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Grenoble Rebalances its Transportation System

Hamiltonians often talk about how much they enjoy spending time in Europe, but we could have a European quality of urban life here as well.

By Nicholas Kevlahan

Rebalancing the transportation network of a large city is an ambitious goal. Some might say it is too late to do anything more than tinker around the edges (retiming traffic lights, or modifying signage). However, other cities are already aggressively shifting the balance in favour of public transport, cyclists and pedestrians.

In 2005 I spent three months in Grenoble (France), which is in the process of implementing just such a radical transformation.

Greater Grenoble is a city of 515,000 in southeast France not far from Italy and Switzerland. Some may remember it as the site of the 1968 Winter Olympics; it is also a major university town and high tech centre.

Although its origins date back to the Roman Empire, it was essentially a small garrison town until it experienced massive population growth starting in the 1960s. Because of this, much of the suburbs were developed in the 1970s and 1980s.

Grenoble is similar to Hamilton both in terms of its size, and also because of the large amount of recent suburban development. The climate is also relatively cold (at least for France!).

I hope that by showing what Grenoble has done, we in Hamilton will be a bit more ambitious. If they can do it there, we can certainly do it here!

Bringing back the streetcar

Like Hamilton, Grenoble is ringed by freeways (the A41, A48, A49, and A51) and relatively low density suburban neighbourhoods. However, in 1987 Grenoble made a pioneering decision. They became the second city in France (after Nantes) to reintroduce streetcars (the old streetcars stopped running in 1952 and the tracks were ripped out).

Since then they have built three ultra-modern lines, and will soon complete two more (in 2007 and 2011). Figure 1 shows the three existing lines, with a total of 68 stations and 32 km of track.

Figure 1: Grenoble's streetcar lines (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Figure 1: Grenoble's streetcar lines (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

The streetcars themselves are ultramodern, fully accessible, quiet and comfortable (see an example in figure 2). They pre-empt traffic lights, and have their own right of way outside the compact city centre.

Figure 3 shows how the streetcar stations fit beautifully into the downtown streetscape. Note the raised platforms and use of different materials in the track and platform areas. Figure 4 shows the streetcar's centre median right-of-way outside downtown.

I saw for myself how popular the streetcars are, especially with students going to and from the university (which is located in the suburb of St-Martin-d'H