Urban Fold

The Future of Transit, According to France

Yonah Freemark investigates France's new love affair with the tram, which is spreading like wildfire in cities across the country, supplanting major bus routes and giving transit ridership a healthy boost in the process.

As American cities scramble to secure even modest federal funding just to keep their transit systems afloat, cities across France have been making unprecedented investments to upgrade and expand services. And if the past 12 years are any indicator of what's to come, trams (i.e. trolleys and streetcars) may well set a new standard for public transportation.

Since the start of the millennium, France has quintupled the mileage of its tram rail networks, which provide a middle ground between bus rapid transit and light rail. "Like American streetcars," Freemark explains, "these tramways operate at the ground level, usually without grade separation from automobile traffic, making them relatively cheap to build. On the other hand, like American light rail, tramways operate within their own rights-of-way and they feature long trainsets that can carry the equivalent of four busloads or more - in other words, they actually improve transit capacity and performance."

The success of the new tram systems bears out in the numbers: in Lyon, a city of roughly half a million people, trams accounted for a full two-thirds of ridership growth since they were introduced in 2000. While buses are significantly less costly for cities to implement, trams provide riders a step up in terms of comfort and speed, and the resulting bump in ridership could justify the higher price tag.

This trend marks a shift in French thinking about transit development. Although "the previously fashionable automated metro networks... were seen as the future of French rail systems in the 1980s, their high construction costs, caused by the complete grade separations they require, makes them less them adaptable to the needs of less populous urban areas.... In the process, cities across the country are experiencing significantly improved transit that is attracting more and more riders."

Full Story: France Commits to Tramways, A Possible Model for the Future of Urban Rail


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