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Transit


8 lessons about great transit I learned riding the Paris Métro

Paris has one of the world's great subway systems. Beyond its truly impressive coverage and service quality, here are eight wonderful details about how it operates that US systems would do well to mimic.


Door knobs on a Paris metro train. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

1. Door knobs speed trains

In DC and in many US subway systems, when trains pull into stations passengers wait for the train operator to open the doors. That adds a few seconds to every stop while the train idles on the platform, doors shut. Waiting passengers tap their feet and cross their arms.

All those seconds, at every station, every trip, all day, add up. The result is not only less happy riders, but also slower trains that come less frequently and carry fewer people than the system's theoretical maximum.

In Paris, those delays don't happen. Each door has a manual knob or button that passengers can push to enter or exit at their own pace. For safety, the doors are all locked while the train is moving quickly. But as it comes to a halt the doors unlock, and passengers can immediately open the doors to exit trains.

Here's a video, showing how the whole operation makes exiting a train noticeably faster than on WMATA:

WMATA did have automatic doors up until 2008, which were faster than the operator-controlled doors of today. But that was eight years ago, and there's no indication they'll be fixed any time soon.

Although the issues for a streetcar are different than a subway, this is one detail DC's streetcars share.

2. Full platform seating works

Why do WMATA station platforms have so few seats? Especially at side platform stations, why not just line the entire platform with one long bench?

Check out Paris' Chatelet station, where that's exactly the layout:


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Most Paris stations aren't like Chatelet. Frankly, with sub-five-minute headways most of the time, a lot of seating isn't as crucial there as it is in DC. But there's been many a day I've stood for 15 minutes in a WMATA station wishing it had this feature.

3. Flip-up seats add capacity

The first row of seats inside Paris' train doors flip up. On sparsely-populated trains, riders can sit in the seats comfortably. On especially crowded ones, riders can stand, creating more space on the train.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

Yes, riders in Paris sitting on these seats do seem to usually get up and create more space when the train gets crowded. It seems to be part of Paris transit etiquette, like standing on the left on DC escalators. Not everyone does it, but enough do to make a difference.

This arrangement also makes it easier for people in wheelchairs to ride without blocking the aisle.

4. Open gangways really do work

US transit systems are slowly beginning to catch on to the benefits of longer open-gangway trains. If passengers can move from front to back of trains without getting off, that makes trains less crowded and boosts capacity.

All new or recently refurbished lines in Paris have open gangways. And they're wonderful.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

5. Great late night service is possible with only two tracks

Paris' metro lacks express tracks just like DC's, and it runs basically comparable hours to WMATA. It's also decades older than Metrorail. It must have at least similar maintenance needs, and no more time in the day to accomplish them.

Yet somehow Paris manages to run frequent trains late into the night.


A train every 4 minutes at 10:21 pm. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

I have no idea how they do it. When do maintenance workers do their work? How do they keep up tracks with trains coming every four minutes?

I wish I knew. If you know, send Mr. Wiedefeld an explanatory note.

6. Els can be public art

Talk about elevated rail in the US and most people visualize either Chicago-style steel monstrosities or Tysons Corner-style concrete ones. Neither are particularly endearing images, except maybe to transitphiles and architecture buffs.

In Paris, even the el train is beautiful.


Pont Bir-Hakeim. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

And though a bridge over the Seine is a special place, Paris' els have nice aesthetic touches elsewhere too.

7. Wayfinding can be beautiful

"If you can make something pretty, why not make it pretty?" My wife and I kept coming back to that thought as we explored Paris. These signs, telling riders which direction their metro train is headed are one example of why.


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

8. Location-specific maps help riders navigate

Going to the airport? Rather than only a tiny icon on the main system map, how about helping riders with a dedicated airport transit map?


Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In DC we already put location-specific bus maps and neighborhood maps inside every Metro station. Why not unique maps for destinations to which infrequent riders often travel, like airports and stadiums?

What details like these have you noticed on other countries' transit systems, that you'd like to see imported to the US?

Roads


Cities worldwide are building beautiful, landmark pedestrian and bicycle bridges. Could Georgetown be next?

