Greater Greater Washington

Posts about France


Yes, there are new mixed-traffic streetcars in Europe

In an attempt to discredit the concept of streetcars, some opponents erroneously claim that other first-world countries don't build mixed-traffic rail. So let's set the record straight: Yes they do. Plenty.

Mixed-traffic tram in Manchester, UK, opened in 2013.
Photo by Howard Pulling on flickr, used with permission.

I'm not an expert on European transit, but it takes about 5 minutes on Google to find numerous examples of recently-built mixed-traffic European trams.

Here's a (most likely partial) list. The dates in parentheses are either the year trams were reintroduced to the city in question, or the year the specific mixed-traffic segment pictured in the link was built.

That's actually longer than the list of US cities currently running newly-built mixed-traffic streetcars. As of this writing, that list is exactly two cities long: Portland and Seattle. Granted, it is about to explode, but over the past decade Europe has unquestionably built more mixed-traffic streetcars than the US.

Of course, all transit functions better in dedicated lanes. It's completely true that many mixed-traffic streetcars in the US would benefit greatly from dedicated lanes, and will only lack them for political will. It's also completely true that Europe is better at providing transitways for their streetcars more often than the US. None of that is in dispute.

But the fact is, many European cities have indeed recently added new mixed-traffic lines, because whether streetcar opponents care to admit it or not, there are many benefits to rail transit aside from where it runs.

But wait, there's more

In addition to the true mixed-traffic streetcars listed above, Europe also has an entire category of trams that often run in mixed-traffic that's completely absent from the US.

Guided tire trams run on rubber tires like a bus, but have a single in-ground track to guide them, as well as overhead wires. They're a middle ground between buses and streetcars, and are present in mixed-traffic arrangements in multiple cities in France and Italy, at least.

It's not exactly fair to call guided tire trams streetcars, but neither is it fair to exclude them from a discussion of mixed-traffic European trams.

If a US city wants to prove it's serious about providing a rail-like BRT experience, they might experiment with one of these. So far, none have done so.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


No, DC is not going to be like Paris

Supporters of DC's height limit say restricting building heights has worked to keep Paris beautiful. But embracing the Parisian built form would have unintended consequences on DC's neighborhoods.

Demolition near l'Opéra in Paris, 1877. Photo by Charles Marville

The mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, "Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings."

"If we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years' worth of residential growth," she added. "But they would be very different neighborhoods."

A haunting exhibition of photographs by Charles Marville, now on view at the National Gallery of Art, offers us a glimpse at how this change manifested itself in Paris.

The city government hired Marville to document the systematic demolition of central Paris' low-rise neighborhoods, the construction of new mid-rise neighborhoods (the ones we know today) in their stead, and the widespread displacement of the center's low-income residents to the urban fringe. (Numerous books have been written about the era, notably "Transforming Paris," by David Jordan.) There were technological limits on buildings in that era, too: elevators were slow and expensive, and the new water mains could not supply satisfactory water pressure to the upper floors of many buildings.

Not dissimilarly, downtown DC's horizontal march has steamrolled numerous low-rise neighborhoods in its wake, from Chinatown to Foggy Bottom. Now that only a few blocks are left for downtown to grow into, office buildings are muscling into Shaw. This is only natural for a mid-rise city: Paris' mid-rise urban fabric superimposed on DC would spill outside the diamond, vastly larger than the existing downtown.

That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters' single family houses intact.

By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC's neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.

Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines, and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.

DC cannot put a lid on development downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, and on the few infill sites we have left, and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.

Something will have to give. A good place to start is a loophole-ridden law imposed back when DC was a protectorate and when Greater Washington counted fewer residents than today's Asheville or Quad Cities.

The Office of Planning has suggested a reasonable framework for a subtly revised Height Act that can accommodate growth and change while preserving the city's cherished urban design and historic neighborhoods. Adapting the rigid 130' cap to a street-width rule maintains the Height Act framework along our ceremonial avenues, where our city's namesake actually set a height minimum.

Along streets like L'Enfant Promenade, Washington had the right idea: taller buildings will better frame vistas. Beyond the L'Enfant City, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance will continue to ensure that most buildings never reach the 90' Height Act maximum, but the city will have the flexibility to adapt to evolving construction techniques and special opportunity sites.

As DC re-adjusts to a new century of urban growth, after a lost generation of population decline and disinvestment, inaction poses a far greater risk than action. Paris' combination of horizontality and verticality is undeniably beautiful, but its unique form resulted from a peculiar historical process that I would not wish upon an American city today.

The District of Columbia Council is accepting written testimony about the Height Act until next Tuesday. For more information or to send your comments, visit their website.

A version of this post appeared on West North.


Weekend video: Can you outrun the train?

We've all probably run to catch a train at one time or another. But have you ever gotten off a train, and then ran to meet it at its next stop? One man in Paris attempted to do just that.

He is running between Cluny-La Sorbonne and Odéon trying to catch the same westbound Paris Metro 10 train he just got of off. Despite having to cross a busy road and even falling down at one point, he manages to catch the train.

Are there any Metro station pairs that one could make this trip?


What Metro could be in 2100, if our priorities were different

Reader thisisbossi created a fantasy Metro map with a LOT of lines:

He writes,

Yes, this is an absolute pipedream... hence the [title "DC 2100"]. While I laid these out to be at least somewhat technically feasible, everything shown would still require immense amounts of funding, right-of-way, and political will.
That's true, though this map also brings to mind another heavy rail system that does exist:

Paris has more lines than even thisisbossi's map, and in a smaller space, too. It's just that there, the political will exists to build some of the best transit in the world in a nation's capital city, while here, at least a significant part of one major political party would spend absolutely nothing on transit or the capital city.


Weekend reading: "Taking my talents to South Beach"

The inescapable news in the sports world last week was LeBron James' decision on where to play professional basketball. James spurned his current (and hometown) team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in favor of joining forces with multiple, talented free agent players in Miami.

"We are all witnesses." Photo by partie traumatic on Flickr.

The hoopla, as well as James' decision to leave his hometown for greener pastures raises several interesting points about sports, place, labor mobility, and the economic benefits from professional sports and athletes.

Talent migration: Richard Florida takes note of how LeBron and his compatriots took control of their situation in picking a new location to showcase their talents, framing the decision as an entrepreneurial coup in the controlled world of professional sports. The decision, he argues, isn't all that different than the ones that many talented and skilled workers go throughminus the media circus.

Most people attempt to optimize their interests within the constraints imposed by their existing environmentwhat the great economist Joseph Schumpeter dubbed the typical "adaptive response." But at critical junctures, certain kinds of entrepreneurs step outside the bounds of what is given and undertake to shape and actively construct an new environment of their ownwhat Schumpeter called the "creative response."

Miami offered the best place where these three savvy, talented, and surpassingly entrepreneurial young men could create their own kind of spacea more open-ended space, where they could realize their ambitions and dreams.

Teams tied to place: Florida's argument, however, doesn't do much to dispute the common criticisms of LeBron's decision (including one from the Cavaliers owner) that it was selfish and about ego more than anything else. While professional athletes may be individuals free to chose between teams, the teams themselves are rooted in place. Teams profit from their connection and emotional bonds with local fans. It's no surprise that fans see this as a direct insult to their sense of place. In Richard Florida's context, they are the ones attempting to optimize their interests within given constraints.

The narrative that ties teams and cities together is extraordinarily strong. The recent passing of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner offered a chance to reflect on that complex connection between city, fans, team, and players:

The life of George Steinbrenner is a ramp across modern New York, a bridge that spans the whirlpool of one man's spinning psyche and the transformation of America's biggest, baddest city... He championed ordinary New Yorkers, then took them for every last penny...

He remembered the elation of the city when the Yankees won the World Series in 1978, a troubled time. "We put the trophy in the rotunda at City Hall," [former Mayor Ed] Koch said. "I knew, as the Romans knew, that the people require circuses and theatrics."

Economic impacts: Perhaps George Steinbrenner's crowning achievement as owner of the Yankees has been the creation of New Yankee Stadium, on the backs of substantial public subsidy. Plenty of economists consistently argue that stadium subsidies are not wise investments, but the emotional connection between team and city is difficult to quantify.

Likewise, there is a question of geography. Sports teams might not have an impact at the metropolitan scale, but many in Cleveland have seen a direct impact from LeBron James in the area immediately adjacent to the arena. A similar narrative exists for DC's Verizon Center and the subsequent revitalization of Chinatown.

However, accurately calculating all the costs and benefits of the intangible, emotional connection between a city and their team might be next to impossible.

There is no 'Next Big Thing': Aaron Renn uses LeBron's departure from the Midwest to take a long, hard look at the strategic decisions behind the move and the reaction:

In a sense though, Cleveland's disappointment was inevitable. LeBron James was never going to turn around the city. No one person or one thing can. Unfortunately, Cleveland has continually pinned its hopes on a never-ending cycle of "next big things" to reverse decline. This will never work. As local economic development guru Ed Morrison put it, "Overwhelmingly, the strategy is now driven by individual projects....This leads to the 'Big Thing Theory' of economic development: Prosperity results from building one more big thing."
The 'Big Thing' theory has usually been applied to things like sports stadiums and arenas, not the individual players that use them. Nevertheless, the comparison is illustrative. The push to keep a team or even a player by giving them a new stadium might not make economic sense, but losing that player can be painful. And even though a new stadium might not make economic sense for a metropolitan region, that doesn't mean the team itselfdespite being deeply rooted in a single placecan't also migrate to greener pastures and better opportunities. Unfortunately for Cleveland, that's something they also know far too well.

There are a few other items of note, only semi sports-related:

LeBron likes bikes: One thing LeBron does like is bikes. He's a partial owner of Cannondale and hosts a bike-a-thon for kids in his hometown of Akron, OH. Given the negative reaction in Cleveland to his professional decision to play basketball in Miami, it's unclear what will happen to events like this.

New York and Barcelona are boring: Mayor Bloomberg and others were on hand to see the final push of the tunnel boring machine for New York's 7 line extension. Second Avenue Sagas notes the challenges of urban tunneling, even with the advanced technology available today. A few weeks ago, The Transport Politic took an in-depth look at Barcelona's massive subway expansion, also making extensive use of tunnel boring machines operating in dense urban environments.

Paris, automated: Jarret Walker, of the Human Transit blog, offers some observations from Line 1 of the Paris Metro. The line is in the midst of an upgrade to fully automatic, driverless operation. That's no small feat for a line initially built in 1900.

Cross-posted at City Block.


Grand Vitesse

[Autoposted while I'm in France]

By François on Flickr.

Unless something's gone wrong, Greater Greater Fiancée and I should be on the TGV right now, conveniently zipping from Paris out to wine country (car-free, though they have to pick us up in a car to get me to the barge).

How about some high speed rail here in the U.S.A.?

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