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America can learn from this French city's complete streets

Strasbourg, France is a beautiful city that takes its complete streets to heart. The roads through the old city gracefully mix street trams/light rail with bicycle paths and friendly traffic calmed streets. Pedestrians move easily. Its central intercity train station is a glamorous historic building sheathed in a chic, modern glass shell.

Strasbourg's train station. Photo by barnyz on Flickr.

My family moved to Strasbourg when I was 12. In French school, I comprehended little, and regularly escaped the gates of Le Lycée International des Pontonniers to explore the city by foot and public transportation. It was liberating to take my lunch money and spend it in boulangeries around town or even into Germany across the Rhine River. My parents thought I was in school and I may not have been in the country!

Given the quality of its infrastructure, it would be easy to think the French city is quite large. In fact, Strasbourg is a metro area with a population the size of Albany, Little Rock, Colorado Springs and would rank 73rd in US metro size behind Columbia, SC.

Complete Streets in Strasbourg. Photo by Spiterman on Flickr.

6 tram lines ply this small city

The Strasbourg metropolitan area of 760,000 people contains six tram lines, 56km (36 miles) of track, 72 stations, and daily ridership of 300,000 as of 2010. No US city near this size has this kind of rail system.

During the day, trams run every 6 minutes Monday to Friday, 7 minutes on Saturday and 12 minutes on Sundays. Yearly passes are 456 euros ($620 dollars) with discounts for those over 65 and under 25. A single fare is 1.60 euro ($2.18).

Trams glide from suburbs into the dense city with a dedicated right of way. Photo by michallon on Flickr.

Strasbourg's trams function as a hybrid of what in the US we would call streetcars and light rail. The rail vehicles are similar to streetcars because they are mostly in the roadbed and integrate into the city's fabric, but unlike streetcars, they operate with their own right of way separate from traffic, as light rail does.

Bicycle infrastructure abounds

To complement the tram system, Strasbourg has almost 500km (311 miles) of cycling paths, 18,000 bike racks that serve over 130,000 cyclists. Secure bike parking lots and tire inflation facilities are available at bus and tram stops for transit card holders.

Across the city, bicycles get their own space in the street network. Photo by NACTO on Flickr.

Baltimore County, a national leader in Complete Streets, still lags far behind Strasbourg

Many US cities have adopted complete street ordinances and individual streets have been retrofitted. Locally, Baltimore County has been recognized as a national leader for Complete Streets, ranking 6th among 83 communities in the US with Complete Streets programs.

Despite this recognition, the county's on-road bike network is minimal; members of the Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee have been frustrated by the lack of commitment to projects; the county has missed the mark on its pedestrian safety campaign; and now its county executive struggles to find a $50 million contribution for the $2.4 billion Red Line his administration says it supports.

The future home of the Towson Bike Beltway in Baltimore County. Image from Google Street View.

In Baltimore City, Council Bill 09-0433 was adopted in 2010 directing the Departments of Transportation and Planning to apply "Complete Streets" principles to the planning, design, and construction of all new city transportation improvement projects.

Despite the accolades and the policies, "complete streets" in Baltimore County and Baltimore City still feel foreign. Too many incidences of tragic pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle crashes get blamed on user error than engineering design.

Only a few of the most progressive US cities are scaling up Complete Streets projects. On the ground implementation in many jurisdictions remains the elusive prize. Complete Street advocates look forward to seeing first rate projects in the city and the suburbs get designed, funded, and become reality.

You can see a gallery of pictures of Strasbourg's complete streets infrastructure at Comeback City.

Jeff La Noue is a project and sustainability planner in Baltimore. He has an Economics degree from St. Mary's College of Maryland and a Masters in Community Planning from the University of Maryland-College Park. Posts are his own viewpoint and do not necessarily reflect his employer. Jeff also runs his own urbanist blog, Comeback City


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You forgot to mention how big is the actual city in size; all you mention is the population but not the square miles or km. You say the metro area of Strasbourg is about Albany is it the same in sq miles.

You can not really evaluate the city and its transportation until you know the actual size of it meaning sq miles and population not just of the metro area in addition to its location in the broader region, geography and whether or not is it historic ties to limit the size or has increased its size.

by kk on Jul 17, 2014 12:13 pm • linkreport

Density density density. Been there twice, and they simply have more people living and working in the city center (European Parliament being in town probably doesn't hurt)

by Cynic on Jul 17, 2014 12:20 pm • linkreport

I can't find the link now, but FT had a piece on local chinese goverrments.

One region, which is about the population of DC/Baltimore, was announcing 193 bilion (in dollars) in new public infrastructure spending.

That is about 32 silver Lines.

by charlie on Jul 17, 2014 12:26 pm • linkreport

Love the train station idea, if not this specific version (looks better inside than out, imo). If such a thing were proposed here the historic preservation community would lose their minds.

by RDHD on Jul 17, 2014 12:32 pm • linkreport

I lived in Strasbourg too, and these pictures bring back fond memories! There were no bike lanes back then, but I did use the tram regularly (and one takeaway was rampant fare evasion).

The big difference between Strasbourg's centre and DC's downtown is the traffic. There is very little, if any, congestion on the centre island and many of the streets are pedestrian only.

On the outskirts, the trams had dedicated lanes as I recall. So the system worked much better than DC's will, due to DC's traffic and lack of dedicated tram lanes.

@kk and Cynic

Good point. Strasbourg is almost as dense as DC, even its suburbs are relatively dense.

by Brett on Jul 17, 2014 12:38 pm • linkreport

[irrelevant sour grapes]During the day, trams run every 6 minutes Monday to Friday, 7 minutes on Saturday and 12 minutes on Sundays.

Ah, every 12 minutes. The frequency of the Blue Line during rush hour from next week on.
[/irrelevant sour grapes]

Strasbourg is awesome!

by Jasper on Jul 17, 2014 12:48 pm • linkreport

Le sigh.

by JDC on Jul 17, 2014 12:52 pm • linkreport

Every day I have less and less desire to live in this backwards-ass, decrepit country.

Between walkability, the design, the transit, and yes the HEADWAYS, there is nothing that we don't do worse than other countries.

by LowHeadways on Jul 17, 2014 12:57 pm • linkreport

Wow, I am going to have to add that point about Baltimore County to my resume. The law resulting in that grade was built from recommendations in the Western Baltimore County Pedestrian and Bicycle Access Plan, for which I was the project manager.

However, the point about the need for specific legislation on complete streets was made by then Districtd 1 community planner Dennis Wertz. I thought it would be enough to have a master plan document, he said it should be in a law.

But I only helped the ordinance come about. What happened is that with the Nov. 2010 elections, the County Council (and Exec.) shifted from bike and ped neutral to positive, and advocates seized on the opportunity and asked two new Councilmembers who supported sustainable transportation to put an ordinance forward.

They did, drawing on the plan draft. (I did lobby them to add back into the law one provision that had been excised from my original draft.) And the law was passed almost two years before the plan was actually approved.

HOWEVER, it will take more than the law to bring about changes, which take a long period of time, and people willing to push. District 5 is ahead of the other districts in the county because Councilman Marks is the only Councilmember to have created a parallel district level ped and bike committee, which works to advocate for changes throughout the year, which is necessary to bring the right level of attention.

Plus, in laying out the proposed structure for the countywide committee, I didn't anticipate that the County Executive would appoint a County employee as chair. In a situation like that, the chair (and therefore the committee) can't really be independent. Had I considered that issue more carefully, I would have put in a provision barring such a practice (although it likely would have been excised too).

Still, the ordinance begins to reshape the environment, as agency practices begin to adhere to it.

by Richard Layman on Jul 17, 2014 12:58 pm • linkreport

@ Cynic: (European Parliament being in town probably doesn't hurt)

Only one week a month.

You guys think you have a wasteful Congress. The EU parliament holds its monthly full floor meeting in Strasbourg, while all committee meetings are held in Brussels. They live three weeks a month in Brussels, and one week a month in Strasbourg. And they're two months off. They tried to change it to 10 weeks in Strasbourg and the rest of the year in Brussels, but France wouldn't have it.

In the US Senate, a minority can stop things. In the EU, a single country can.

[And France is at least a serious country with 60 million people, as opposed to island nations as Cyprus and Malta with a population of about Arlington and Alexandria combined].

by Jasper on Jul 17, 2014 1:47 pm • linkreport

It's almost like France has an inferiority complex to the UK and Germany. Dare I say a Napoleonic....nah.

by Cynic on Jul 17, 2014 2:18 pm • linkreport

We must find our own (bike) path. The examples are interesting, but not really guides.

by Crickey7 on Jul 17, 2014 3:50 pm • linkreport

They are wonderful guides to crafting what's best for us. But what's clear is one can have a dense and humane city that encourages a healthy lifestyle. Thanks for sharing and showing what's possible if we put our mind to it.

by Thayer-D on Jul 17, 2014 9:41 pm • linkreport

This is a terrific piece. Somehow, in Europe, 'noise' from light rail or streetcars is not an issue. It shows how fraudulent those protests are over here. And all the talk of noise deflects attention from more valid mitigation issues.

by Capt. Hilts on Jul 18, 2014 9:59 am • linkreport

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