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Trams and bikes in “car-free” Montpellier

June 23rd, 2009 · 31 Comments

Montpellier is considered a hot number among cities, I’ve discovered since I’ve been here. It’s not only got a beautiful historic centre, but the city’s mayor, Georges Freche, has dedicated his last 30 years to taking it into the 21st century.

He’s built business parks around the core, which have attracted the likes of IBM and Dell. (And I say “he” deliberately, since mayors here have powers that Canadian mayors can only dream of.)

He’s had two super-modern tram lines built through the city. He banned cars from the city’s central square, making it the largest car-free city plaza in France. And of course Montpellier has a bike-share system.

Along with that, he tore out the slums to the south of the old centre and had them replaced with a development by noted Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill built in a modern Greco-Roman style (think of our library) that is visually stunning.

So I was panting to see the place.

In many ways, it was one of the most pleasurable cities we’ve visited in Europe. We drove in to the city from a backroad and, with very little trouble, got ourselves into the underground carpark that sits under the central city. When we came up the stairs, we found ourselves right in the middle of the main plaza. Now there’s something that encourages you to park the car.

The old city was wonderful, filled with narrow wandering streets that opened out to squares here and there that were filled with cafe tables.

And we tried both the trams and the bikes. Both of which left me with some questions.

The trams were very cool, hyper-modern, smooth and quiet, running right alongside the central square and extending, at this point, to the east and south of the city. There have been people who’ve said trams won’t work on Broadway because they won’t go any faster than a regular bus or car is able to, so people won’t be encouraged to take them. But these trams seemed to move quickly through the city, through some kind of priority system. And many of the stations seemed to have a bus line linked to them.

On the down side, the stops are fairly far apart. Those who don’t like subways because they don’t like the distances between stops, thinking that they don’t really promote street activity, wouldn’t like these any better. They are really like above-ground metro stops, which very little commercial activity around them.

And there are at this point only two lines, leaving huge parts of the city unserved. It does get high ridership, according to their stats — something like 75,000 a day — but I’d think that’s partly because there aren’t many other choices.

Montpellier is a city that is dominated by students (there is a huge university district served by one of the tram lines) and by immigrants, who live as far as I can tell in the miles of blocky, bare, 10-storey apartments outside the central city. So if those two groups want to go anywhere, they have to get on the tram line, because it is the only form of public transportation that runs through the central city.

As for the bikes, hmmm. I love the idea of a bike-share system and I’m still desperately hoping to get a chance to ride on Paris’s stylish gray Velib bikes. (At this point, no luck, because — warning to all of you in the same situation — the system is ONLY accessible to people who have a credit card with a chip. Even if you go to City Hall and say you’re a journalist. Even if you phone up the operator, JSDeceaux. Even if you throw little fits publicly.)

So I was thrilled to discover that for one euro each, my partner and I could each have a VeloMagg to ride around all day.

Which was cool until I realized that Montpellier is not really that bike friendly, or at least the parts we were in.

In the central city, it’s not that fun to ride a bike around because you’re competing with wandering pedestrians for the space. To ride out to the fancy new development, Antigone, that I referred to earlier, you have to cart your bike down steps, ride scarily along the tram line and perform other manoeuvres that are not particularly safe-feeling. The bikes are there, but it doesn’t feel as though there’s a lot of designated space for them.

It made me start to feel dubious about bike-share systems, about what they’re really intended to do and whether they do it. It does feel in some cities like they’re just a trendy little tourist thing that don’t really do that much to get people out of cars or even out of buses.

But I need to do more research on this. And clearly the situation is different in Paris, where they do seem to be used regularly for commuting.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • Thanks Frances…we all envy you. Now as for bike sharing, am I correct in assuming one does not need to wear a helmet to ride a bike in a French city? I ask since I often wonder how feasible bike sharing is when a helmet is mandatory. I mean, not all of us travel around with knapsacks large enough to accommodate a helmet.

  • In Paris, they spend 10 years improving bicycle routes around the city before they introduced the bike sharing system. They also have car-free areas and large 30kph zones which are fine for riding bikes in. The drivers are also much friendly to bikes there. It is certainly not Copenhagen but the transformation since I was there in 93 was amazing. Back then, I loved Paris, but would not have dreamed of riding a bike there.

  • Darcy McGee

    I find it interesting that you mention the safety and pedestrian interaction issues. This is common.

    Safety is usually cited as the primary reason people won’t ride. Providing dedicated, safe bike only routes has been repeatedly demonstrated as an effective method of encouraging cycling.

    Amsterdam is often cited as an example of an excellent environment for cycling, and one with a FAR above average rate of trips made by bicyles…in the 30% range. It wasn’t always so: it came about as a result of dedicated planning in the 70s. Prior to that Amsterdam’s cycling rates were nothing to crow about.

    I’m not sure what your cycling history is, Frances. I’d be curious. Experience tends to increase the feeling of safety that (as it does with most activities…nascent drivers are nervous behind wheel, and usually a bit afraid of traffic.) Bike sharing programs are not a panacea…they don’t create a safe environment.

    The city needs to plan a wholistic environment to support cycling as an /imporant and viable/ mode of transportation. It doesn’t happen overnight.

  • Blaffergassted

    The French has no understanding of their own history.

    Montpellier needs hot air balloons!!!

  • DMJ


    “The trams were very cool, hyper-modern, smooth and quiet, running right alongside the central square and extending, at this point, to the east and south of the city. There have been people who’ve said trams won’t work on Broadway because they won’t go any faster than a regular bus or car is able to, so people won’t be encouraged to take them. But these trams seemed to move quickly through the city, through some kind of priority system. And many of the stations seemed to have a bus line linked to them.”

    In Montpelier (population 260,000), is part of France’s LRT (tram) Renaissance. Operating on reserved rights-of-ways, with priority signaling, enables the trams to move almost as quickly as a metro.

    Tram/bus stops in Europe are about 500m to 600m apart, reflecting the optimum distance between stops in a balance to combine commercial speed and customer approval. The more stops on a transit system, the slower the service.

    After extensive study, France’s transit planners have reinvented the science of public transport.

    Public transit is to move people, not create mini-markets around each stop.

  • Darcy McGee

    Surface level trams are a great idea on Broadway, but you lose lanes and/or parking. Vancouver’s reliance on street parking bites us again.

    On the other hand, for a great deal of its length Broadway has extremely wide sidewalks that could be made narrower…perhaps enough space? (It was a Broadway Street merchant who pointed this out to me.) With a bike “route” on 10th and 7th, there’s not really a need to accommodate bikes directly on Broadway.

    Here’s the rub though: a significant part of the rapid transit route planned along Broadway runs right through the Premier’s riding.

    Anybody want to place bets on whether it’s a tunnel that’s built by boring or one built by cut and cover? I know what side I’m betting on…

  • Frances Bula

    In answer to some of the questions

    1. Ack. No, I didn’t wear a bike helmet. I didn’t even think about it and they certainly don’t provide them. No one wears them. Partly, for me, it was because we were cycling almost exclusively in the pedestrianized areas.

    2. Re my cycling experience. I have done a lot of cycling in my past — took bikes to Europe/Israel twice in my teens/20s. I’m more confident than some people I know, though I have to say riding up the bike lane on Burrard made me feel like I was about to die at any moment. Why I didn’t like the cycling in Montpellier was that there did not seem to be bike lanes or good connections for bikes as we went to different parts of town. I found myself having to haul the bike up and down stairs, cycle along sidewalks in some places, and generally find my own way.

  • gmgw

    Uh, Blaffergasted, I think you’re thinking of the *Montgolfier* brothers.

    Nice idea, though.

  • gmgw

    Frances, I’m not even going to mention (shudder) bicycles; but I did want to say that if you’re as far south as Montpellier, don’t miss a visit to Arles– much more attractive and interesting than the overrated Avignon– and if you have time, Aigues-Mortes is worth a visit, if only to stroll along the ramparts; and lastly, so is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, south of the Camargue (of which it’s the capital) along the coast. It’s a rather ordinary beach town in appearance but it has some fascinating cultural connections–the crypt of Saint Sara in the cathedral there is the object of pilgrimages by Rom peoples from all over Europe (the Rom gather there every May for an extraordinary two-day religious festival/gathering which attracts thousands– incredible music and singing can be heard everywhere).

    If you’ve been in those parts before and know all this already, excuse me; I think I must have been a tour guide in a previous life.

  • Hi Frances,

    I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while now, but this is the first time I’ve commented. I don’t know if you’ll be visiting Lyon, but I lived there for 9 months last year, and they have a wonderful shared bike system, with the space for commuting as well as riding some great scenic routes throughout the city. It’s called Velo’v and is really popular among locals and visitors (at least exchange students), and I think many like to maintain Velib is actually a Velo’v rip-off! Just thought I’d mention it while you were on the topic. Thanks for all your work and writing!


  • DMJ

    The French way at looking at transportation is, one lane used for cars = about 1,600 persons per hour per direction; one lane used for tram = 20,000 pphpd.

    If trams were to be used on Broadway, the capacity for one traffic lane would increase at least 12 fold, while at the same time, keep parking for local merchants.

    The French way of thinking is: why invest all the money on a tram and still cater to car drivers?

    The French, with their usual logic have created a transit philosophy that we should copy.

  • Darcy McGee

    Thanks Frances. It’s concerning, obviously, if you’re not a cycling newcomer that you have safety concerns. It’s also suggestive that this is an issue that needs to be worked on.

    Helmets are interesting. I personally can’t ride without one. The last time I did my mother had to wake me up every half hour all night long to make sure I didn’t slip into unconsciousness. That only has to happen once to convert you for life….

    In Europe, however, they’re less common. They’re also seen as an “impediment” to adoption by some cycling advocates. Modern helmets are light, cool and comfortable…there’s no real reason not to wear one, and yet some people won’t (and use this as part of an excuse for not cycling.)

    I’m split on the topic. I think kids should always wear helmets, which will result in young adults who wear helmets. The most organic way to encourage wearing them.

    If bikes are separated from cars, I think helmets are not as necessary. Again…part of an overall cycling safety strategy.

  • Frothingham

    “If bikes are separated from cars, I think helmets are not as necessary. Again…part of an overall cycling safety strategy.”

    … an illogical statement. you can’t cite “bicycle safety” in combination with not “needing helmets”. A fall from a bike going slowly along say the Stanley Park Wall path can lead to massive head injuries. As I witnessed a few months ago.

    Now I would support … “helmets not mandatory but highly recommended”.

  • Darcy McGee

    Frothingham, I don’t…others do. As I said, I cannot ride a bike without putting a helmet on. Your suggestion of “not mandatory but highly recommended” is essentially the status quo in most of the world and yet millions choose to ignore the recommendation (including Frances.)

    As I said…raise kids who wear helmets and you’ll have an entire generation of adults who wear helmets. (It kills me when I see helmet-less parents riding with helmeted kids…it’s like parents who tell their kids to read more while they sit there watching TV all the time…)

    Your Stanley Park accident does little to sway the argument. A fall while walking along the Stanley Park Seawall can lead to massive head injuries as well. I don’t mean to minimize that specific accident, but one example does not make a statistical example.

    (Every time I get in a car I might die, based on the fact that at least one person dies in a car every day in Canada.)

    Link helmets to healthcare costs: suffer a massive head injury if you’re NOT wearing a helmet…how about you pay the full cost of repairs, rather than the Canadian tax payer…

  • East Vancouverite

    Hello Francis,

    When I was in Paris a month ago I was also unable to use the Velib bike share program due to a non-chipped credit card. Prior to my trip I called my bank’s VISA number to request a chipped card but was told it is not mandatory in Canada until 2010 or 2011, and for debit cards, amazingly, not until 2014! Add another note to the list of things of which we are behind Europe.

    I made a point of cycling in each city of the Netherlands and Denmark leg of my trip and it was an enlightening experience. I found that Rotterdam had the most modern bicycle infrastructure, with seemingly never ending grade separated bicycle lanes, fully painted in on-street bike lanes, bike signals at each intersection, and priority over vehicles attempting to turning right. Their bridges have wide shared bike and walking paths, perhaps three to four metres in width.

    After experiencing such amazing bicycle infrastructure in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, I found that Copenhagen’s system was really no different and not worthy of the praise which is heaped on it. The rate of cycling in Copenhagen is laudable, though.

    It felt odd not to wear a helmet while bike riding in Europe. Two weeks before my trip I was in a collision in Vancouver that sent me go over my handlebars and do a complete flip in the air before landing on my back. Upon landing I felt the back of my head bounce heavily off the asphalt. I really don’t know what my life would be like had I not been wearing my helmet, and properly.

  • MB

    The majority of cross streets on Broadway between Main and Arbutus are signalized and are vital to pedestrians, bicyclists and essential commercial traffic. This is a very unique situation for an arterial in the Lower Mainland.

    With tram stations every 500 – 700 m, and signal priority, the majority of cross streets will be severed. Crossing Central Broadway will become impossible except at stations and major intersections.

    With tram stations every 150 m -300 m (essentially every block or two), a new tram line will provide little if any transit service improvements over the B-Line, and $1.5 billion will be wasted. Ahh, but they’ll look real cute, won’t they?

    Signalized cross streets do not exist in such numbers and dense concentration as Broadway, therefore in my opinion Euro trams with whatever station spacing will work well on the majority of them.

    Lastly, NO rail transit is worth it without an accompanying policy to change land use around it. It IS about markets — and town squares and more housing and retail choice and better public spaces — around stations.

  • Darcy McGee

    > Lastly, NO rail transit is worth it without
    > an accompanying policy to change land
    > use around it.

    This is true, but it’s also an organic chicken/egg process. The city needs to zone properly (and perhaps differently), but the merchants, town square and housing also come as demand for them rises.

    I’d argue that Broadway was already well suited: many small merchants with a few retail “neighbourhoods” stretched along (Cambie in the area near the Co-Op and up Cambie Street, Granville and South Granville, McDonald and area out to Alma.) There could be more residential, but that’s been happening already….

  • Darcy McGee

    > Crossing Central Broadway will become
    > impossible except at stations and major
    > intersections.

    Perhaps this is as it should be.

  • Bill Lee

    Re: the correspondence between the poor, especially in the west,
    and the tram routes, You might skim
    “La pauvreté à Montpellier : de fortes disparités entre les quartiers”

    and the map of the poverty regions on the six page report

    and compare to the streetcar map (with 2 proposed lines) on the two Montpellier wikis (French or English)

  • mezzanine

    >Crossing Central Broadway will become
    > impossible except at stations and major
    > intersections.

    >Perhaps this is as it should be.

    From MB’s comment, it sounds like that even pedestrian and bike traffic may be limited with a limited-stop LRT on Broadway.

    Consider how many cyclist/pedestrian-controlled lights are there between MacDonald and Alma.

  • DMJ

    Transit is to move people, not to change land use; it is the hugely expensive SkyTrain metro that demands land use change, not LRT

    There is no reason to change land use around Broadway for LRT/tram, has the right combination of population and businesses for successful tram operation.

    Stations (well they would be like bus stops) for trams are simple affairs and would fit into almost all streetscapes without major changes to the street.

    In France a full one third of the cost for a new tram route is spent on public amenities such as public parks, landscaping, public art and alike.

    A French version of Broadway would be – 2 road lanes for the tram (some mixed running as well); 2 lanes for auto use; 2 bike lanes and 2 parking lanes.

    Pedestrians can cross tram tracks with ease at intersections or they do in France. The benefit of trams on Broadway would be 1) increased capacity without great increases in cost; 2) faster commercial speeds; 3) far cheaper operating costs as 1 modern tram and 1 tram driver is as efficient as 6 to 8 buses and 6 to 8 bus drivers.

  • gmgw

    > Crossing Central Broadway will become
    > impossible except at stations and major
    > intersections.

    (To which Darcy replied:)

    Perhaps this is as it should be.

    OK, this statement is entirely too fatuous to remain unchallenged. Explain, please.

  • Darcy McGee

    Mr. gmgw:


  • MB

    Perhaps one way to gauge whether a community and its neighbourhoods work at the human scale is to give them the 80-year old grandmother trial.

    It is hard to see how Gramma will be able to cross Broadway at Willow or Ash or Heather or Laurel (or 40 other secondary cross streets) to attend a doctor’s appointment if a dedicated regional LRT line severed these cross street access points. She is not capable of trundling 400 m to a station crossing or the next major intersection, then 400 m back merely to access a building across the street.

    The majority of cross streets on Broadway currently have pedestrian-activated signals. None are overridden by B-Line transit signal priority. So, if a tram line was built without signal priority or a dedicated corridor, we will pay over a billion dollars to merely replicate the B-Line service, or improve it only marginally.

    People are drawn to the quality of a community, and to the quality of transit service. Transit riders using the system on a regional basis (e.g. thousands of UBC students, hundreds of employees in the hospital district ……….) will not be impressed by a milk run service. However, local residents on short trips may like it better. So I suspect the reaction will be a mixed bag.

    Ideally, in complete communities the Grammas of the world will not have to drive or take transit. They’d only walk a block or two to their doctor’s, or to shop. But when they do hop on a bus or train, it should be 100% accessible, and should require only the shortest of rides to access life’s necessities. But our cities include vast numbers of people who travel long distances to their daily destinations, and they pass through the neighbourhoods bordering Broadway.

    By virtue of its physical form, a tram service on Broadway will serve one of these groups more than the other, depending on whether you make it part of an efficient and fast regional rail service, or part of a milk run.

    God — or was it the devil? — is in the details, which all too often are ignored in preliminary philosophical discussions like the above.

    And just how are parks not part of land use considerations? They rest on the land, they are zoned and they have dedicated uses. Paris already has an ideal density and urban form and a far lower per capita car use to justify multi-billion contracts with Bombardier, which cover not just the tram lines, but a regional commuter rail service. So they only had to add a few parks.

    Land use and transit ARE linked. The question is just how smart the influence of one is over the other.

  • DMJ

    MB, you make an assumption that LRT, operating on a dedicated rights-of-ways, can’t have people crossing the line. Wrong!

    This is how it works. It’s called a crosswalk.

    Type 1 – The pedestrian crosses the rights-of-way between trams (light -controlled for the auto if need be).

    Type 2 – A pedestrian presses a button to show ‘crosswalk engaged’ which alerts the tram driver that the crossing is in use.

    Crossing Broadway today would be more dangerous than crossing with a tram running in the medium. In fact trams are the safest mode of public transit around.

    It’s funny that trams operate in just about every major city in Europe and they pass the granny test there, why not here?

    Trams are extremely elderly friendly, with low floor entry and alike.

    Quote: “Land use and transit ARE linked.” Um no, this was invented to justify construction of SkyTrain in Vancouver – to increase property values for a select few property owners.

    LRT is to move people affordable. Bus >> LRT/tram >> metro. It’s only the Vancouver region that plays the land use game, because Vancouver is the only city that used SkyTrain.

    One can even say, LRT/trams prevents over densifiation of land (a good thing) because the mode requires much less money to build and operate, thus they need fewer customers to justify construction, which means more money can be spent on new lines. Simple enough; but maybe a too simple of a concept for regional planners who want massive densification and metros. No wonder our transit is in a mess.

  • Darcy McGee

    > because Vancouver is the only city that
    > used SkyTrain.

    Not true. Scarborough, Ontario did as well.

    In both Toronto and Montreal as well there are significant underground cities around areas of high subway use. This is “land use” even if it’s underground land.

    Other neighbourhoods are built up around high transfer areas: Yonge & Eglinton, Yonge & Lawrence. These developed a bit more organically…when the subway provided a rapid route from downtown to these neighbourhoods, the neighbourhoods became more robust as they were no longer serving just the local residents.

    Yorkdale Shopping Centry provides an example of “planned” land use around a subway (non-skytrain). Basically the mall is a subway destination in and of itself, although it’s also at the junction of two major highways so that played a role in its situation as well.

    Land use and rapid transit of all sorts are related, but the relationship is a two way one.

    DMJ has outlined how a surface level Broadway transit route could still accomodate pedestrian traffic while not requiring that every single intersection allow cars across as well. Since most accidents happen at or near intersections, this would likely have an effect on reducing collisions within city limits as well by reducing the number of uncontrolled intersections on a high traffic volume road.

  • Blaffergassted

    The hot air balloons seem to be working just fine!

  • MB

    Regarding surface passenger rail on Broadway, either you’re going to (1) have a dedicated LRT line with no stops for crosswalk traffic between stations (i.e. a fenced corridor), or you’re going to (2) allow stops for crosswalk traffic. Pick one.

    The former will have all the merchants screeching because patron / customer access from across the street will be cut off in most areas.

    The latter replicates the existing B-Line bus service. Why bother with the expense and disruption?

    Generalizations about European cities don’t address the detailed design issues specifically for Broadway.

    However, most other arterials (41st Ave, King Edward Ave, Arbutus corridor, Granville St, Main St, King George Hwy, 200th St, Lonsdale, Edmonds, Kingsway, Lougheed Hwy, etc.) do not have crosswalk densities as concentrated as Broadway and are therfore ideal for Euro trams.

    Lastly, DMJ, your Land Use = SkyTrain Justification Only theory has now entered the realm of mythology. It’s tiresome, and only one person in the Lower Mainland seems to be tuned to that station.

  • not running for mayor

    Vancouver is the only city with Skytrain? Might be because BRTC owns the trademark on the name Skytrain, but there are numerous cities around the world with the same bombardier system but renamed, such as NYC with the JFK airport line, there’s Kuala Lumpur with a line, Detroit has a line, Yongin South Korea, another airport line in Beijing plus the original line is Scarbrough. Plus there are more cities buying into it now. While it might not be the most popular system in the world it certainly isn’t unpopular either.

  • Darcy McGee

    The Scarborough RT and Skytrain both opened in 1985.

    The Skytrain still works, however.

  • MB

    Careful, DMJ will expound on the SkyTrain Conspiracy to take over the world.