Now reading

A Comparative Approach to Transportation in Paris, Lyon ...

A Comparative Approach to Transportation in Paris, Lyon and Marseille, France

In Paris, Lyon and Marseille, the development of mass transit is a central element of the metropolitan project. However, the stakes and steps taken are very different from one city to the other. Aurelien Delpirou compares the three contexts and analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each of their strategies. The creation of the Paris,

In Paris, Lyon and Marseille, the development of mass transit is a central element of the metropolitan project. However, the stakes and steps taken are very different from one city to the other. Aurelien Delpirou compares the three contexts and analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each of their strategies.

The creation of the Paris, Lyon and Marseille metropolises is at the center of the current territorial reform. While the transformation of their institutional organizations was subject to a sudden acceleration, the construction of an idea, and then a metropolitan project reveals, in all three cases, ancient and complex dynamics. Mass transit occupies a notable place in this process: it has been able to emerge both as a mechanism of governance at the metropolitan scale and as a lever for the metropolitan project, conditioning its performance as much as its cohesion. Based on the works of the "Journees Grand Paris" by the Urbanism Institute of Paris [l’École d’urbanisme de Paris], this article puts forth a critical reading of the structuring role attributed to transportation infrastructure, while following in the footsteps of the very recent open comparative approach by Daniel Behar.

Paris: Transportation as a Metropolitan Project?

In Paris, Lyon and Marseille the question of mass transit has consolidated the debates on the metropolis around three stakes: 1) improving the competitiveness of the metropolitan system; 2) favoring the modal shift to alternative means , other than the automobile, and 3) reinforcing social and territorial cohesion at a large scale.

In Paris, we cannot help but find striking the synecdoche representing the metropolitan project: in the spirit of the inhabitants, journalists and even elected officials, "Grand Paris" remains first and foremost a new metro network. Initially christened "Grand Huit," , after a number of events, it became "Nouveau Grand Paris" . While the rise to importance of the metropolitan question is well anterior to this project, there's no denying who polarized, even cannibalized, the political and media debate of greater Paris over the last seven years. This preemption can be explained especially through the efficient communication between the members of the project team, who were playing both on the level of regional competitiveness (the loop among the clusters) and on that of integrating the neighborhoods in difficulty (the deserts of Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil). After numerous polemics and important transformations, the project entered a more consensus-based phase, which stabilized it. Still, according to many authors, it only responded in very small part to the stakes of daily mobility in the Paris metropolis, especially because it leaves aside part of the existing transportation network.

Clichy-sous-Bois, France

Lyon and Marseille: Developing and Reorganizing Obsolete or New Infrastructure

In Lyon, the question of transportation has not occupied such a central place in a long, structured debate around putting economic agents into action in the service of metropolitan competitiveness. However, this stake has progressively emerged, starting from several awakenings on different levels: the need to respond to the dual dynamic of the functional and residential "loosening" at the scale of the greater urban region, from Saint-Etienne to Grenoble; the urgency of modernizing the rail tangle of Lyon, whose blocked up infrastructure is threatened by obsolescence; the willingness to reinforce the intermodal nexus of Part-Dieu, a strategic center of the Lyon metropolis and the motor for its attractiveness at the national and European scale.

Part-Dieu Lyon, France

Finally, in Marseille, the deficiencies in the supply of public transportation and the saturation of the road network are often cited as being among the principal "structural handicaps," putting the breaks on the development of the metropolis and undermining its social cohesion. In a context marked by a strong urban dispersion, the very prevalent recourse to the car (95 percent of all home-to-work trips toward the Milles activity nexus), the weakness of the heavy modes (two metro lines), and more considerably the unsuitability of metropolitan mass transit illustrate the traits of a true "Marseille exception." As in Lyon, a recent awakening has led to various but unsuccessful and disordered initiatives - the regional council being in favor of the train, the department in favor of the car, etc. In this context, by now, most actors identify transportation ways as the "priority construction site" of the future metropolis.

Transportation and Metropolitan Governance: Contrasting Trajectories

Mass transit constitutes a privileged terrain of inter-communal cooperation. From the 1970s, the creation and extension of the perimeters of urban transportation (PTUs), articulated to organizing authorities of urban transportation (AOTUs), have allowed for organizing the management of the networks on a supra-communal level. The example of Marseille offers an absurd illustration of this evolution: the fragmentation of the transportation supply, "with its multiple networks emanating from a single center, disconnected from each other and managed by a dozen local authorities," evokes and illustrates the crumbling of the intercommunal landscape. Only the general council's coach network connects the different polarities of the metropolis in an efficient way.

However, with the extension of living spaces and widening of travel practices, the question of governance over transportation goes beyond the inter-communal level now; it becomes inter-territorial. And so, the Lyon region is like a laboratory: in 1989, the creation of the Lyon Urban Region association ["Région urbaine de Lyon"] with the goal of elaborating disparate strategies for mobility; inter-SCOT (territorial coherence scheme) co-operations, with the support of urbanism agencies; REAL (express network of the Lyon agglomeration), gathered between 2005 and 2010 at the initiative of the Rhone-Alpes region, nine AOTUs, four departments, numerous inter-communities, SNCF and RFF around the projects for the modernization of the rail infrastructure. In January 2012, an additional step was overcome with the creation, concomitant with that of the G4 metropolitan nexus, of "a metropolitan transportation office," combining the agglomerations of Lyon, Saint-Etienne, Bougoin-Jallieu and Vienne. In contrast to STIF (Ile-de-France Transportation Office), we are not talking about an integrated AOTU, but of a structure for dialogue aimed at facilitating the implementation of communal actions and the coordination of the service supply. However, these initiatives encountered numerous resistances because of political positions and recurrent conflicts about financing the projects. As Corinne Tourasse laments, "the introduction of a little bit of government in an ocean of governance has revealed itself to be more paralyzing than enthusing."

