a counter-proposal.

The two government projects were fundamentally opposed in their basic conception of the role of transit — the first suggested that fine-grained station stops were essential, whereas the second argued for fewer stations and faster service — but each was concentrated on addressing the travel needs of people in the suburbs, who currently are required to enter into Paris to complete most trips by rail transit. The near-in suburbs, collectively referred to as the Petite Couronne and encompassing three départements (counties), have a population of about 4.4 million, compared to the 2.2 million who reside in Paris proper.

Whereas the final agreement, called the Grand Paris Express, has essentially combined the two routes into one system, the national government’s effort to decrease travel times rather than serve more neighborhoods has mostly won out. The project, which will be the first new metro line announced for Paris since 1989 and the first new system conceived since the 1960s, will significantly speed travel between destinations along its corridor.

Automated trains running 24 hours a day will be up and running along some segments of the line by 2020 and the whole project should be completed by 2025. Operations will be comprised of an extended Metro Line 14 south to Orly Airport and north to St. Denis as the backbone of the system; a spur to Charles de Gaulle Airport; two parallel circumferential routes to the east of the city; and one or two circumferential routes to the west. The southwestern line, proposed to serve the university town of Saclay, has been criticized for running through a rural area that is unlikely to attract much ridership, or that will sprawl out of control. Though President Sarkozy has emphasized his support for the line, the regional government — partly controlled by the Green Party — has thus far refused to agree to this part of the project, saying they will only fund improved buses for the area.

Combined with about €12 billion in other funds also now dedicated for upgrades for the radial RER regional rail system, several new tramway and tram-train lines, and a number of metro extensions, the Grand Paris Express represents a massive investment in suburban mobility. The funding mechanism, premised on the idea that development will expand around stations, suggests that both the national and regional governments are committed to building up the already dense suburbs into truly urban areas of their own right. If the Paris region is known for very high transit mode shares within and to the center city, the automobile still dominates 80% of trips between suburbs. This infrastructure investment seems likely to change that equation significantly.

Signing an agreement to fund €30 billion worth of infrastructure would be a big deal in any country, but Paris’ announcement is particularly significant because it required negotiation and accords between a left-wing regional government and right-wing national government. Since both will be contributing to the project’s costs, each had to agree to all of the proposed routes. At least for now, this eliminated the least reasonable part of the plan — the southwestern segment — and guaranteed a second alignment for the areas to the northwest of the city, which are some of the country’s densest and most impoverished.

That said, the Grand Paris Express project is certainly taking a major risk by emphasizing fast speeds over neighborhood access. By limiting stops to every kilometer at the minimum (with several sections featuring inter-station intervals of 5 km or more), most people along the alignment will not be within an easy walking distance of a station. Once they get onto a train, however, they will be within about an hour’s access of almost everywhere in the built-up metropolitan region; similar conditions currently cannot be found anywhere in the world’s megacities because of the radial arrangement of transit lines almost everywhere that slow suburb-to-suburb travel.

One way to handle this problem would have been to implement an express-local arrangement such as is present in New York City, but this evidently was not under consideration by French planners. The construction of dense urban villages around stations with the goal of concentrating most of the metropolitan area’s growth within them, though, could reduce that problem significantly, especially since tramway lines already under construction throughout the suburbs will aid in picking up local passengers and depositing them onto the express system.

* Map above has Metro, RER, and Tram lines dotted that are in planning and solid if existing or under construction. Grand Paris Express Lines that are dotted are being considered for alternate alignments.

Finance Infrastructure London Paris

An Alternative to Congestion Pricing: Roadway Traffic Restraint

» Comparing the approaches taken by Paris and London suggests that to ease traffic U.S. cities can attempt other, more politically palatable solutions than pricing.

When it comes to transportation economists, there’s pretty much one answer to every problem: Equate pricing of all modes with their greater societal impacts. In general, this means that we (in the U.S.) ought to be charging drivers more to make up for the negative effects they have on the environment and the roadway infrastructure, and that we ought to be increasing subsidies to encourage people to take transit.

This approach could be implemented in a variety of ways depending on location, but one model that has been particularly appealing to planners interested in reducing the perceived negative economic and social effects of traffic has been that of London, which in 2003 implemented a congestion charge on drivers entering its central business district. Revenues from the program went to increasing transit service. The method, unsurprisingly, has been a major success in terms of reducing traffic: Between 2002 and 2007, overall car movements in the district decreased by 39%. Meanwhile, travel on public transportation increased correspondingly over the same time period: By 24% on commuter railways, 16% on the Underground, and 18% on buses.

These are excellent results and the effects have been overwhelmingly positive for commuters and residents of London’s central areas.