A new bicycle and pedestrian bridge may one day connect Georgetown with Roosevelt Island. Some recent bridges like this in other cities have become iconic landmarks. Could DC do the same and compensate for its freqently lackluster bridge designs? Here are a few of the world's great pedestrian bridges.


London's Millennium Bridge. Photo by Dominik Morbitzer on Flickr.

Such a bridge was part of Georgetown's recent 15-year action plan and made it into DC's MoveDC citywide transportation plan last year.


Where the bridge could go. Image from the Georgetown BID.

Many cities have built new bridges as opportunities to showcase distinctive design while adding vital pedestrian links. The London Borough of Wandsworth is sponsoring a design competition right now for a new footbridge across the Thames.

Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava designed the glass-floored Sundial Bridge across the Sacramento River in Redding, California.


The Sundial Bridge in Redding, California. Photo by David W Oliver on Flickr.


Photo by dwhartwig on Flickr.

London's Millennium Bridge opened in 2000 to bridge the Thames between the Tate Modern to St. Paul's Cathedral. The bridge is tall enough to allow river navigation, but short enough not to obstruct the historically protected view corridor of the cathedral.


Photo by Duen Ee Chan on Flickr.


Photo by andre.m(eye)r.vitali on Flickr.

The Simone de Beauvoir Footbridge has been undulating across the Seine in Paris since 2006.


Photo by Tim Brown Architecture on Flickr.


Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz on Flickr.

The crescent Gateshead Millennium Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, tilts back to allow ships to pass.


Photo by Ian Britton on Flickr.


Photo by Martin Sotirov on Flickr.

The Henderson Waves bridge soars 120 feet over a valley in the Southern Ridges park of Singapore. The bridge deck provides shade and seating areas to view the park valley.


Photo by edwin.11 on Flickr.


Photo by Steel Wool on Flickr.

Although it spans a relatively short distance, Sarajevo's Festina Lente Bridge features a playful loop that shades a seating area midway across the bridge.


Photo by the author.

Could one of these bridges come to DC?

Such a connection would provide many advantages. Although the island is inside the boundaries of the District of Columbia, visitors can only access it from Virginia. Visiting the island requires a half-mile walk or bike ride from Rosslyn down the Mount Vernon Trail. There's a small parking lot on the Virginia shore, but it fills up quickly on warm weekends, and drivers can only reach it from the northbound GW Parkway.

A bridge from Georgetown would give District residents and visitors easier access to this wooded and marshy parkland, which serves as a stark contrast to the dense urbanization of Georgetown and Foggy Bottom.


The view from Georgetown Waterfront Park. Image by the author.


Georgetown Waterfront Park (left) and Roosevelt Island (right) as viewed from the Key Bridge. Image by the author.

There isn't money for the bridge today. MoveDC lists the bridge as a second-tier priority, meaning it is not within DC's six-year capital plan. DDOT planner Colleen Hawkinson said external factors, such as outside funding or public support, could shift the bridge's priority.

Even if funding arises, multiple federal agencies will have to act. The National Park Service controls the island and would have to agree to any changes. MoveDC classifies the bridge as a bicycle transportation project, but the National Park Service, which controls the island, prohibits cycling there. The National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts, which are providing advice on the Frederick Douglass Bridge replacement, would play a strong role in reviewing designs.

Any project will require an environmental analysis which could take years (one for a proposed boathouse on Park Service land on the Arlington shore of the Potomac is dragging on into its third year, for example). If the bridge does come to fruition, it will be years away, but it would be a major asset to help people enjoy and appreciate the Potomac River.

Bicycling


What's the best way to protect a bikeway? How about a bikeshare station?

How's this for a natural idea: Locate bikeshare stations between a street's protected bikeway and car lanes.

That's exactly the arrangement in Crystal City, where the Capital Bikeshare station at 23rd and Eads helps to form part of the bikeway's protective barrier.


23rd and Eads. Photo by Euan Fisk on Flickr.

DC has at least one example, on 6th Street NE next to Union Market. You can also find this arrangement in New York, Paris, and a ton of other cities.

