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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.

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