But what if congestion charging is just too much of a hot topic for even progressive American cities to handle? The effort to instate a similar system in New York City in 2008 was so thoroughly brought to its feet that it is hard to imagine wanting to repeat the fight.

Yet there’s an alternative, and it may prove just as productive if the goal is to reduce traffic: Paris’ systematic engagement to make it harder to drive in the city. The French capital has proceeded in a manner far different from that of London, choosing to avoid paid penalties on drivers in order to prevent the further development of the already-existing sense that the City of Paris is attempting to isolate itself from its suburbs, which are already cut off by a ring road. 40% of drivers within the city’s borders are inhabitants of the surrounding areas.

As a result, the administration of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë has since 2001 prioritized the creation of bicycle, bus, and tramway infrastructure along with the reduction of vehicle lanes along both major boulevards and side streets. Huge sections of the city have been designated 30 km/h zones and biking is now allowed in both directions on most streets, even those that are one-way for automobiles. Free parking has been mostly eliminated. This spring, the city reinforced its efforts to commit far more street space to biking and expand that mode’s travel share.

Streetsblog’s Ben Fried provided an excellent overview of the city’s program in April 2008.

Looking back, the results have been astonishing: Even with no direct financial reason to abandon driving, the city saw a 17% decrease in driving between 2002 and 2007, a trend that is continuing (according to the most recent information, it may now be 24%). In the same time period, travel on the regional rail network increased by 16%, by 8% on the Metro, and by 2% on buses in the city. Weekend traffic has seen the most significant gains. This has reduced further the already extremely low share of overall commutes made by car or motorcycle in the city: Just 16.3% in 2008. In the near suburbs, the equivalent statistic is 40.2%, though those areas are soon to be better connected by a system of tramways and bus-only routes (and eventually by a massive circumferential metro).

Paris’ accomplishment, though not as large in percentage change as London’s, was arguably more significant since it affected the entire city of 41 square miles, versus the original eight square miles of the London congestion zone (later roughly doubled).

Moreover, these statistics fly in the face of the commonly-cited idea that “congestion pricing is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to reduce traffic congestion,” to quote transportation policy experts David King, Michael Manville, and Donald Shoup. For cities truly concerned about finding ways to limit the number of cars traveling down the street, whatever the purpose, this example demonstrates that a concerted effort to get cars off the street by limiting the space available to them can be an effective technique.

There are, of course, dissenters who make the argument that the Parisian approach limits economic productivity and results in a “decrease in mobility” because car drivers no longer are able to move as easily as they once were. That interpretation, however, is based on the fact that overall passenger-kilometers have decreased; yet that statistic favors trip distance thereby discounting the value of, say, walking to the neighborhood store — an essential trip for people living in an urban place. Also, economic discussions focused on “mobility” fail to reflect the fact that inhabitants of neighborhoods with fewer cars benefit significantly in terms of quality of life.

Arguments that suggest that bus ridership has not gained enough passengers to reflect the decrease in car traffic do have some merit, though there is no doubt that certain interventions, such as the installation of a new tramway along the southern edge of the city limits, have significantly increased public transport use.

The major failing of Paris’ approach is that it does not guarantee a new revenue source for the public transportation system. Whereas London was able to use its congestion charge to reinforce spending on its local bus system, Paris has had to continue relying on other funds to ensure the increase in services provided on increasingly packed buses and trains. Even so, that may be a compromise worth considering for other cities wanting fewer cars without the political nightmare that is congestion pricing.

Image above: A bus in Paris with policemen on bikes, from Flickr user Daniel Lobo (cc)

Automobile Bikes Paris Washington DC

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare Launches, Bringing Biggest-Yet System to the U.S.

» Nation’s first modern bike sharing city replaces its fleet. Program could bring dramatic change to one of the nation’s more vibrant inner cities.

When Washington’s SmartBike DC system began operating in 2008, the city was doing something no U.S. municipality had yet attempted: Betting that locals and tourists would excitedly jump onto public bicycles, encouraging the growth of a transportation mode that has too often been left behind by automobile-oriented planners.

Unfortunately, that bet failed to come through: The system was never frequently used, with an average of only about one hundred daily riders. For those of us used to using bike sharing networks, there were good explanations for the system’s difficulties: It was confined in too small of an area; it only offered about 100 bikes total; and it only had ten stations. European standards, grounded in model schemes in Lyon, Barcelona, and Paris, suggested that the most promising systems were those with thousands of bikes spread out over whole sections of the city. Fortunately, Washington didn’t have to use public funds for the ad-sponsored SmartBike project.

