Friday, 9 April 2010

Tramway to revival

By Medha

Suffering from a slump in the post-war years, the French city of Bordeaux has only just begun to reclaim its former glory. The introduction of a new tram system has played a crucial role in this transformation. In the city for a conference, Medha discovers how a well integrated public transport system can change the quality of life of an entire city.

“Before the introduction of the tramlines there were no squares like this in Bordeaux. The place was just full of cars,” remarked our guide Yane Castets, on a tour through the historic city. I looked across to the wide boulevard stretching before me: we had just walked through the fifteenth century Porte Cailhau gate, crossed the Place St.-Pierre and were approaching the Place du Parlament. It had rained intermittently the whole day and the sun had almost just begun to peep through. People were out on the streets, taking advantage of the longed for sunlight; café terraces were beginning to fill up; across the square a father was teaching his daughter how to skate; there was a family on a day out, dog in tow; a couple of youngsters sitting on steps enjoying casual conversation; an elderly couple indulging their grandson. The place was full of life; but rewind to only a few years back and the picture you get is one of complete urban decay. 

Decades of urban decay

“Cars, cars and cars, that’s all that you could see here,” remembers a student from the University of Bordeaux. A plethora of road signs cluttered up the space, obscuring the grand avenues and the majestic beauty of the historic centre. Time, exposure and pollution all played their part in despoiling the limestone facades of the buildings. With vehicular traffic usurping the place, businesses and shops began moving out and the population began seeping away to peripheral suburbs. It was clear that the capital of France’s vast Aquitaine région and the Gironde départment was in urgent need of renewal.

An answer from the past

Bordeaux, like other French cities, actually had a flourishing tram system since the late nineteenth century. At first, merely carriages set on tracks and pulled along by snorting horses set the scene. Electrification was completed in the ensuing decades and up until the end of the Second World War, the city tramlines were serving nearly 200,000 passengers a day. 

After World War II, however, priorities changed. France like many other European countries at the time abandoned mass transit trams in favour of a road system developed to accommodate personal cars – the new status symbol in the resurgent post-war economy. President Georges Pompidou’s stated mission was to ‘adapt the city to the car’. Ring roads connecting streets, suburbs and highways became the focal point of traffic management. In terms of public transport, buses were favoured as they were not attached to fixed routes and offered less resistance to motor-cars.
Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux’s long serving mayor (1949-1995) was also strongly pro-car and the last of the city’s old tramlines was dismantled in 1958. Soon enough the city’s lanes and roads were virtually strangulated with traffic.

A solution for the traffic woes was impending and in the mid 1980s Chaban-Delmas (still the mayor and still vociferously opposed to trams), proposed an automatic light underground railway (VAL) but the fine sandy nature of the region’s soil prevented its implementation. The city had to wait till 1997 when the decision to re-introduce trams was taken by the newly elected mayor, the rather controversial Alain Juppé. The scheme finally took off in December 2003. 

Not without its troubles

A pet project of Alain Juppé and almost universally popular, the implementation of the tram lines has not been trouble free. At the proposal stage, the prospect of overhead contact wires was a source of controversy – for the aesthetically inclined French they were a visual anathema. Accordingly, an innovative ground level power supply system was developed. It consists of the provision of electricity from a third rail placed between the running rails of the tram. The design is such that it does not pose any danger to people or animals and can thus be easily used in pedestrian areas. Reliability, however, is an issue and there have been some instances of trams grounding to a halt owing to loss of power – including embarrassingly during the inauguration.

Teething troubles apart, the trams have been embraced positively by the people. One of the reasons for this popularity lies in the efforts made to involve the city dwellers in the planning stages of the project. Public meetings were held, exhibits were used to inform the residents and a website inviting public comments was set up.

Efforts were also made to streamline the wider transport system and to discourage car use. Entire areas were converted into pedestrian zones; bus lines were restructured around tramlines. A clever park and ride scheme allows people to park their car and make their way into the city using the public transport at a minimal cost of 3 Euros (as of now) irrespective of the number of passengers in the vehicle. 

An urban renaissance

The focus on mass transit tram system in Bordeaux is part of resurgence in their popularity in France. In the past decade or so trams have enjoyed a comeback in cities such as Nantes, Grenobles, Lille, Lyon and Marseille and many others are in the planning stages. This signals a definite paradigm shift in policy – a move towards creating what French architect and urban planner David Mangin refers to as ‘ville passante’ or busy city in his book Project Urbain. He envisions cities for which cars are only incidental and where the ‘ownership’ has been handed back to the people.

In Bordeaux, the tram system has functioned as a bridge, connecting isolated, run-down suburban enclaves with the centre. Revamping of the downtown area went hand in hand with the laying of the tracks. Incentives were given to owners for the renovation and refurbishment of building facades. Traffic was rerouted. New pedestrian zones and plazas were created. The river-front was spruced up.

Restoration has been so successful that the entire downtown area has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. More significantly, the project to revive the downtown has succeeded: businesses and residents are moving back in. People now just don’t rush through the place on their way to work, but take the time to stop and linger. Cyclists, skaters, strollers, shoppers and sojourners abound. The heart of city is back where it belongs.

(Photos: Medha)

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