July 7, 2016 by
It’s been more than thirty years since an American city opened a new subway system, but transit agencies haven’t stopped investing in rail. From Houston to Phoenix and Sacramento to Seattle, light rail lines are opening or expanding at a steady clip. In addition, mixed-traffic streetcar lines—which run shorter routes and do so more slowly than light rail—are opening or in the planning stages in an equally broad array of cities. Despite some lines (both light rail and streetcar) on which ridership remains stubbornly low, overall ridership on these modes has increased 46 percent in the last ten years.
Across the Atlantic, however, the Paris regional transit agency has embarked on a street-level rail expansion effort far surpassing that of any city here.
The Paris tramways have proven exceptional not just because there are so many of them (nine, with more in the planning and construction phases), but also because they are so popular. Ridership is 900,000 per day, which is five times greater than America’s busiest light-rail system (Boston’s Green Line) and greater than any subway system in the U.S. except New York.
All this is taking place on a network whose first line opened just 24 years ago and whose entire existence many visitors to Paris might not even be aware of, given that the routes are in the less touristy parts of the region.
Any city in the U.S. building or planning a street-level rail line would love for it to have just a fraction of the Paris trams’ popularity. Supporters of the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar line proposed in New York, for example, dismiss low-performing American streetcars and say the line will be more like those in Europe. So it’s worth examining what exactly has made the Paris trams so successful.
They create seamless connections
It takes just a few seconds looking at the RATP map to see why the Paris trams are so useful. In Paris’s hub-and-spoke transit network, they are the rim of the wheel, connecting the ends of Metro and RER lines in far-flung parts of the region. All nine lines offer at least two stations that connect to other modes of transit. Some offer many more:
|No. of transfers||No. of total stations||Pct. of stations with transfers|
It’s not just, as the map implies, that the tram lines travel near other transit stations. In most instances, the streets and stations are designed to make the connection as smooth as possible. Here, for example, is the T1 tram where it meets the M7 Metro line at the La Courneuve station in Aubervilliers. The stairs to the underground Metro platform deposit riders right at the tram: