Paris: Converging Vehicles

Have a look at this interior.  (Click, as always, to enlarge.)  Can you tell if it’s a bus or a streetcar/tram?


If you have been reading for a while, you know the answer, because only one answer explains why I’d ask the question.  It’s the interior of this:

I photographed it at Porte de Choisy on the south edge of Paris, where it’s about to begin a run deep into the southern suburbs.

Look again at the interior above.  Note details like the ticket readers next to the first set of doors.  (The one on the left is for the new Navigo smartcard, the other for standard magnetic tickets.)  Note, just visible in the upper left of the photo, a strip map showing every stop that this bus makes along its route.  Note the whole look and feel.

As I observed last year in Germany, European systems present buses and trams as part of a unified system, with amenity choices that minimize the difference between the bus experience and the tram experience.  This is a striking contrast to US “streetcar cities” such as Portland and Seattle, where the streetcar is as differentiated as possible from the bus system, as though it’s expected to serve a different clientele.

Next to the bus at Porte de Choisy is a “tram” stop, the T3, which runs along the whole southern edge of Paris.  I should really call this light rail, as it has most of the features Americans would expect for that brand:  All exclusive right-of-way and signal priority, so that stations are the only reason it stops.  Here’s the vehicle, by Alstom.  It’s a snake: a continuous vehicle with six hinge points and seven articulated sections.

And here’s its interior, photographed from one end.


The continuous open space is wonderful.  But there’s nothing else about this design, in terms of overall level of amenity, that differs from the bus.  (And on a hot day in Paris like today, both are vastly more pleasant than the older lines of the Metro, which lack air conditioning or even much ventilation!)

This vehicle isn’t trying to serve different people than the bus serves or to provide a higher quality experience.  This vehicle is on rails for one good reason:  The corridor it serves needs huge capacity — many passengers per driver — and only a light rail vehicle can provide that.  But for the same reason, it’s designed to a high reliability standard: separated from traffic in a grass-tracked median, able to pre-empt many signals, and it seems to encounter no delay apart from the stations themselves.


More soon here on the remarkable parallel improvements in Paris’s essential bus system.  But for now, just notice that in Paris, light rail is just what you do when you need a really, really long bus.  Other than that, there’s an attempt to make the bus and rail experiences as similar as possible.  Both are clearly part of the same system, aimed at the same diversity of riders.

17 Responses to Paris: Converging Vehicles

  1. anonymouse July 9, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    There are a couple of differences. Obviously, the tram is longer, and the giant bus wheels mean that you have to climb up to get into some seats, which is not the case on the tram. Otherwise, yeah, they’re pretty close, and that’s how it should be. The other benefits that the tram provides it does without even trying (like better ride quality).

  2. EngineerScotty July 9, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Obvious question: Do the busses in Paris run on a proof-of-payment system? The fact that the bus is outfitted like a tram suggests so… how does PoP work over larger bus networks, as opposed to rail networks with (presumably) denser ridership?

  3. Jeff Wegerson July 9, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    We were just in Paris this last April. We had ridden the buses last year a bit but this year it became our primary way around. That was largely for the experience even though it was slower and less frequent than the Metro.
    There was for us a learning curve on how to use it. I’m used to Chicago where buses stop at every or every other corner. In Paris buses have bus-stops every half mile or so. The other problem is that these bus stops don’t appear on city maps and the bus maps don’t show the streets. It was hard to figure out where the bus stops would be. As I recall Google helped a bit.
    But one we got the hang of it the experience was great. The frequency was plenty good. But the best part was that every busstop had an electronic sign that told us when the next two buses would arrive. Knowing how long you will wait takes away a tremendous amount of anxiety. Heck just knowing that a bus will arrive at all is great.
    Sometimes we got stuck in traffic. But the fact that tourists do not take the bus made up for it. It’s almost all locals and old ladies.
    Then there is the seeing the city. For the first time we saw the outside of Musee de Orsay. Imagine that.

  4. Jeffrey Bridgman July 9, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

    Even the paint-scheme is the same….
    a.k.a… no attempt to differentiate the system through branding.

  5. voony July 9, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    anonymouse, he problem of the bus wheel has been under the bus designer radar too, and eventually have a solution to it called “hynovis”: see
    also the T3 Paris tram: if it has the feature of an american LRT, has the function of an american streetcar: so it is a tram in the European sense.
    from memory: Average trip length on the T3 is 2.4km, posted average speed (by transit agency) is 20km/h, but a french audit has measured 16km/h

  6. HyjalAzeroth July 10, 2010 at 1:37 am #

    Would be interested to know what it is like riding the Paris articulated bus in terms of the ‘sea sick’ aspect that can come with these buses – some of them can bounce and sway around, especially in the spot where the ‘join’ is. Do the Paris buses have the same issue?
    Does the ‘join’ have any impact on the length of service that these buses are capable of, and maintenance required? What is their average life, and how does that compare with light rail?
    Something else that I’ve experienced regularly on buses is the jolting stops due to sudden braking, and don’t seem to recall on the few trams or light rail vehicles I’ve travelled on.
    The final thing I’d be interested to know about is the noise of the Paris buses – how noisy are they?

  7. GD July 10, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    I’d be interested in knowing if there still is differentiation between the two systems in terms of mapping. Last time I went to Paris, in 2006, the Tram was a prominent feature on small transit maps, while the buses remained a msytery to the short-term tourist I was.
    IIRC, Jarrett addressed the issue of legibility a few times. To me, that’s the main reason I am often uncomfortable with using the bus systems of cities I am visiting – they are somehow harder for me to figure out in most cases (obviously, often due to routing, or because they serve the people who know the route well in any case)

  8. Julia Ringma July 10, 2010 at 11:38 am #

    I find myself mesmerized by how close the nose of that truck marked “…opcar”, in the last photo, is to the train. I’m guessing he was thinking he could beat the train and stopped just short of a collision.

  9. Jarrett at July 10, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    GD.  Trams function as rapid transit (serving stations rather than stops, and entirely separated from traffic.)  So they correctly (in my view) appear on the Métro map, as extensions of the Métro.  Buses have their own map.  Links to all these maps are here: , under the section: "Pour chaque mode de transport, des plans adaptés à vos besoins"

  10. Jarrett at July 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    Hyjal.  The Paris buses are best practice European buses in terms of noise and emissions, so not bad but you won't mistake them for electric.  Ride is typical for low-floor buses, which are always better than high-floor due to lower center of gravity.

  11. Carl July 10, 2010 at 5:42 pm #

    I agree with Jarrett’s points that buses and trams/streetcars/light rail should not be branded differently, and that the best practices of rail vehicles should be adopted by buses, and that they should be made complementary in the transit system, with identical fare structures.
    However, that does not mean that buses and rail are interchangeable or that an advanced bus (“BRT”) is equivalent to rail, but cheaper. Rail, even in the “lightweight” tram form, represents a larger investment in the corridor, with more permanence. It delivers a higher ride quality to passengers, and generally has more exclusive right of way and signal priority, and more consistent and predictable headways. For a corridor with sufficient ridership and further development potential, rail will deliver higher transit ridership.
    If the argument is made that BRT is cheaper, that is usually because there is much less investment in the right of way. If a corridor warrants investment in exclusive right of way, then generally rail delivers a better experience for users as well as higher ridership and lower operating costs. In USA many busways are woefully underused – or if they are mixed with HOV traffic, congested during peak periods. The most successful busway in USA, the LA Orange Line, it is now generally agreed would have been better built as light rail which would more easily deliver the needed capacity.

  12. Hyjal Azeroth July 10, 2010 at 7:22 pm #

    Thanks Jarrett, that answers most of my questions – can you advise on the operational life and maintenance costs of articulated buses and light rail vehicles?

  13. anonymouse July 14, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    Operational life for buses is around 12 years, for rail vehicles typically around 35 but possibly as long as 50 in regular service.

  14. thingie July 18, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    I wouldn’t even think of trams and buses not trying to be complementary parts of a single system. That doesn’t make any sense. (Well, maybe except when you think of the bus as such low-quality transit option, that you are willing to do anything to show just that this is not a bus. But that’s just desperate.)
    On the other hand, there are different needs in their construction. In a bus, there are stronger forces affecting its passengers than in a tram, so you simply need more seats and less standing space. Standing and holding in a bus on a roundabout is actually quite hard, and this just never happens in a tram, so I don’t think it’s wise to make buses and trams too similar.

  15. Pete (UK) July 22, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Interesting article Jarrett. I thought I’d give some UK examples of innovative bus design.
    Firstly the ‘Streetcar’ built by Wright Brothers of Northern Ireland based on a concept developed by First Group.
    A hybrid derivative of this model is now in service in Las Vegas on the Ace Gold Line.
    Secondly the Optare Versa, which is designed to seat between 36 and 40 passengers, and is classified as a ‘midibus’ in UK bus terminology.
    Two shots of a Nottingham City Transport example:

  16. Lauri Kangas July 29, 2010 at 2:47 am #

    The MAN Lion’s City you present is a good bus and the French and Germans do provide interconnected networks with buses and trams supporting each other. Still I must object to the tram not trying to provide a better service.
    Based on my discussions with French consultants, they would vehemently oppose this idea. For them the tram is much more than just the vehicle. It is a complete solution designed to improve both mobility and urban improvements. Although buses are also taken seriously (and rightly so), the French will also stress that trams attract more passengers with a wider demographic even with the nice buses they use.
    At the same time trams are only used on routes where there is sufficient demand to warrant them etiher directly or by aggregating demand. Trams are also given almost complete priority. Stop spacing is around 500 m, but bus stop spacing isn’t dense either. This is simply because 300 to 400 m is a completely acceptable walking distance in pedestrian friendly urban environments. Thus denser stop spacing is counterproductive. This is again especially true for the trams as the pedestrian (and cycling) environments are improved as part of the projects.
    As to the terminology I would say that the French interpretation of trams is the definition of a modern tramway, so I’ve just started calling them modern tramways. Some people have suggested “rapid streetcar” as a North American equivalent. Light rail is problematic due to the (unnecessary) heavy engineering so typical of North American systems. The French systems specifically avoid this by reallocating space and time on the surface.
    Some French cities have chosen busways (guided or unguided) over tramways for some routes. They are implemented with the same level of segregation and do work well. I have yet to see conclusive data on their attractivity when compared to trams, but they are certainly not failures in this regard. In contrast some of the technical solutions they have tried in order to mimic tram vehicles have been (expensive) failures.

  17. Daniel Sparing August 7, 2010 at 4:11 am #

    The bus strip map is a fantastic idea: every bus route map is continuously distorted (so the angles are correct at every given location) so that the route map fits into a reasonably narrow stripe. (Of course the North-South orientation you lose.)
    The most obvious connection you didn’t explicitly mention: the bus, tram (and metro) share the same coloring and was shared with the previous shared bikes too before the Vélib’. Now it is harder to sell a unified system if all buses and trams are painted to the colors of the subcontractors.