Greater Greater Washington

Posts about France

Transit


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.

Transit


China may have figured out wireless trams

This December, wireless streetcars will start carrying passengers in Guangzhou, China. The new trams will run using supercapacitor batteries instead of overhead wires.


Guangzhou's wireless tram. Photo from China Central Television.

Cities around the world, including Washington, have been increasingly interested in wireless streetcars ever since Bordeaux, France started using them in 2003. But Bordeaux's trams use an underground third rail that's proven too expensive for widespread use.

The Guangzhou system will use batteries that automatically recharge from an underground power supply at passenger stations. One recharge takes 10-30 seconds, and powers the tram for up to 4 kilometers (2.5 miles).

And a similar system is in the works for another Chinese city, Nanjing.

That's good news for DC, where laws prohibit overhead wires at key locations near the National Mall. Streetcars like Guangzhou's could solve that problem.

It's not clear how much extra this type of wireless tram would cost. Expense doomed the Bordeaux method, so that is a serious concern. But if the price is right, the technology finally seems to be there.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Transit


Fruit stands abound within Paris Métro

Throughout the Paris Métro are ubiquitous vendors of fresh fruits and vegetables. Vending machines on station platforms sell candy and bottled beverages. The option to quickly grab a snack is readily available to Parisians and riders of New York's subway, but not our own. Should it be?


Fruit stand at BarbèsRochechouart station. Photos by the author.

Apples, clementines, bananas, mangoes and tomatoes are readily available at reasonable prices throughout the M´tro system, from the modern Bibliothèque François Mitterrand station on Line 14 to older stations like Barbès-Rochechouart on Lines 2 and 4.


Fruit stand at Place de Clichy station.

There are no restrictions on eating on the Paris Métro. While there is ample supply of discarded chicken bones, sunflower seeds and fast food on Washington's Metro despite a ban on food, the Paris Métro is comparatively clean, with no traces of food on the trains or station platforms.

Some of the stands are free-standing, requiring the proprietors to set them up and take them down every day. Others rent existing kiosk space. Each vendor stand has a digital scale uses to weigh your purchase. From one vendor a clementine cost 0.35 Euro, while at another stand, a clementine and green apple ran to 1.37 Euro.


Vendor at Bibliothéque François Mitterrand station.

Two years ago, a New York State Senator proposed a law that would ban eating on New York's MTA. The law was widely opposed, even by MTA's chief, and did not pass.

Even with a ban on eating, Metro still employs a rodent exterminator, who the Post recently profiled. Is Paris' Métro clean while Washington's Metro is dirtier, despite a ban on food here and not there, a result of varying cultures?

Is it time for the Washington Metro to change its orientation towards food, or is the ban appropriate? Would you patronize a fruit and vegetable stand at Metro Center, L'Enfant Plaza or Rosslyn?

Transit


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.

Architecture


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.

Transit


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?

Transit


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.

Support Us

How can our region be greater?

DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City
CC BY-NC