Eighty years after having been phased out, the tramway has made a triumphant return to Paris. This fall, three major extensions are being opened to the public. Construction is underway on several new lines. This once-forgotten form of transportation is again becoming part of the daily life of Parisians.
None of the tramway lines cross Paris proper, but they participate in the creation of a dense multi-modal network across the first ring of municipalities surrounding Paris. Even more importantly, these tramway lines are not being approached only as isolated pieces of transportation infrastructure. Instead, they are driving and accompanying major urban projects in the territories they cross. The urban role of the tramway in contemporary Paris is a story worth knowing.
Streetcars operated in the Paris region starting in 1855, under Georges-Eugène Haussmann, in the first great wave of modernization of the city to allow it to play its role as a capital of the Industrial age (on this subject, see my book, Paris Reborn). At first the streetcars were pulled by horses but gradually, starting in 1875, motorized vehicles were put in place. The importation of an American technology, the tramway was in France referred to as the “American railway”.
Streetcars played an important role in Paris right up to the 1930s, when they began to be removed from the streets on the basis that they were consuming too much space that was needed for the burgeoning automobile, especially now that the city had an underground public transportation system, the métro. Soon they were only another memory of the quaint old Paris in a city in which the order of the day was the building of the périphérique ring highway, the La Défense business neighborhood, and the city’s two modern airports.
The roots of the tramway’s return lie in the 1973 oil crisis. At the time, many still remembered that during World War II the lack of gasoline had paralyzed surface transportation in Paris. Also, France, as a country with very limited hydrocarbon reserves, had launched an ambitious nuclear energy policy that was seen as providing plentiful cheap base-load electricity. In 1975, the Ministry of Transportation asked eight major cities (not including Paris) to investigate the creation of new tram lines and attempted to orchestrate the development of a “standard model” for modern French trams.
This work led to the opening of the first modern tram line in Nantes – which was actually not one of the eight initial cities to consider streetcars – on January 7th, 1985. Grenoble followed in 1987. These two pioneering cities played a major role in the return of the tram to French city streets.
Following these two implementations, the Île-de-France planning institute (IAURIF) was asked to study the creation of tram lines in the suburbs of Paris. It concluded that trams could be a compelling solution, on the basis that tramways have greater capacity than buses and would allow the resolution of problems of noise, pollution and poor handicap access of the buses then in use. The IAURIF recommended two new tram lines in suburban areas where usage projections could not justify the investment of a subway line.
One of these, a line across the northern part of the Paris region, was enthusiastically supported by the government of the département. Three solutions were put in competition: a tram, a bus, and a trolleybus (i.e. an electric bus with a catenary). The tram was selected and public funding was assembled from the national government (50%), the regional government (42.8%) and the département government (7.2%).
But when the Conservatives returned to power at the national level in 1986 with a policy of minimizing public investments, the question of returning to the bus solution was brought up. The local governments fought for the tramway, and prevailed. The first segment of the new line, covering the 5.5 miles between Saint-Denis, the third biggest municipality in the Paris region, and Bobigny, was opened in 1992. The T1 line was a resounding success, carrying 15.3 million passengers in its first full year of of operation.
Around the time that the first line was opening, the region’s second line was starting its approval process. This line, to be known as T2, would go from La Défense, the high-rise business district west of Paris proper, through several municipalities to the south-west of Paris, and end at the Paris city limit at Porte de Versailles. This line was opened in 1997 and has the particularity that for much of its itinerary it is not along public roads, and can therefore reach higher speeds.
The scene then moves to Paris proper. The lone Green member of the Paris City Council had been very active in favor of a tram for Paris proper. In the mid-1990s the Conservative mayor, Jean Tiberi, decided to follow up on this idea and launched the studies for a tramway to replace the problematic bus line that circled Paris, the Petite Ceinture.
By the time of the 2001 municipal elections, the line was still only an idea. The incoming Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, backed by a new Socialist-Green municipal majority, vigorously propelled the project forward and was able to inaugurate line T3 in December 2006. Line T3 now carries 110,000 passengers on an average workday.
Since then, there has been a continued push in favor of tramway infrastructure that is coming to fruition this fall. Line T1 has been extended three miles to Asnières. Line T2 has been extended 2.6 miles to the Pont de Bezons. And a 9-mile extension to line T3 will open next week, allowing travelers to travel all the way around the south, east and north of Paris.
Four more lines are in the planning and construction stages. Together, they are creating a network throughout the zone outside the Paris municipality proper, connecting with rail, subway and bus lines.
Even though tramway lines are part of a general urban vision for the metropolis, they are not actually connected with the Grand Paris initiative launched by President Sarkozy in 2007, which has focused on the development of a new high-speed subway line.
Some have questioned the economic rationale for such a major investment in tramways, arguing that buses on dedicated lanes – like the TVM line crossing the Val-de-Marne south-east of Paris – are often a more cost-effective solution. The suspicion is that the resurgence of tramways is due to a “tramway mystique” backed by powerful industrial interests rather than sound logic. The economic analysis behind the investments (e.g. that performed by the STIF for the extension of line T3) is indeed quite cursory, basically coming down to the judgment that, in broad terms, the investment is a good one for the metropolis generally.
In practice, the political decision in favor of the tramway has been dominated by other considerations. In the case of line T1, the tramway became a major political symbol for the département of Seine-Saint Denis. In this area with a large population, a shaky reputation, and second-class access to the amenities of the Paris region, the very fact of a major new investment in a shiny piece of infrastructure was a major political gesture. The tramway perfectly filled this role.
The striking thing about the Parisian tramway project is the high level of investment for urban redesign beyond the actual tracks and rolling stock. Along the boulevards circling Paris, for example, the tramway line was the opportunity for a major reconsideration of street design and automobile traffic patterns. Line T3 also crosses several of Paris’s major urban development projects, to which it creates new connections and urban relationships.
The environmental aspect, naturally, is repeatedly put forward. The tramway has succeeded in being seen as a mode of transportation that can be used to shape the urban evolution of the neighborhoods they cross in a more environmentally sustainable direction and to participate overall in the limitation of the role of the automobile.
The landscape integration of the tramway has been taken very seriously in Paris. This began on line T1, and has continued as a hallmark of the projects.
For example, the prominent French architecture firm Reichen & Robert was selected for the extension of line T3 around Paris. In their design, Reichen and Robert have worked hard to attenuate the urban obstacle that a major road with a tramway can constitute, instead seeking transversal porosities and ways to make the area a sort of linear park that is, on the contrary, an amenity for those who live nearby.
With all these dynamics, the tramway in Paris has been positioned well beyond the simple choice of a particular transportation technology. Well before the emergence of the promised high-speed rail lines promised by President Sarkozy, the tramway is turning out to play a major role in the urban transformation underway in “Grand Paris.”
If you can’t go out and take the tram yourself, the next best thing is to get a quick trip through the link below.
The network extension page of the RATP, the Paris transportation authority