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:


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.


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


[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.