What’s happening on the new mobility scene in France in 2011? Here you have, in French but with good subtitles, an interview by one of the outstanding political innovators in the field of sustainable transport policy and practice in France. Roland Ries is serving his second term as mayor of Strasburg, and at the same time heads up the national transport political group GART. He also, by the way, as a member of the French Senate drafted the law defining carsharing in France, thus opening up a part of the way to more and better carsharing nation-wide. Spend three minutes with this short video to get a feel for what the leading edge in France is thinking and doing about transport in cities. You will quickly see that this is a world-level message. Play it for your mayor and talk to her about it.
What in our view has been the main contribution of Roland Ries and the city of Strasburg to an international community badly in need of new and better ideas? We have been following progress there closely for a number of years, and here, as we understand it, is the story about their special genius, starting with the three main pillars that in my view define the approach to which they have stubbornly adhered over more than two decades. Sustainable Strasburg was clearly not built in a day. But there was that day when a group of citizens rolled up their sleeves and got started — and all that they have achieved since. Let’s have a look.
The Three Pillars: Pincers. Consistency. Continuity.
1. Pincers: Starting already in the late eighties, a strong political and local consensus began to emerge in the city around the understanding that in order to deal in an efficient, economic and just way with the growing problems of traffic, environment, fair access and quality of life in the city and its surrounding region, a new kind of public policy was going to have to be fashioned on the base of a dynamic “pincer” policy involving the orchestration of a certain combination of policy carrots and policy sticks. Together providing the vital building blocks of the city’s steady move to sustainable mobility.
Sticks as required to make sure that their city was not going to be gridlocked, as a result of the clearly untenable situation, worsening every day, of having too many cars moving around too fast on too few streets – enforced further by the understanding that the solution did not lie in the conventional wisdom being applied as an automatic reflex by many cities at the time, who were convinced that the path lie in making use of great gobs of hard-earned taxpayer contributions to build their way out of the problem by increasing street space, traffic speeds, and parking provision (for vehicles that were effectively sleeping 95% of the time).
And combining these carefully selected sticks (access controls, strategic parking policy, slowing down traffic) with “carrots”, i.e., all the other ways better ways of getting around to and within the confines of a finite city that did not wish to lose its soul. As Mr. Ries explains in the video, providing more and better public transport while at the same time improving the environment for cyclists and walkers, has been a critical concern in Strasburg since the very early years of the new policy.
The clearest indication that an entirely different game plan was getting underway was the city’s decision in 1990 to put in a new state of the art tram system, which opened for service in 1994 and made it clear to all that something different was going on in Strasburg. That tram was just too big to be missed.
2. Consistency: The second indispensable pillar of Strasburg’s success has been the broadly shared commitment to be consistent in their policy. Once the decision has been taken to work with the carrots and the sticks, to keep the cars in their place (but without at any point being anti-car) while steadily increasing the supply and quality of non-car transport, it was vital that strategy this be maintained.
Consistency will not always be easy. Elected officials will come under pressure especially in the early days from specific and often highly vocal interests to reverse elements of the integrated policy — for example for this or that “excellent” reason to increase road capacity here, speed up the traffic there, or increase parking supply in front of my store, home or place of work, but it is vital that the city hold course. Which Strasburg has managed to do. (This becomes a great deal easier once the new model has started to show that it can work and the voters can see the results for themselves.)
3. Continuity: The team of people leading the city, of which Mayor Ries has played an important role since 1989, has undergone its fair share of political changes over the past two decades, with mayors and their support teams coming in from Left and Right. But what is important as a lesson, and vital for the city, is that whatever the coloration of the team in power at any point, the basic policy has been by and large adhered to and kept consistent with the initial strategic orientation.
This is, I would say, a huge lesson for cities around the world. Namely, once your city gets it right, do not let the next election create a situation not only of stop-and-start but also (it happens) abject reversal of good policies and services. We have seen this in city after city around the world.
Sustainable mobility must be sustained — and should not be allowed to become a football in the game of the next round of politics and rhetoric. And to make sure this is the case, it is incumbent on the supporters of good policies to make sure that the electorate is kept fully informed. (For the record, in his last run for mayor in 2008 Mayor Ries had more than sixty percent of the votes – surely a lesson in itself.)
A final point that accounts for Strasburg’s continued strong performance has to do with the city’s ability to maintain and support the technical planning team year after year, as well as to involve actively and from the beginning local user, environment and other key groups directly in the process of thinking about, creating and maintaining the new transportation fabric of the city. This is, of course, a never-ending job.
One of the latest innovations of the Strasburg team has been the creation in the last months of a sharply scaled fare policy for public transport, which permits people with low revenues to have “almost free” access to the system, barely 2 Euros for a month pass for those with the least resources. The basic position behind this is the belief that mobility is a basic need and as such a necessary right for all citizens, and that it is a condition for full and fair participation in the economy and in society.
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If you are coming to Europe at any time in the near future, and transport, mobility and the environment are your thing, we suggest you will do well to take the time to spend a few days in Strasburg to see how this one medium-sized city is making a huge contribution not only to the life quality of the eight hundred thousand people who live in and around the city, but is also providing a fine example for other cities in France, and the world. A world badly in need of more good examples like this.
To get you started:
Strasburg blends a combination of a city that is at once bike and walk friendly (great provision for walkers, plenty of bike ways, easy bike rental, and many streets zoned for 30 kph top speed), with first class public transport, buses, trams and trains – augmented by one of France’s oldest and most successful carsharing operations – Auto’trement at http://www.autotrement.com/ , and all that with an array of services for carpooling and ridesharing (“covoiturage” in French).