Last week, Yonah Freemark at Next American City looked at a recent public transportation phenomenon in France: the rise of the tram. In the 1980s, there were only three tramways still running from their heyday earlier in the century. Now, 22 cities have them; that number will be 29 by 2016. Freemark notes what makes trams popular: they're electric and silent, they run on the ground level, they support grassy medians and they're really not ugly.
I've lived in Paris and Orleans, whose expanding tramways I used regularly. Just about every city I visited in the country had one as well. Compared to the bus, the tram is a pleasure to take. It has right of way over most traffic, so it's fast. The ride isn't jerky or noisy. The elderly and disabled can easily get in and out, as there are no steps.
In Orleans, the tram cuts unobtrusively through the center of town, a largely pedestrian zone where cars are banned. For those commuting from the suburbs, there is a park and ride system, reducing the number of cars trying to get through the tiny Orleans streets.
There are downsides, of course. Tramways are expensive: Brest's newly installed system cost around $50,000,000 per mile, reports Freemark. They take time to install. My year in Orleans and six months in Paris were both marked by the noise and inconvenience of endless construction. (Both projects were completed soon after I left.)
The trams run through pedestrian areas, a danger to those who don't hear them coming (obviously, the driver slows to a crawl and leans on his horn). I never saw anyone get hit, but I did see some close calls, and had one or two myself. The sunken tracks are a potential hazard to bikers; a friend of mine flew over her handlebars when her front wheel got stuck.
Coming to a City Near You?
Not likely, unless you live in Europe, where France isn't the only country falling in love with the tram. In his piece, Freemark delves into the politics of public transportation in America, an endlessly frustrating topic.
Back in New York, I miss riding the tram. I love the public transportation here, but when I'm stuck on a crosstown bus in endless traffic, I'd give up my Metrocard to be riding an Orleans tram instead.