strasbourg: you can’t take it home with you

IMG_1031 When any experienced streetcar/tram advocate starts talking about the magnificence of trams as a placemaking tool, sooner or later you'll hear about Strasbourg, capital of the Alsace region of France, right on the German border. 

(Strasbourg has several claims to fame, apart from a substantially intact old city with layers extending back to the Renaissance.  As a traveler in Europe, I'm long past the cathedral-worshipping stage, but Strasbourg has the most astounding cathedral in Europe — a composition that seems built of vertical shafts of light as much as of stone.  It was the world's tallest building for over 200 years, and its mass displays an utter lack of proportion to the surrounding city that, if built 600 years later, would have been
called Brutalist.  

Strasbourg is also the seat of the European Parliament and Council of Europe, which make second only to Brussels in its importance to the EU.  But this is a transit blog …)

Strasbourg was the first city to use the low-floor articulated tram design, a continuous space with hinged sections instead of multiple cars. 

1 Full Tram

2 Tram Interior

Similar trams can now be seen in many other cities, including the circumferential trams of Paris.  Crucially, the whole Strasbourg tram network is new, designed for these trams rather than adapted from older high-floor styles.  The first line tram line opened in 1994, and much has been built in the last few years. 

French Wikipedia amusingly describes the trams' design as futuriste — "futuristic."  In both languages, this term, when applied to transit vehicles, basically means "phallic/aerodynamic," i.e. "featuring rounded ends that are supposed to recall both airplanes and penises."  Needless to say, the aerodynamic needs that mandate this shape for airplanes and high-speed trains are largely irrelevant to a vehicle that spends most of its time under 50 km/hr.


If you're a regular HT reader or European traveler, you've seen trams
like the one above.  This one's an Alstom Citadis, but Bombardier makes
them too, and they're the current best standard, prominent in Bern and
Paris among other cities.  The crucial idea is the continuous space,
with articulated sections rather than distinct cars.  Vast windows and low floors help the tram's inner space feel like a continuation of the street.  Thanks to these windows, too, the trams are translucent from the outside; it's easy to see right through them, and their opaque parts are mostly at the base, so they feel less like the "walls" that massed transit vehicles can form in the streetscape.  (The newest European buses also have this feature.)  The only distinction between Strasbourg's standard tram and those
I've seen elsewhere is the length of the tapered segment at the ends,
which creates that insdispensable phallic/aerodynamic look. 

Strasbourg seems, at first, to marry the ideals of rapid transit with the ideals of the urbanist pedestrian quarter.  Through the old center, the tram glides firmly through pedestrian precincts, ringing bells as needed. 


7 Tram Ped

Once out of the centre, it slides into exclusive grass-track medians on major boulevards.

8 Grass Track Cathedral 

Outermost segments get up some speed, but average customer travel speeds
are relatively low because the fastest segments are at outer ends where
the fewest people are riding.

Oddly, no effort has gone into making the streetside infrastructure as futuriste as the trams.  Stations are a pretty standard high-end European shelter, nothing special but functional.  Ticket machines are so frequently out of order that even my Lonely Planet guide in French mentioned this as an issue.



But these small faults only underscore, by contrast, how well the trams work, both as transport and as elements of the streetscape. 


The risk to Strasbourg visitors, of course, is that they'll want to buy the whole thing and take it home, as politicians are prone to do when visiting streetcar cities.  At the conference I attended in Amsterdam last month, Wijnand Veeneman of the Technical University of Delft mentioned Strasbourg in particular as an example of this problem of tourist shopping in urban public transport.  Even within Europe, there's a tendency for people to visit Strasbourg and say: "That's exactly what I want at home!"  And of course, for the right price, Alstom or Bombardier will sell you trams just like these.

But the apparent success of Strasbourg's trams is really more about Strasbourg than it is about trams.  Most of the achievement depended on (a) distinctive features of Strasbourg's urban form and (b) many other changes to the city's transport system that happened together with the introduction of trams.

Urban form first.  Strasbourg's size is such that most transit trips are manageable distances.  People aren't commuting 40km or more, as many do in Paris.  So trams, operating on the surface, and slowing down to penetrate the old urban core, could deliver reasonable travel times, so long as they did not mix with traffic.  For readers in North America and Australia, it's important to be clear that these are what you would call light rail, rather than what North Americans call streetcars and Australians call trams.  They are in exclusive right of way, interacting with signals but not with car traffic in their lane, and they serve fairly widely spaced stations — every 300m or more even when going through the central pedestrian zone, wider still as you get further out.

It's also important that Strasbourg's streets are fairly wide, even in the old city.  There's nothing like the tight squeeze of Amsterdam's Leidsestraat, for example, where oncoming trams are forced to share single track to preserve pedestrian space.  Elsewhere, even in 18th Century areas, Strasbourg is a city of wide streets and often boulevards.  These have enough space here for exclusive lanes, usually grass track, for the trams.

Other French cities of Strasbourg's size have built small underground metros, but Strasbourg has chosen to develop its trams as its top-level urban transit service.  The decision allowed the money to cover a larger area — Strasbourg's trams are much more extensive than the Lille and Rennes metros, for example.  But this same decision raised the stakes for the trams as a transit service.  It put pressure on the leaders and planners to define a high standard of speed and reliability and refuse to compromise it during the inevitable block-by-block debates about the tram's urban and traffic impact.  Again, the tram does go through pedestrian streets, at an appropriately low speed, but it moves assertively through these areas, bells warning pedestrians to get out of the way, and once it's out of the core and running in boulevard medians, it's as fast as any similar light rail anywhere.

As for the concurrent changes to Strasbourg's traffic system, they were massive.  Most of the main pedestrian streets that the tram follows through the old city were pedestrianised only as the tram was introduced.  Cars were banned from large areas, apart from off-peak deliveries.  Parking in the core was reduced, mostly shifted to satellite locations from which people could take the tram into the core.  

Introducing streetcars sounds easy, but once you explain the whole package to the visiting civic leader, they begin to grasp how hard this must have been politically.  Strasbourg looks beautiful and serene, but in political terms you could also see it as a battlefield memorial, recording a triumph that involved major pain and suffering.  Transit tourists should learn to watch for both elements when they visit an admired city: Not just the achievement, but also the lingering evidence of the struggle and sacrifice that it entailed.

Sure, Alstom will sell you streetcars just like these.  But that won't turn your city into Strasbourg. 

20 Responses to strasbourg: you can’t take it home with you

  1. anonymouse July 17, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    Having recently been abroad, what struck me the most was not how much transit infrastructure exists in that particular city, but how much car infrastructure does not. And I feel like high ridership levels can be attributed to that. Even as people are able to afford cars, and get them as an aspirational sort of thing, they will sooner or later weigh the pros and cons of cars versus transit. In the US, where cars are such an ingrained default (thanks to massive infrastructure), that’s not something people even think about most of the time.

  2. Adam Parast July 17, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    On the big windows. Why don’t transit agencies the US have vehicles (rail and bus) with large windows. The only vehicles I can think of that have large windows are the Skoda streetcars. Are there safety reasons or is it just a money issue?

  3. J July 18, 2010 at 12:09 am #

    Adam, american windows have gotten much larger. Look at the tiny windows on PCCs and buses from the 50s, and they even have bars to make them smaller.
    The common american bus now appears to be the low/high floor mix (why can’t we have all low floor buses like europe?) and so the windows are exceptionally large.
    One interesting point about that: When the buses were introduced in Boston 5 or so years ago, I remember reading an article where someone riding in a poorer area was concerned that the large windows meant she was less safe from shootings. Scary. The good news is that those fears never materialized, I can’t remember ever reading about a bus in Boston being shot up.

  4. teme July 18, 2010 at 2:44 am #

    Good points and agree that the model doesn’t fit everywhere, but I don’t see the problem here: “average customer travel speeds are relatively low because the fastest segments are at outer ends where the fewest people are riding.” Well yes, but speeds required are IMO proportional to length of the ride. And the key reason why policymakers are shopping light rail systems like this is costs.

  5. samussas July 18, 2010 at 4:17 am #

    Nice article, I’m just disapointed that you totally forget to speak about what I think is really the most important feature about Strasbourg’s tram: it’s not the aesthetics but the way the network is configurated and the way it’s going to evolve.

  6. anonymouse July 18, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    J: There is at least one agency in America, AC Transit, that does have European all-low-floor buses, and while I agree with you they’re quite nice, the more vocal segment of the ridership seems to disagree and there were a lot of bitter complaints, especially from senior citizens and the like about the climbing involved to get into the seats (and the relative scarcity thereof). I suspect European buses work best with european ridership: short trips with lots of people getting on and off at each stop, which is not necessarily the case with AC Transit or most other bus agencies in the US.

  7. Tamara July 18, 2010 at 11:20 am #

    The “futuristic” design is nice in its way, but it actually seems a bit out of place to me in a historical city – not that historical city cores should be preserved as museums or anything, but a super-futuristic look to the trams that is *unnecessary*, since this isn’t a 300kph intercity train somewhere, seems to clash somewhat.
    Does it really have to be 50s-spaceship-silver?
    Also, metros – admittedly, i’ve never lived in a city with one, but for commutes that consist of short trips in a small city, there seems to be a considerable investment of time getting up and down from the stations, while with surface transport you’re immediately there. (The worst offender I know of is actually Tel Aviv central bus station, where local busses arive on the seventh floor and it can take a good ten minutes to arrive at an exit to the street.)

  8. Anon July 18, 2010 at 5:52 pm #

    I think all this talk about phallic trains is nonsense. Does anybody actually look at a tram and think about penises? Seriously?

  9. EngineerScotty July 18, 2010 at 5:59 pm #

    As Freud himself once observed, “sometimes a cigar is a cigar”…

  10. observer July 18, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Silly me, all this time, I’ve been thinking those pointy fronts were cow-catchers…

  11. Minato July 19, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    Tamara said “The “futuristic” design is nice in its way, but it actually seems a bit out of place to me in a historical city – not that historical city cores should be preserved as museums or anything, but a super-futuristic look to the trams that is *unnecessary*, since this isn’t a 300kph intercity train somewhere, seems to clash somewhat.”
    I disagree.
    An historic looking tram would be more out of place than these cars.
    Strasbourg tram also serve many areas where there are hardy any ancient (build before the WW2) buidlings.
    Almost all trams in France have a very modern look.
    Honestly comparated at many other tram system in France, Strasbourg tram does not look more futurist.
    It is quite average.

  12. Tessa July 19, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    Interesting post, but I have to disagree in some ways with some of your conclusions. Yes, there are certainly challenges to getting this style of transit system built in a city of that size, but can you imagine trying to build a metro in a north american city of that size? The cost wouldn’t make sense. Frankly, there are challenges with anything that will deter people from using cars and instead get them on buses. That whole idea is politically difficult in many parts of the world, but that is the idea, isn’t it? I would love to see fewer lanes of car traffic in many parts of my hometown, for not just transit but bikes and pedestrians, too. Any successful transportation battle that achieves those goals will be a bit messy.
    Point is, I don’t see how this end goal is more politically difficult or even more difficult in terms of space than the rapid bus in its own lanes end goal. Sure, it will likely cost more, but on large capacity runs that might be needed, and in the end I think we ought to be reclaiming urban space from the personal automobile regardless of what transit technology we use.

  13. d.p. July 19, 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    Thank you, Jarrett!
    I’m nearly as tired of hearing planners and pundits say, “Let’s adapt Strasbourg’s model — except that we’ll do away with all the elements that make it work!” as I am of hearing them say “Let’s adapt Curitiba’s model — except that we’ll do away with all the elements that make it work!”
    Your statement that “there seems to be a considerable investment of time getting up and down from [metro] stations, while with surface transport you’re immediately there,” reflects a recent trend in overbuilding/making civic showpieces out of subway stations, rather than a drawback inherent in subterranean rapid transit.
    A well-designed system should never add enough surface-to-platform distance to negate the time savings of grade separation, to cause riders to miss their trains, or to let the above thought even enter your mind.
    This remains the subway ideal:
    (from )
    And while that may be infeasible today, we need not have swung so far to the other extreme. This is unnecessary, expensive, and counterproductive:
    (from )

  14. Carter R July 19, 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    Dear Jarret,
    As a transit policy enthusiast, 3-month resident in Strasbourg, and someone who once vowed to write about Strasbourg’s tram system, I really glad you stepped up to the plate where I flaked.
    You did a fantastic job.
    The one more thing I would add though, to the discussion of the Strasbourg Model’s applicability to other cities is the following.
    -Strasbourg is really really compact for a city with about 300,000 people. The central downtown area (which is filled with 4-6 story mixed-use buildings), is only 2km across.
    -I lived very comfortably with only my two feet and the tram to get around, and my sense of mobility freedom (ability to get to the places I wanted to go, do what I wanted to do) is about what it is right now in LA with a car.
    -Some of this is repeating what you already wrote, but indeed the huge glass windows and light construction really do make the tram feel more like a part of the sidewalk, than a domineering piece of infrastructure (especially from the inside too).

  15. Pete (UK) July 20, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    Bombardier actually inherited the Eurotram model when they took over Adtranz who built the Strasbourg cars at their plant in Derby, England. The later Alstom Citadis cars were a special variant designed to look like the Eurotrams.

  16. Tamara July 20, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    on futuristic looking trams – I don’t think some twee fake-19th-century look would be any good either, i’m just not a fan of the deliberately futuristic stuff – all silver and aerodynamics and deadly serious. Its not the starship Enterprise, y’all. I wish someone would come up with something that just looks *contemporary* and not ‘futuristic’. Maybe some color?
    d.p. – Thanks for the illustration, I take your point.

  17. Vanessa July 21, 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    i was abroad in strasbourg for my spring semester and it was absolutely amazing. the trams were easy to navigate, always clean and everybody used them. their look was sleek and i loved that they were mostly windows so you could enjoy the beautiful scenery strasbourg has to offer

  18. Lauri Kangas July 29, 2010 at 2:09 am #

    “Other French cities of Strasbourg’s size have built small underground metros, but Strasbourg has chosen to develop its trams as its top-level urban transit service.”
    This is maybe a little misleading considering how few French cities have built VAL metros (3 I think) and how many have adopted the Strasbourg model of trams (at least a dozen). These cities have also adopted the full package including complete segregation and extensive traffic light priority. This is also what French consultants will sell you. They will also include renovating the full width of the streets and public places along the route as an essential part of the package.
    This is not an easy package to implement, but you can’t claim flat out that it is impossible for anyone else. Urban density is of course a limiting factor, but many cities have a large enough dense area to be served by such a system. It may not provide the full mobility package for all areas, but it doesn’t actually provide everything for Strasbourg either. Buses connect with a large number of stops providing both feeder services and orbital connections. TER trains provide services from surrounding communities linking with the tram at at least two stations and a tram-train link is under construction to provide some direct rural connections.
    As a further example Lyon a combination of several tram lines, priotized trolleybus routes and a metro to provide the trunk network of a larger city than Strasbourg. Again the tram lines have full priority and provide much more than just circulator services.

  19. Nathanael August 1, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    American cities west of *Boston* have *insanely* wide streets by European, Australian, or even Canadian standards. Street width is not an issue except for our American “We MUST have 10 lanes of car traffic” attitude.
    Tight, dense inner cities? We’ve got ’em, though obviously not everywhere. Geographically constrained Seattle and San Francisco are good examples.

  20. Mikko August 26, 2010 at 7:56 am #

    Summary: It’s very, very nice, but don’t try it at home.