Transit as integral part of the urban fabric

We are in a beautiful city, “what you would like do in its down town?” is the asked question. The answer, is, and has always been:

relax and enjoy watching the city life:.

The world best expert in urban life, the Parisian bistro owner, knows better that anyone, what people like is to “sit, relax and enjoy city life” – (here cafe Beaubourg at 100 Rue Saint-Martin, Paris)

Fulfilling the request has always been tricky in a city where the space is at a premium, and there is the competitive and not less important need, How to get there?. by feet, bike, transit, or by car ?

It has become clear that the car is consuming too much space. Walking certainly allows a much more efficient use of space, but does it is a good answer to the elders and disabled who are also part of the city?

Answering all these questions will spell a new paradigm for transit:

relax, enjoy watching the city life…and contribute to it

…by bringing the necessary influx of people to make the city public spaces a success. One city more than any other epitomizes this new paradigm:

Strasbourg

The reintroduction of trams [3] in European cities, date back of the 80′s. but it is in Strasbourg, France, in 1994, that the tram paradigm will be radically changed. It is not thought anymore only as a transportation service, but more as a way of life, an integral part of the urban fabric. To this purpose, the train itself is integrally rethought, and its design become important:

  • integrally low floor (Strasbourg is a first) to minimize any access/movement barrier
  • As large as possible Windows on the city
  • The train design is unique to the city

The design looks revolutionary in the beginning of 1990, but good design age well, as you can see in the picture below. The integration of the tram in the city is particularly well thought, and the tram is integral part of pedestrianized square and street (naked street concept), since it wants penetrate the city in its very heart, bringing its lifeblood, irrigating vast pedestrian areas

The re introduction of the tram in Strasbourg has been a turning point in the way the transit in city is thought. Notice that this tram design, dating from 1990′s – credit photo (2)

The success is immediate, and up to date, Strasbourg has been the showcase of successful urbanism and transit integration- Translink routinely illustrates LRT proposals with the Strasbourg trams-and it can be considered as the veritable origin of the tramway renaissance in Europe, and beyond the new way to think transit in Europe.

Bordeaux

We will have to wait almost 10 years, to see a new transit network able to cast shadow on the Strasbourg innovations, it will be in Bordeaux, France, where most of the historic city is classified as World Heritage Site by the Unesco making the mere presence of an overhead wire a major issue. Here, none of the Strasbourg innovation has been repelled, but only improved.

At the difference of Strasbourg, Bordeaux is a city of large boulevards-called cours by the locals- and the tram could have avoided a large part of the pedestrianized streets and squares:

the trams goes right into the heart of the city and its pedestrianized zone – Place de la Comédie-thought other option using large boulevard 100 meters away could have eventually be possible

Its designers have chosen not to do so. Here too, the trams affirm their presence right into the heart of the city and are part of the pedestrianized street and square, like illustrated below:

Place de la Comédie- Bordeaux : the tram is mingling with pedestrians and bikes, in a very natural way. no street curb, no bollard, not even an overhead wire (…but pavement texture variation, allow visually impaired people to recognize the tram right of way)

The “naked space”, imposing very low speed, comes at a cost for transit operation, but it is the cost the city has chosen to not disrupt its fabric:

Shared space as at a cost for transit efficiency… but a detour too. Enhanced City life and transit rider experience can command the first option

Influence of The Val/tram debate on the Transit paradigm

The VAL, is an automated mini-metro system, similar and contemporary to the Vancouver Skytrain. Both Strasbourg and Bordeaux were poised to have a VAL, not a tram, up to decisive civic elections, seeing mayoral change [4]. Vancouverites can easily imagine how heated could have been the debate between advocates of respective technologies in those cities: The stand-off had translated in cities lagging behind others moving forward on the urban renewal front. Thought one of the argument of the VAL, not taking road space, was loosing steam very quickly, the tram advocates were not going to win the technology argument (speed- frequency), and presenting the tram as a cheaper second choice was not necessarily very appealing to city aspiring to be leading European metropolis (better build less, or wait… but build it right). Another paradigm was needed:

The tram/subway debate is not about money, it is about urbanism

Of course, the geometry argument always rules, but eventually tram advocates of Bordeaux and Strasbourg have been able to demonstrate that with a ~3km typical average trip in their respective cities, the advantage of the grade separated transit (typically VAL), can become moot… especially when the shared spaces in the historic center, usually not much than 1 or 2km, is balanced by segregated right of way in the burbs

The lag taken by those cities during their transit technology choice debate, have also allowed them to learn from other cities, making the renewal a leap forward: That was especially true in Bordeaux, which was a decaying harbor-city

The bus

The bus has long been the poor parent of the tram evolution in term of design, but things are slowly changing beyond the simple mimicking of the train feature [1]. Thought cohabitation of bus and pedestrian in a naked space, is less frequent that in the case of tramway, it is more due to the fact that the naked street concept is relatively new than some inherent limitation imposed by the bus.

Besançon, France used to have a bus route in a shared space, before converting it to Tram; eventually showing the progress toward a naked space.

Place de la Revolution in Besancon: the bus used to travel in a shared space, where its ROW is identified by pavement. The introduction of the tramway allowed to bring the “shared” space to up to date standard, where the transitway, marker is more discret (the rails show the direction, but some, discreet pavement color/texture changes show the Tram ROW – credit top (wikipedia)

Neuchâtel, Switzerland, is an example where the street paving gives no indication of where the bus is passing.

Place Pury is the heart of Neuchâtel, Switzerland: It is a pedestrian square criss-crossed by buses (the trolley overhead give you the idea)

The above example has shown to be successful, and cleared initial concern on the cohabitation between bus and pedestrian, so the concept is taking off in more major cities, like Exhibition road in London which is also open to bus traffic:

People waiting the bus 360 on the renovated exhibition road transformed in a pedestrian-priority road

In Paris, the rehabilitation of Place de la République-by Trevelo and Viger Kohler, is also adopting the “naked concept” for bus. Notice that here too, imposing a bus detour to avoid the pedestrianized plaza has been ruled out.

(top) Place de la Republique Paris – the right hand size of the square is open to bus traffic using the naked street concept (bot) View of the concept for bus traffic on the square

Place de la Sallaz in Lausanne is another example we could name


[1] see post Hynovis or the Hydrogen bus

[2] pic.atpic.com

[3] trams is the non american name for streetcar…but in the hierarchy of transportation, the modern European tram is an intermediate between the streetcar and the LRT as known in Portland or elsewhere in America.

[4] Catherine Trautmann from the center left, defeating center right incumbent Marcel Rudloff, in 1989 in Strasbourg; and Alain Juppé succeeding to Jacques Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux. It has been an interim mayor in Bordeaux from 1995-2004, Hugues Martin, due to the fact that Alain Juppé was also member of the French government. Alain Juppé had also got convinced of corruption, preventing him to be elected for a year: it has spent this year in Montreal, where there is little doubt he has found inspiration for the waterfront renewal of Bordeaux.

Park Avenue

May 21, 2010

Avenue [ˈævɪˌnjuː] from the old french arrival, has eventually got a different meaning in english, as well as in current french, due to the current usage we give to it nowadays.

Here after is a very simplified history of it:

XVIII century

At the eventual difference of other roads or streets, avenues were usually work of urban planning, and primarly designed as radial promenade at the edge of the city with function to great in a ceremonial way the arriving visitor

Avenue du Mail, Rennes, France. concept plan from the XVIII century. the leisure aspect is the dominant factor, at the expense of the mobility one. credit photo (1)

XIXcentury

Though that not matching to the original vision, the primary promenade function is still well respected.