It's just a nifty, straightforward idea that's too sensible not to use.

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 Barbès—Rochechouart 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?

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


"Metro sprawl" misses better opportunities in the core

WMATA planners have been studying possibilities for system expansion, from lines in the center to extensions at the ends of lines. While every Metro enthusiast has fantasized about dozens of Metro lines running out nearly to West Virginia, this "transit sprawl" overlooks better opportunities to strengthen the system's core.


Photo by justindc on Flickr.

Adding a line in Arlington is more useful than adding a line to Front Royal. The existing land uses closer in are more conducive to higher ridership because they have higher densities, lower rates of car ownership, and, because of their proximity to existing business districts, enjoy shorter travel distances and times.

Furthermore, closer-in lines improve transit networks, expanding service north, south, east, and west. Far-out lines only provide linear service, that is, north and south or east and west, but not all four. As such, the lines far out are less useful to the people they serve.

Ultimately, far-out extensions end up exacerbating Metro's dual and conflicting mandates to provide long-haul service and short-haul service on the same railroad. The argument for 4-minute rush-hour headways inside the Beltway is much stronger than the argument for 4-minute rush-hour headways all the way out to Frederick.

Modern rail systems like our Metro, San Francisco's BART, and Atlanta's MARTA try to combine long-haul and short-haul services into the same systems. Other cities have wisely divided the two.

New York has express subway trains, the Long Island Railroad, and Metro North for long-haul service and the regular subways for local service. These serve different markets with different service frequencies and provide better regional mobility.

Commuters from Long Island are spared the suffering of having to stop 100 times in Brooklyn and Queens just to get to business districts in Manhattan.

At the same time, residents in Brooklyn and Queens get decent service within their own boroughs and to Manhattan. This separation improves the practicality of transit for everyone.

If Metro lines were to extend to the far exurbs, the ride to the area's business districts would still be long and would discourage ridership. These areas are by definition only peripherally connected to the regional economy and residents would already have less reason to take jobs and commute 20 miles in the first place.

Our geography in Washington, however, is more like that of Paris than New York. Both Washington and Paris are interior cities that just happen to have a river or two running through them. We can expand in all directions, whereas New York, Chicago, LA, and San Francisco are bounded by harbors, bays, oceans, or lakes.

There are some interesting charts in Steve Belmont's book Cities in Full that illustrate how different cities' transit systems are spatially laid out.

Draw a circle with a 5-mile radius from Metro Center and the circle will more or less fit just inside the bounds of the DC-Arlington diamond. In that circle, we have 51 stations. Outside of that we have lines reaching as far as Shady Grove, a full 17 miles from Metro Center as the crow flies. The system will reach 26 miles to Loudoun County when the Silver Line is complete.


Map by the author.

Now draw the same 5-mile circle for Paris with the Châtelet hub as the center point and you will notice that nearly the entire Métro system fits inside the circle. The RER commuter trains, not mapped, extend far beyond. Parisians enjoy 240 stations in that circle by Belmont's count.

The distance from Châtelet to Créteil-Préfecture, the farthest station, is only 7.5 miles as the crow flies. In contrast, the Silver Line extension merely begins 8.5 miles from Metro Center.


Map by the author.

Not only that, the network they have built makes it practical to take the Métro anywhere in the circle since your travel journey will not stray too far off of a straight line drawn between two points.

Yes, Paris's densities are much higher than DC's, but our densities are rising since the population is rising. As we plan for the transit system we will need in 2040, we will need to think big.

Far out extensions provide a modicum of very high quality transit to a small population whereas strengthening transit within the existing circle, that is, to people who are more likely to use transit anyway and who are more likely to use it for non-commuting trips, should produce a greater return on the transit investment.

We have to prioritize because transportation funding, like funding for everything, is limited. Sure it would be nice to have Metro service to Gainesville. However, such extension fantasies should not come at the cost of providing service to areas closer in where people are more likely to use the service in the first place.

While enthusiasts and politicians tout outward expansion with a pioneer's zeal, they miss the better opportunities to strengthen the network and construct new lines in the core. Strengthening the core will provide a greater returns on our transportation investment.

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