In previous posts, I’ve talked a little bit about the advantages of “bus rapid transit” systems, which, if properly designed, can greatly enhance urban mobility at a fraction of the cost of traditional subway systems. It seems that many French cities are now becoming interested in the idea of surface public transportation – not buses, but trams (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,454517,00.html). Paris recently unveiled its new tram line, which will carry almost twice as many people every day as the local buses. Despite the fact that only about 28% of Parisians own cars, the city’s streets are still overcrowded, with an average speed of only 10 mph in the downtown areas.
Already six other French cities have modern tram lines and 3 more cities plan to build them next year.
In an interesting twist, not only do the trams make public transportation more convenient, but they also make private transportation less convenient. One lane of road has been converted to tracks for the train, and traffic lights have been set to give the trams an automatic right-of-way so they never have to brake for red lights.
It would be interesting to understand why the French have chosen to go the tram route rather than making significant improvements to their bus system. The capital investment for a bus system would be cheaper because there is no need to install rails. Moreover, the same policies that favor trams – creating designated lanes and setting traffic lights to always give the right-of-way to public transit – could also be applied to buses. Perhaps the impetus for trams is to restore and modernize a historically popular mode of transportation. After all, streetcars were the first form of urban public transportation, with their use in France dating back to 1853.