A Renaissance on Rails France Rediscovers Its Love of Trams

Trams are enjoying a comeback in France. From Nantes to Marseille, city planners are building new, high-tech streetcar lines as central elements in urban redevelopment. And they haven't forgotten any of the French flair the world has come to love.

It's bright yellow with black stripes -- like some kind of futuristic tiger on rails -- and it runs through Mulhouse at eight-minute intervals like a streak of light. This city in France's Alsace region was once a leader in the industrial revolution, but it is now visibly struggling with structural change. The new tram system has brought it fresh pride and and a new sense of self-confidence.

"We wanted a tram that called attention to itself," says Deputy Mayor Michel Samuel-Weis, "as a symbol of economic vitality, environmental awareness and civic improvement -- transportation as an integrated cultural concept."

To make way for the new network, which will connect five neighboring municipalities, streets, sidewalks and bike paths had to be thoroughly overhauled. Now trees have been planted, and the strips of land on which the tracks run have been given fresh green turf. When the city was awarding contracts for the two tramlines, they went looking for artistic flair -- on the rails themselves, though, rather than in the stations.

As an art collector with good connections, Samuel-Weis was able to attract internationally renowned artists to participate in the project. French artist Daniel Buren created grand, omega-shaped arches over the tracks, which could also support the tram's overhead lines. Zebra-like stripes on the arches that run onto the asphalt and the facades of nearby buildings visually intertwine the tramline with the city.

For another one of the city's new tramlines, German artist Tobias Rehberger is planning a tram-city integration on a global scale. With his project, people who pass by a pavilion will experience -- via the Internet and in real time -- the weather in cities around Europe whose names have identical etymologies: Casa Molino in Italy, Mülhausen in Germany and Millhouse in England. At one tram stop, Rehberger also plans to put a light at the bottom of a buried shaft, so that it looks like the sun is shining straight through the Earth from Australia's Shannon Rock.

As an additional artistic element, French electronic music composer Pierre Henry created unique tunes to accompany the announcements played at each station.

"Residents had a say in all the projects," says Samuel-Weis. "They helped decide on the shape of the trams' driver cabins and voted on color choices. The project was popular even before the first tram left the station."

Its launch has been a tremendous success in the city. Many residents now consider riding the tram cool and comfortable. "It's punctual, practical and safe," a young mother says, extolling the new system's virtues. Citing examples like station platforms that come up to the height of the tram doors, she says that it's great for people with children. "Got a baby carriage?" the mother asks. "No problem! It's not like the nightmare at bus stops and subway stations."

An Answer from the Past

The French are hoping the renaissance of the tram will serve as an antidote to traffic jams and gridlock -- and not just in Mulhouse. In almost two dozen French cities, trams have become the hallmark of urban transformation. Nantes and Grenoble were the first cities to bring back what many had long considered to be an outmoded form of transportation. Since then, Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Marseille and even the southern part of Paris have also welcomed back urban rail lines. Lille and Lyon are looking into the idea; Caen, Brest, Nancy, and Toulon are in the planning stages. Throughout France, the network of tracks is set to grow to 576 kilometers (358 miles) by 2015.

On May 1, 1960, the last tram in Strasbourg, a city near Mulhouse that is home to the European Parliament, was retired to the depot with great fanfare. Trams had been part of the city's urban landscape since 1878, where they were originally merely carriages set on tracks and pulled by strong, snorting horses. In 1930, "the electric," as it was called, operated on 234 kilometers of track, and its lines extended far into the city's rural surroundings, allowing working-class families to get away on the weekend to somewhere green for the first time.

After World War II, though, the era of the tram ended. The rattling, unheated railcars with their wooden seats were considered shabby. Postwar reconstruction and the years of the "economic miracle" turned having your own car into a status symbol. "The urban concept of the future and of transportation at that time can be summed up in a single word," says André von der Mark, Strasbourg's director of transportation and large-scale projects: "the car."

Throughout France, cities built ring roads, connecting streets, tunnels and highways, and buses and subways replaced trams. In Paris, the romantic quays along the Seine disappeared beneath multi-lane highways. President Georges Pompidou himself called for this conversion and, in 1971, declared "the city's necessary adaptation to the car."