But the city’s progressive leadership learned its lesson and has launched Capital Bikeshare, a network that will soon feature 1,100 bikes that will be accessible from 114 stations in the District of Columbus and Arlington County, Virginia, just across the river. The network opened today with 49 operating stations and 400 Bixi bikes imported from Montréal’s successful program. By the end of the year, the system will be the largest in the United States. Moreover, if it receives a federal government TIGER grant this fall, it could feature more than 3,500 vehicles throughout the region by next year.

I argued earlier this summer that bike sharing may be technically difficult to implement in American cities thanks to their monofunctional job centers; in addition, Washington’s network specifically may suffer because of the lack of density planned for the first phase of stations, which could cause difficulties for average riders.

Nonetheless, will Capital Bikeshare “change everything,” as local website Greater Greater Washington proclaimed this morning? It all depends on what kind of expectations we have for this system.

Despite what is often said about investments in bike sharing, the program is unlikely to dramatically reduce rates of automobile use in the nation’s capital. A review of similar systems suggests that only five to ten percent of trips made on public bikes would have otherwise been made by car. Indeed, the vast majority of travel replaces transit or walking trips. This means that from the standpoint of reducing carbon emissions or eliminating traffic, bike sharing doesn’t seem likely to produce many significant benefits directly.

On the other hand, the systems seem to be increasing the mobility of their users dramatically. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that if most of the riders otherwise would walk or take transit, they don’t possess or cannot afford automobiles. For the District of Columbia, this represents quite a large share of the population: 35.5% of households, according to the most recent Census estimates. In some cases, this means bikes provide more direct transportation than existing transit; in others, it means bike sharing can serve as one part of a multi-modal trip, perhaps replacing slower walking. About 70% of travel on existing systems are to and from work, so the bikes are not being used mainly by tourists.

For non-work trips, bike sharing can play a very important role in the life of a city’s residents by providing fast travel without forcing them to keep their vehicles with them at all times. This reduces the fight for parking in popular places experienced by both bikers and drivers, and it eliminates a fear that someone will steal one’s vehicle — in bike sharing not a problem for any individual, since the system is public. (Of course, there are cases of vandalism, but that affects the system, not the user.) In addition, it encourages freedom of movement throughout the city for people who have previously been constrained by sometimes limited bus and rail routes.

What studies thus far have failed to demonstrate is whether the presence of bike sharing system prevents the future purchase of cars by users. It is quite possible that the option to use a bike in most places in the city decreases the demand for automobiles for people who are looking for an easier way to get around. The more extensive a system is, likely the greater this effect.

For the city in general, though, bike sharing’s biggest advantages may come from the fact that it prioritizes biking as an acceptable mode of travel. The installation of bike docks at hundreds of prominent intersections throughout the region promotes the idea that just like cars, which get parking on every block, cycling has an important role in the broader mobility system.

Image above: Capital Bikeshare Station at Dupont Circle, still without bikes (but in front of SmartBike DC station), from Flickr user DC9T (cc)

Finance Infrastructure Metro Rail Paris

Stations Picked, Huge Automated Transit Project for Paris is Closer to Realization

» 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)

Bikes Montréal Paris Washington DC

Ensuring the Efficient Workings of a Bike-Sharing System

» Washington releases preliminary information about bike-sharing station locations. Are they positioned to succeed?

After the opening earlier this year of major bike-sharing systems in Denver and Minneapolis, Washington expects to relaunch its own program this fall. Working with Arlington County, Virginia, the U.S. capital will replace the only marginally successful 100-bike, 10-station SmartBike DC network installed in 2008 by Clear Channel with a 1,100-bike, 114-station system using Montréal’s Bixi technology, also under development in London, Boston, and Melbourne. Washington’s success, along with that of the several other American cities currently pushing these public cycling systems, will determine whether similar networks will spread to large and medium-sized cities across North America.

This recent focus on bike-sharing is a response to the strong public reception to systems in European cities like Paris and Barcelona, where thousands of people hop on the publicly owned vehicles everyday. In the French capital, where more than 20,000 bikes are available in the city and in the near suburbs, bicycle mode share has doubled since 2007.

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare will initially feature one hundred stations in the District of Columbia and fourteen in Arlington’s Crystal City, but future expansion — potentially funded by the federal government, depending on the outcome of the region’s application to the TIGER program — could result in an eventual quadrupling of the system’s size. Future bike stations could be positioned in Maryland’s Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, in addition to Arlington’s Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor and the City of Alexandria.

This week, though, Washington revealed preliminary station locations for the first stage of the system, a few weeks after Arlington pinpointed its own. Have the cities’ transportation planners thought through how people are likely to use these bikes? Or is the District limiting the chances for the system’s success by not fully considering the needs of potential bike riders?