The same location at the turn of the century. The leisure aspect of the promenade is still well alive

XX century

The advent of the automobile and other social change will involve deep cultural shift:

  • Urban people will eventually prefer spend their free time elsewhere than lingering on the street becoming less pleasant due to the surrounding roaring motors and gas smell (we don’t speak to much pollution those day).
  • the free space is then occupied by the new mobility device

With the advent of the automobile, the promenade change of function! (it is still Avenue du Mail, lately renamed Mail Francois Mitterrand, Rennes France)

XXI century

Another relative cultural shift appears in the 80s, eventually learning of the american experience: it appears very apparent that the adaptation of the European city to the car has no future: and a better use of the scarcely city’s available real estate need to be devised. the LRT, trams in Europe, will be part of the solution, and the large French avenues, will be ideal Right of Way candidate. The vision of the future century is then eventually represented by this artist rendering:

the future Starsbourg tram, line F, riding on what used to be a parking lot...at least in the recent history. credit photo (5)

One will note, it is pretty seldom to see modern tree lined trams, eventually for the following reasons:

  • the tree roots system could compromise the integrity of the trackbed
  • the tree branches could interfere with the overhead wires
  • the falling tree leaves could grease the rails, compromising the acceleration/braking capabilities of the train

In the Strasbourg F-line case, those aspects are mitigated by the integration of the bike path along the tram ROW. the integration of the bike path is an addition to the late LRT project.

Obviously, the vision is a significant progress on the current situation, in the sense it returns to a pleasantly greenish aspect of the avenue.

The park and ride model

Where we should not give more credit to the french than they deserve is here:

  • In most of the case the space allocated to the automobile traffic is not compromised, and the Strasbourg example shown above is basically no exception to the rule: while that the parking space is removed at the benefit of the trams, there is no reduction in automobile traffic lanes benefiting then of a freer flow, since not impeded by car looking for or negotiating parking spot
  • there is no increase of space for pedestrians, and the leisure and social interaction aspect, like lingering on the street, is not part of the picture either

The removal of parking space could be considered as a progress, but usually, a french tram projects barely means reduction of parking space either, but rather relocation of it according to the well known park and ride model.

The picture below feature one P&R in Bordeaux having 603 stalls [6], more than at the Canada line Bridgeport one [7]. Bordeaux has 14 other structures like this along its 3 trams lines…


park and Ride in Bordeaux, france. Notice the state of the track's lawn as soon as you get out of Downtown. credit photo (6)

One can clearly suspects that the motivation to introduce trams in the french cities has not been to challenge the general car centric culture, but was more guided by more pragmatic space constraint requiring a P&R model in order to preserve good vehicular movement on the city arteries and accessibility of the city to an ever greater number of people, including by car.

In that aspect, it has been a more successful model than the US one, eventually due to the greater scarity of

  • downtown parking stall
  • road access

and,

  • the preserved heritage specificity of the European cities could have contributed to maintain the attractiveness of their downtown in despite of access impediment
  • the short length of the European trams line, typically not venturing much farther than 5km from he town center, allow for short trip time, in despite of relatively low average speed [4], the later allowing good integration in the urban fabric

All those factor, in addition of social one going beyond the scope of this post, could have saved the middle size European city to know the fate of their American sister cities, in term of Downtown life.

But, if one considers the public transit market share in 14 french urban areas with LRT; 11% (for weekday trip) [8]; it is hard to speak of a successful strategy, to be emulated.

At the end of the day, the avenue original vision, which cheer size was to provide “park” space for people, devoided to be “park” space for transportation device, has not been restored. Indeed it is now used to “segregate” space according to transportation modes (in a vision where “lingering” is also a “commercialized” activity at the benefit of the sidewalk coffees).

It is a progress on the dictatorship of the automobile reign, and it is possible that the LRT has been an ingenuous tool to legitimate the displacement of the cars toward the outer edge of the city, but is the result the most efficient allocation of the city surface space? or in other term, is it the best we can do?


[1] from archives municipales de Rennes, France

[4] Average speed of european trams is usually below 20km/h, 18.5km/h in the above mentioned case of Bordeaux

[5] from Tram-Train/Tram F, Strasbourg-Bruche-Piémont des Vosges, June 2008

[6] Picture and number from le tram de Bordeaux”

[7] Bridgeport park has 600 stall for Canada line rider according to Translink

[8] Transportation mode share of 14 metropolitan area with tram in France, from “Les deplacements a Nantes metropole Etude N 80, decembre 2009, Insee Pays de Loire, France citing “enquêtes nationales transports et communication 1993-1994, transports et déplacements 2007-2008″, Insee, SOeS and Inrets.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 49 other followers