The Yardstick

There’s something in the water in France…

June 3, 2011 | Tags: bicycling, bike sharing, energy, environment, europe, france, Global Fridays, high-speed rail, livability, planning, sustainability, transit, transportation

…no, we’re not talking about the E Coli outbreak that’s taken European nations by surprise, but rather the country’s continued leadership and innovation in transportation.

Birthplace of Vélib’, one of the first and arguably the world’s most recognized bikeshare systems, France has made transportation choice a right for citizens and visitors. Paris boasts one of the world’s most expansive and most used metro systems, of which officials just approved plans to expand by over 125 miles, creating a “supermetro.” And rapid intracity transit isn’t reserved simply for the City of Lights. Even relatively small French cities have metro systems (such as Lyon, population: 480,600 and Lille, population: 226,000), while Strasbourg’s tram system is envied the world over.

All major cities of L’Hexagon are connected by the country’s renowned high-speed rail system (which also provides connections to major cities across the continent). Along with Japan, France was one the pioneers of high-speed rail, for which domestic skeptics have long argued that the U.S. is not suited (despite the success of the “high speed” Acela Express connecting D.C. and New York and a recent repudiation of the “America isn’t dense enough” argument).

The choice to make non-auto transportation a priority has wide-ranging impacts, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions (even as the world’s total emissions rise) and transforming urban areas formerly plagued by blight into sustainable, desirable places.

We’re not certain what makes France so highly prioritize transportation, but the French, like many other Western Europeans, have consistently decided to dedicate a lot of funding to create a range convenient and sustainable transportation choices. Doing so isn’t cheap (and taxes are much higher), but the environmental and quality of life returns on investment are hard to dispute. The U.S. has largely shied away from such ambitious transportation projects in the past few decades, and we’re at a crucial point in deciding whether we will allow the status quo to continue.

Of course, as Erik Weber from Greater Greater Washington pointed out to us in a recent Twitter conversation, pointing to European countries as models to follow (especially France!) may not be the best way to appeal to American policymakers, especially in the current political environment. However, French leadership and innovation on transportation is something to be learned from and admired. Salut!