The Metropolis, With or Without Transportation

In this context, what changes can we expect from the creation of metropolitan institutions? In Lyon, as in Marseille, the necessity of managing transportation at a proper scale, and in an integrated way, has often been presented as one of the foremost justifications. However, the two projects do not lack ambiguity. In Lyon, while the integration dynamic is based on a patient, partnership-based effort at a large scale, the metropolis should be leading to a concentration of competences over a narrow territorial base, which excludes the airport and the intermodal nexus of Saint-Exupery. Gerard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon and president of Grand Lyon, has posted a clear roadmap for the metropolis, whose presidency he will take over in January 2015: recuperate the totality of the transportation competences and merge the AOTUs. Tensions and competition are therefore to be expected, especially with the metropolitan pole and the region, whereas the future of the extra-metropolitan territories remains uncertain.

In Marseille, this question has not been raised because of the extent of the retained perimeter (93 communes): willingness to make in-depth change to the governance over transportation is largely divided, even among the elected officials who are opposed to the governmental project. However, despite the rather consensus-based elaboration of a "metropolitan transportation plan," several recent projects, like the Aubagne Tramway or the high-service-level bus of the Pays d'Aix, show that the coordination of the transportation authorities at the metropolitan scale remains a pious vow - without even speaking of the creation of an integrated AOTU.

On the subject of governance, Paris is an exception, notably because of the historical role the central government has played in organizing transportation. This leadership has led to the creation of a unified organizing authority (the Office of Parisian Transportation), which was put under the supervision of the region (STIF) in 2001, as well as to a semi-dual pole of two state, public enterprises, RATP and SNCF. After a period of relative "normalization," governance over the transportation of Ile-de-France became subject to a new rise in state intervention. So, the conception and implementation of several projects, starting with the transportation network of greater Paris, entrusted to an ad hoc organization (the Societe Grand Paris), were relegated to STIF. In this context, the legislator abstained from attributing the competences of transportation to the future metropolis, now that it will be responsible for space planning and economic development ... and now that all the actors on the metropolitan scene call for a better integration between transportation and planning!

Pushing the three observed tendencies to the level of caricature, three scenarios emerge: the metropolis and transportation in Lyon; the metropolis without transportation in Paris; transportation without the metropolis in Marseille.

Tram Marseille, France

"Soft" or "Hard"? Between the Logic of Supply and the Logic of Services

Beyond the uncertainties of governance in the three metropolises, the projects illustrate a structural tension between, on the one hand, a logic of supply, which consists in deploying massive investments toward large-scale transportation infrastructure, and on the other hand, a logic of services, founded on the rationalization and improvement of the existing.

In Lyon, most of the initiatives conducted during these last 10 years, notably under the scope of the REAL approach, reveal themselves to be secondary: the hierarchization of the axes of mass transit (with the creation of a deficient TER service in 2007); restructuring the train stations; the renovation of rolling stock; fee integration, etc. They saw remarkable success in terms of use (a 45 percent increase in the number of passengers in five years). However, the infrastructural logic is also there as testify the bidding wars of the candidates over the metro projects or the preparation of the contract for the 2014-2020 plan during the municipal elections in Lyon: "the territories advertised proofs of love and investment, rather than services." Nevertheless, maintaining supply at its current level already demands considerable financing. Everyone is looking at Part-Dieu by now, an exchange nexus traversed by half a million people each day. Its restructuring should mark the arrival of a true international hub at the center of Lyon.

Gare de Lyon, France

Inversely, with the Grand Huit, the Parisian example, was able to appear as the archetype of a model that Jean-Pierre Orfeuil has qualified as "Saint-Simonian," founded on a primacy accorded to large infrastructure. From the origin of the project, several actors criticized its pharaonic character and disconnectedness from the existing network, nonetheless marked by the saturation of its principal lines and mediocre quality of service. However, the project met with a series of re-calibrations, in the sense of a better adaptation of supply to demand and a reinforced integration with the existing lines, while a complementary investment plan for the RERs and the extension of the metro were adopted. Critiques remain, particularly on the absence of much less costly alternatives on the agenda, revealing a logic of services (the automatization of the lines, management of incidents, improvement of traveler information, etc.)

The tension between supply and services expresses itself with less intensity in Marseille. In effect, the deficiencies inherited in the desert, the plenitude of self-transportation, and the multi-polar organization of the metropolis require a differentiated treatment, both in space and time. Identified as being the most "emblematic of a metropolitan capital gain," the three projects testify to as much: in the short term, reserved lanes on the highway for high-service-level bus lines in order to tie together the activity poles; in the midterm, high-performance "rail corridors," founded on the optimization of the existing lines in order to give structure to the metropolitan framework; in the long term, the creation of an underground crossing around the Saint-Charles train station in order to create new internal links in the metropolis. This program, both ambitious and pragmatic, clearly borrows from both registers.

The Marseille example, could it be seminal for once? It has the merit of making us remember that beyond the discussions on territorial integration, the competitiveness and "structuring effects," transportation cannot bolster metropolitan projects, other than through concrete and visible improvements in the quality of the lives of the citizens.

How do transportation projects become political tools? Is there regional transportation cooperation where you live? How could transportation connectivity be improved in your community?

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Data and images linked to sources.

Become a Patron of The Global Grid
Intern photo

Bora Mici has a background in design and online writing. Most recently, she has worked as an online contributor for DC Mud,, and, covering urban planning and visual and performing arts in the Washington, D...

Tuesdays, in your inbox.

Tuesdays, in your inbox.

Weekly local urbanist news and jobs. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!