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Trams come back to France

Marketplace Staff Dec 18, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s easy drivin’ this week. At least out here in Los Angeles it seems the Christmas break has already started. So there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic on the road this morning. But we all know, no matter where we are, in a couple of weeks it’ll be back to rush hour as usual.

The French are trying something new on that. Or old, I guess. Trams are making a comeback in a dozen towns across the country. The first new line opened in Paris over the weekend. John Laurenson reports on what has become, for French city leaders at least, a streetcar named “Désir.” That’s French. Desire.

[Sound of tram bell . . . ]

JOHN LAURENSON: A car faces off with Paris’s new tram. The light flicks red for the automobile and we in the streetcar glide through, unperturbed by the urban stress outside.

In the transport battles being fought in towns across France, the tram is giving the upper hand to what French environmentalists like to call “les modes doux”— soft transportation. Frederic Dupouy is tram man at the Paris Transport Company. He says they’ll be moving three times more people than the current, saturated bus line, but they’ve also got a wider aim.

FREDERIC DUPOUY [translator]: We’re creating a new environment by redistributing public space. We’re taking space away from the car to give it to the tram, pedestrians and cyclists because we’re cutting parking spaces, widening sidewalks and opening up cycle lanes as well.

Paris is softer on the senses than many cities in the world. But not the Boulevards des Marechaux. They make up an inner ring-road with six lanes of growling traffic. Now, over five miles, the tramway has taken over the middle two. Turf’s been laid between the tracks. It rolls like a green carpet through the south of the city. Plane trees are being planted at the side of the track; cherry, apple and magnolia trees at the stations. Yo Kaminagai is in charge of design. He says what’s special about French trams is that they’re part of a strategy he calls urban pacification, unlike France’s high-speed train, the TGV.

YO KAMINAGAI: Our tramway is not an urban TGV but the contrary, something gentle which slides on the grass smoothly, without any expression of speed or performance. And you can see that the people who are walking are not afraid of this tramway. So they pass in front of the tramway. It’s a little dangerous but . . . so we have reached a point in design which is further than what we wanted.

At an average speed of 14 miles an hour, the tram feels pretty speedy nevertheless. And it’s already a hit among potential passengers.

WOMAN [translator]: It’s fantastic! I live right over here. The tram’s really going to change my life and with the grass and everything it’s much brighter and more environmental.

MAN [translator]: The bus used to be really slow in rush hour. The tram’s going to be a lot faster. You’ve got more space than in a bus and, unlike the metro, you can see the city so it’s much more beautiful.

Many Parisian motorists, though, are not happy at all. New bus and cycle lanes and fewer parking spaces have made driving in the city bad enough. For these drivers, stuck in traffic, a $400 million tram line is the last straw.

MAN 1 [translator]: It’s just miserable. And to think it’s our own tax money that’s gone to pay for this mess! I live just up there. There used to be lots of places to park, now there aren’t any. It’s shameful!

MAN 2 [translator]: It’s terrible! In Paris, they want to get rid of the cars but I need my car for my job. So what am I supposed to do? I spend more time in traffic than at work!

Paris City Hall says there’s been a 25 percent decrease in car traffic on the stretch of road where they’ve laid out the new tramway. For the Green Party politicians in charge of transportation policy, that’s a success in itself. And they’re already planning more lines in the city.

In Paris, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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