To consider these questions, it’s worth comparing the proposed system with the existing and well-used systems in Montréal and Paris. One place to start is an evaluation of station densities. In a bike share system, a station is where people pick up and deposit bikes; it typically includes ten to twenty “docks,” each holding one bicycle. The system works by allowing customers to choose a bike at one station and deposit it somewhere else. The density is a reflection of how far a person has to walk to get to or between stations.

In the chart below, I’ve taken one mile-square samples of central city neighborhoods and peripheral neighborhoods and plotted station locations on them; the former are the densest station areas in each respective bike system (downtown D.C., downtown Montréal, central Paris) and the latter are those that are least well served by stations (Anacostia in D.C., southeast of Parc Maisonneuve in Montréal, and Montreuil east of Paris). I obviously haven’t included areas outside the reach of the bike share networks.

The charts demonstrate the fundamental difference between Washington’s proposed system and those in Montréal and Paris. In the center-cities, the French-speaking cities have roughly three times the densities of bike stations as the District proposes; in areas far from downtown, the difference is even more pronounced. Indeed, the minimum density of stations anywhere in the Paris or Montréal bike-sharing zones is higher than the maximum density promoted for Washington.

This could potentially cause significant problems for the users of the new U.S. capital system.

There are two main reasons for this: One, light station density makes short neighborhood commutes via public bicycle more difficult, reducing the chance to attract occasional riders; Two, insufficient density can cause logistical problems in situations where stations either run out of bicycles or, inversely, run out of dock spaces — not infrequent issues, at least considering my own experience using the Parisian system extensively.

Washington has clearly attempted to spread out its initial investment, giving at least a few stations to every part of the city. This, however, would result in a limited concentration of bikes in the relatively large areas east of the Anacostia River (just 11 stations) and west of Rock Creek Park (9 stations). Each of these sections has a lower population density than the rest of the city.

This contrasts significantly with the approach in Paris and Montréal, where the bike-sharing zone ends abruptly; there isn’t much of a station density fall-off below the 15 stations per square mile mark. Even in areas with low densities, such as in the examples shown on the chart above, stations are clustered along corridors, ensuring that virtually every station is within 200 meters (656 feet) of the next. This allows people to walk easily between stations if they encounter some problem.

Closeness of stations is essential to making bike-sharing work. Washington has designed its system as if people can pre-plan specific commutes from one station to another, but that’s not always a realistic option. For one, unless stations are very well marked from the surrounding streets, it is not always easy for bike riders to find even a predetermined destination station unless they’re very familiar with the neighborhood. This could complicate matters, since in modern bike-sharing, customers face increasing financial penalties the longer they delay returning their vehicles. The more stations, the easier it is to find one; it’s okay to end up parking somewhere different than originally planned as long as the station is relatively close to where you want to go.

Meanwhile, the lack of adjacency between stations could become extremely difficult when stations are either empty or full. For commuters hoping to ride a bike in a neighborhood with few stations, an empty station means they must either choose a different way of getting around or walk a long distance to the next station. On the other hand, a full station at the end of a trip could mean having to park at an area that is completely out of the way.

Though there are municipal employees using trucks to move bikes from full stations to empty ones, they frequently cannot keep up with the movement of traffic during the day, leaving people in the lurch when there aren’t nearby stations to choose from. These are technical problems that will limit the appeal of using bike share for a large percentage of people in the under-served areas — which is specifically why Montréal and Paris have chosen not to have any neighborhoods with just a few stations.

The foreign example suggests that you either have to put a lot of stations in a community, or not serve it at all. It’s the low station density middle ground that causes problems.

All that said, there are several reasons to remain optimistic about the implementation of bike-sharing in Washington. For one, even if station density isn’t as high as it ought to be, people are still likely to use the bikes at a rate that expands their overall mode share in the city. Second, there is a significant chance that the municipality will be able to find sufficient funds to expand the project to increase station density in areas that are initially under-served; in terms of transportation capital investments, bike share is pretty much as cheap as you can get. But there’s always the problematic possibility that expansion could mean only extending the system further out with low station densities, not increasing densities within the already served areas.

Yet Washington will have an example of what denser station areas look like right on its home turf. Arlington County’s fourteen stations are all within the tight confines of the adjacent Crystal City and Pentagon City districts; each station is within just two or three blocks of the next. This will provide a working example for how the bikes can serve as efficient neighborhood transportation devices, getting people between relatively close destinations more quickly than is possible with walking.

Related: If you understand French, here’s a funny satire video that proposes a new way of thinking about bike share as a political tool in the Paris mayoral race. Image at top: Montréal Bixi bike share stands, from Flickr user newton64 (cc)