Can Trams Transform Society?

At Place Kléber in Strasbourg's half-timbered medieval center, traffic used to stand still all morning long, while as many as 70,000 cars blocked each other's progress. Then city planners began to ponder solutions to the problem. "First there were lofty plans for an automatic subway system," von der Mark explains. "In 1980, that was considered modern." But the water table was too high, and building underground proved too expensive.

In 1989, Catherine Trautmann campaigned as the Socialist candidate for mayor under the slogan, "I'll make the tram happen" -- and won. Five years later, the first tramline was inaugurated. It was the beginning of a success story for the new tram, which glides so silently through Strasbourg's old town that its warning bell is often the first thing that shoos pedestrians from the tracks. The drafty wooden wagons of the past have become elegant trains with glass-enclosed driver cabins, while inside there are colorful designs, bucket seats, benches and panorama windows.

This new focus on rail-borne mass transit signals a paradigm change for many cities in terms of local transportation policy. For politicians, architects and city planners, it has to do with "opening the enclaves" -- that is, connecting isolated, often run-down neighborhoods and creating an environment that French urban planner David Mangin describes as "ville passante," or busy city. Mangin envisions an urban landscape "in which people no longer depend on cars to go about their daily business."

But can a tram build social connections? In some cities, it would appear that the tram really has transcended its status as just a means of transportation. In Mulhouse and Montpellier, for example, the tram has connected neighborhoods that were once isolated -- both geographically and socially -- from the cities' centers. In Strasbourg, all of a sudden residents of so-called "difficult neighborhoods" have enjoyed access to the city's downtown, where they can hang out, work or go to the movies. And in Bordeaux, a literal and metaphorical bridging of the Garonne River has provided a connection to the city's long-neglected La Bastide district. "Residents finally don't feel isolated anymore!" says Michèle Delaunay, a Socialist politician who represents the working-class electoral ward at the National Assembly in Paris. "The tram has enormously improved Bordeaux's image."

Bordeaux's mayor Alain Juppé has also benefited from the changes. In local elections held in March, Juppé's reputation as an innovative reformer carried him back into office. When tracks were being laid, the conservative politician took advantage of the opportunity to have the city's whole downtown overhauled. The government restructured traffic routing, replaced street furniture, created pedestrian zones and renovated building facades. Doing so stopped the city's deterioration. Its population is now growing, and downtown property values are rising.

The city owes it all to the tram, which is serving a double function as both a means of transportation and a remedy for urban decay. Nantes, Nancy, Nice and Strasbourg have experienced the same phenomenon. "We were able to rework the city landscape and reorganize priorities," says von der Mark, the city's transportation director. "Pedestrians, cyclists and even drivers have benefited."

A Hard Sell, A Good Buy

At first, the enthusiasm for Strasbourg's plan was limited, and the chaos experienced over the many years of planning and construction almost resulted in collective trauma. "People in Strasbourg wanted the tram," von der Mark recalls, "but not in their own street. Businesspeople were afraid that thousands of shops would close. There were lawsuits. Sometimes it was about increased traffic density, and at other times it was about noise." He also remembers tense city council meetings and protest rallies. Known around city hall as "Monsieur Tram," von der Mark persevered. "As soon as the trams went into operation," he adds, "the objections vanished into thin air."

Strasbourg's local economy has benefited as well. Thanks to the new transportation connections, the city's downtown -- which businesses and shops had once been threatening to abandon -- has now experienced a wave of business development. And the tram has attracted designer brands to the city: Boutiques like Hermès, Cartier and Gucci have all set up shop near the rail lines.

And thanks to a clever pricing policy, all five tram lines are now operating at full capacity. Passengers who park at a "Park & Ride" lot pay a single price of €2.70 ($4.30) and receive a ticket valid for both parking and the tram. And for each car parked in the lot, up to four passengers can be rewarded with tram tickets at no extra charge. As von der Mark puts it: "The tram is like a path to the inner city."

The real innovation, though, is still to come: a connection between the tram and the regional train network. Plans envision Mulhouse's tramline running 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) out to the EuroAirport, which is centrally located and shared by the French city as well as nearby Basel, Switzerland and Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany.