City Building Through Investments in Transportation Infrastructure: What U.S. Mayors Can Learn from their French Counterparts
The following piece is by Celine Gipoulon, project manager for the French National Agency for Urban Regeneration, and Eric Eidlin, sustainability lead and community planner for the Federal Transit Administration. Both were 2013-2014 Urban and Regional Policy Fellows.
A French version of the below can be accessed here.
Eric Eidlin: In March of 2015, I attended a conference at the French Embassy in Washington, the purpose of which was to identify topics on which each country could learn from the other in the realm of sustainable urban development. As someone who works at the intersection of transportation and urban design, a highlight of Forum 2015 for me was hearing from high-ranking French political officials about the importance of coordinated transportation and land use planning. Many of the attendees at the conference were mayors of French cities. These mayors — and particularly the mayors of two eastern French cities, Strasbourg and Metz — repeatedly emphasized the importance of viewing transportation and urban development projects in a coordinated fashion.
These mayors made comments that really stuck in my mind:
Roland Ries, mayor of Strasbourg, a man who has been at the forefront of transportation decision-making both in his city and nationally over the past 25 years, summarized the key lessons that he has learned over this time period:
- A city must have a clear and bold vision for its future.
- One cannot separate transportation policies from land use policies.
- A city’s leadership cannot set a city on a new, bold, and innovative path without the involvement of citizens.
Dominique Gros, mayor of Metz, France, also emphasized the importance of thinking about transportation and land-use decision-making together, in a holistic manner. “A transportation project cannot simply be viewed as a transportation project,” he said. Similarly, he argued, “a land-use planning effort cannot simply be viewed as a land-use planning effort.” To make his point, Gros discussed the development of his city’s first bus rapid (BRT) project. Building the BRT along the desired route (the route that would best connect central city destinations to the city’s downtown-focused economic development efforts), required doubling the width of a bridge, le Moyen Pont, a structure that was built in the middle ages. Gros successfully lobbied for this change by arguing that the bridge could not only be more functional and useful by being rebuilt, but that it could actually be improved, both structurally and aesthetically.
In reflecting on my research on high-speed rail (HSR) in France, and especially on the development of large transportation projects, there appear to be a few clear differences between the way that such projects are implemented in France and the United States. The case of Metz and the actions of Dominique Gros remind me of what Mayor Pierre Mauroy did in Lille with Euralille and the introduction of HSR service, albeit on a smaller scale. As I wrote in a recent blog post, Lille, under the leadership of a visionary mayor, undertook a massive master planning effort in the late 1980s to take advantage of the city’s new strategic location on the northern European HSR network. Central to this effort was integrated transportation and economic development planning, as well as an emphasis on world-class architecture and urban design. This effort is widely credited with reinvigorating Lille’s economy, and with promoting a shift away from manufacturing and toward the service sector.
At the conference, I also finally had the chance to meet Céline Gipoulon, a fellow GMF Urban and Regional Policy Fellow, someone with whom I’ve been discussing my project on HSR and urban development in France. She helped me establish many contacts in France. She and I sat down to reflect on some of the main themes that we had discussed over the past 18 months.
Eric Eidlin: In reflecting on my research on high-speed rail (HSR) in France, and especially on the development of large multimodal stations, I see a few clear differences in the way that such projects are implemented in France in comparison to the United States.
Let’s start with the idea, advanced by the French mayors at the Embassy conference, that transportation projects need to be designed alongside urban development plans. Based on my interactions with French transportation planners, urbanists, and elected officials, this seems to be a widely held belief among decision-makers in France. The comments of Mayors Ries and Gros at the French Embassy conference underscore this perception for me. I was also struck that there seems to be a higher level of urban design appreciation and expertise among French mayors than in the United States. Again, the Metz example seems relevant here, as does the case of Lille. There, the city’s powerful mayor, Pierre Mauroy, played a central role in the development of that city’s HSR station and the development of the surrounding district.
Céline, you spent a year in the United States to look at the role of public, private, and non-profit entities that are involved in the redevelopment of several Rust Belt cities. What are the primary differences that you see in terms of urban planning between France and the United States? And what are your thoughts on my impressions regarding the way in which urban development occurs in both countries, and especially with regard to the role of elected officials in this process?
Céline Gipoulon: The first difference that I see is that urban planning in France is increasingly being done at the metropolitan level. My impression is that this is much less the case in the United States.
In France, local plans must be incorporated into larger regional-level planning efforts. For cities above a certain size, these regional plans must touch on regional housing and transportation issues. It is only really zoning codes that are strictly local regulatory documents, although even zoning codes are sometimes developed or coordinated at a regional level. And to go along with all of this regional planning work, there is also some redistribution of tax revenues at a regional level to assist lower-income communities.
If I’ve understood correctly, transportation is essentially the only issue in the U.S. that is dealt with at a metropolitan level in the United States. This level of intervention is increasingly viewed in France as the most relevant for dealing with urban issues. I find this to be interesting.
Eidlin: Yes, I think you’re right about your assessment of the United States, or at least this is the case in most large metropolitan regions. I would even say that we have difficulty managing transportation issues at the regional level. When it comes to public transit, for example, the San Francisco region has 27 separate agencies, of which most only serve a small part of the San Francisco region, and whose services are poorly coordinated with those of other operators. Still, some urban regions are much more successful in this regard. Being successful often requires dealing with issues other than transportation. The Twin Cities region of Minneapolis/St. Paul, for example, is well-known for its regional tax base-sharing program. And the state of Oregon is well known for requiring municipalities to implement urban growth boundaries to reign in sprawl.
To return to the issues of large urban transportation projects, do you agree with my assessment that French cities seem better able coordinate transportation investments with urban redevelopment efforts?
Gipoulon: I think that there are a number of large urban projects that pivot off of central HSR stations, projects that you know well such as in Lille, Marseille, and Lyon. Each of these cities devised larger urban redevelopment projects to coincide with HSR station redesign efforts. The basic premise of these station design efforts is that the cities, through careful land-use planning and urban design, can better capture the benefits of the new-found accessibility that HSR brings (and particularly through quicker connections to Paris, as our system remains, after all, very centralized and focused on the capital!). These investments in HSR give the cities an opportunity to occupy strategic locations within a national transportation network, and also to rethink local mobility strategies to better serve HSR and the higher-intensity development that these cities envision for the HSR districts.
In other cases, planning efforts begin first with the redevelopment of an urban neighborhood. They subsequently turn to the necessary transportation investments to serve that neighborhood. In France, there are suburban neighborhoods that are disconnected from surrounding urban development. These places were conceived of as separate, self-sufficient districts characterized by a distinct architectural style and with a street network that is disconnected from the surrounding urban grid. In order to connect these places to a larger urban fabric, the common wisdom in France today is that one cannot improve them simply by attempting to improve their physical form. The most successful urban redevelopment efforts are often those that are conceived of in concert with transportation improvements, for example, by increasing bus frequencies or by extending a light rail line into the area. These improvements have the net effect of improving connections between neighborhoods and employment centers, among other things.
In France, I would say that there is a widely held belief that all neighborhoods should enjoy the same level of public services and amenities, including transportation service. I do not get the impression that Americans hold the same assumptions. In fact, it seems that Americans have a greater tolerance for differences and disparities of all kinds, including socioeconomic segregation.
This said, we recognize in France that achieving absolute equality among neighborhoods is very difficult. However, many believe that public transit service is a good way of addressing inequalities: specifically, although there may be few businesses or employment opportunities in a suburban neighborhood, a light-rail line that provides fast and frequent service into the neighborhood will provide greater access to opportunity for the residents of that neighborhood.
Eidlin: I think you’re right. There is great concern among policymakers in the United States about the deep, and in many cases growing, social and economic divides within cities, and the fact that the level of services and infrastructure in less affluent communities are so inferior to those in the wealthier communities. On this point, an obvious difference between France and the United States is that a much greater proportion of taxes in the United States are levied at a very local level, including sales taxes and property taxes. And there is an expectation that these local sales tax revenues will be reinvested in the very same communities where these tax monies are levied. There are few examples of tax redistribution at the regional level. Again, Minneapolis-St. Paul is a notable exception here.
Gipoulon: What role do you think public transit can play on this front? In my U.S. travels, I noticed that in many cases, public transit appeared to be essentially “reserved” for the most marginalized members of society without access to a car. I think that this is much less the case in France, where young people and the elderly of all social classes ride buses by choice. Of course, the fact that development patterns in French cities tend to support transit use also plays a role in higher transit use.
Eidlin: You’re absolutely right, at least in terms of cities that don’t have well-developed public transit systems. This means especially smaller cities as well as very auto-oriented urban regions like Phoenix and Houston. In general, the U.S. cities where more affluent “choice riders” use transit are cities with robust rail transit systems with subways or commuter rail lines that serve as backbones of transit systems and that converge in city centers. Think New York and San Francisco.
And frankly, it seems that there are conflicting trends and constraints that will make it difficult to change these patterns. The status quo public transit in the United States is for expensive projects and scarce funding. Within this status quo, a primary concern for policymakers is to get the biggest “bang for the buck” with each investment. This typically means building transit in places where it works best — typically the most densely populated places and centrally located places. In some cases, it can also make sense to extend transit out to densely populated sub-centers within metropolitan regions if those subcenters are willing to accept denser transit-oriented development.
As you know, in older U.S. metropolitan regions that are well-served by transit (at least by U.S. standards), we are starting to see a suburbanization of poverty. In regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, where central city neighborhoods in San Francisco like the Mission experience “hyper-gentrification,” lower-income residents are increasingly pushed out of the urban core and into outlying parts of the Bay Area, places like Antioch and Brentwood that are not particularly transit-accessible. In this sense, some U.S. metropolitan regions are becoming more like Paris and other French urban regions, where suburbs are often economically disadvantaged. As you know, the French word for suburb, “banlieue,” has a very different connotation.
Since places like Antioch and Brentwood do not have transit-supportive land use patterns, and since market demand for transit-supportive development in such places is not very strong, it is hard to make the argument that big investment in transit should be made in those places. This is particularly so when parts of the region’s core that already have transit are struggling to keep up with demand. Extensions of existing rail lines are being built in spite of this. But they will likely have the effect of exacerbating crowding in the core of the system in San Francisco and Oakland, where, during the rush hour peak, many riders are unable to board trains because of trains that are filled to capacity. Nevertheless, it is to places like Antioch that the Bay Area’s lowest income residents are pushed because it is one of the most affordable parts of a very unaffordable region. This presents a significant quandary for U.S. policymakers in these urban regions.
Gipoulon: These are interesting insights. In France, we are slowly realizing that it is difficult to address the most daunting problems of disadvantaged suburban neighborhoods without considering the whole range of issues and challenges that urban regions face. As you pointed out, these suburban neighborhoods may have difficulty attracting private developers. This, in turn, may reduce the feasibility of building new transit extensions to serve them. However, in high-priced urban areas where centrally located properties are prohibitively expensive, some individuals may give lower-priced outlying neighborhoods a second look. After all, some may be willing to live in a less desirable location (whether because it is lower-income, geographically isolated, or both) if it offers high-quality amenities and services (most notably a fast, reliable and convenient way of getting to work). In France, these are some of the factors that are contributing to the development of middle-income housing in lower-income suburban areas. This demonstrates the rationale for considering urban issues both at the metropolitan scale and from a cross-disciplinary and holistic perspective too.
Eidlin: Many U.S. urban regions are trying to address these issues holistically too.
To revisit your idea that Americans are more tolerant of disparities, I would also say that Americans may expect less from the public sector in terms of urban development. It may be a cliché, but I think it’s true that Americans generally privilege private space over public space. Private property truly is almost sacrosanct in the United States, much more so than in France. And the American public sector is also much less powerful. It is surely for this reason that non-profit entities can play a bigger role in urban development in the United States than in France.
Gipoulon: Absolutely, the public sector is less powerful in the United States, and Americans also seem to expect less of it. But you know, I’m really impressed that it seems possible for anybody and everybody to get involved in the urban issues that affect them. I know that the mayor of Strasbourg underscored the importance of citizen involvement in urban development, but I think it would be a stretch to claim that this is one of the French system’s strong suits. In Cleveland, I met representatives of the public transit agency; they explained to me how they developed a bus rapid transit [BRT] line. For each portion of the BRT corridor, the City’s transit agency worked with interested community development corporations [CDC] and other interested neighborhood groups. In France, there is the public utility inquiry process, “enquête publique”, and project sponsors need to do public outreach as part of these studies, but this outreach is clearly less robust than what I saw in Cleveland. In the U.S., CDCs can develop their own neighborhood or sub-neighborhood-level plans and submit them to the relevant local governments for validation and approval. Although I see how a model that promotes citizen involvement can be satisfying for citizens, I also appreciate how this level of community involvement could make it difficult to implement projects efficiently. Doing this requires not simply extensive outreach, but also community education. Local politicians must also cede some of their power.
Eidlin: Again, you’re right that non-profits — both CDCs and private foundations — play a bigger role in many spheres of American society, including urban development. In the United States, these non-governmental actors often succeed in creating impressive projects, including museums and parks. However, my sense is that these entities have a hard time playing a lead role in large and complicated urban redevelopment efforts that include large intermodal transportation facilities. These projects require significant public agency participation and coordination in order to become reality. Thinking about large multimodal station projects in France like Lyon Part-Dieu and Euralille, which include major investments in transportation infrastructure as well as in public and private gathering spaces, it seems that high-level political leadership was key in guaranteeing success. It was also important that these political leaders understood how their projects fit into the broader urban fabric. I would be hard-pressed to think of U.S. political leaders who have gotten as involved in the conception and implementation of large urban projects.
Since we are talking about the role of mayors and political leaders, a related point is that there seems to be a deeply ingrained culture in France of carrying out large public works projects that are deemed to be in the public interest, projects which are championed by top political leaders. Euralille and Euroméditeranee are important examples of this. In fact, I would argue that the entire TGV network in France is part of this tradition. And as you have mentioned above, there is a greater expectation in France than in the United States that the public sector will play the leading role in this process. What do you think about this impression?
Gipoulon: Historically, I think there has been a long tradition of French politicians seeking to leave a physical imprint on the communities that they govern. Within our heavily centralized country, the state has long been the sole entity that decides which large urban projects get built. But since the 1980s, mayors have presided over ever-increasing resources for large urban projects. I would say that this is generally viewed as a good thing because local politicians are in touch with the priorities and desires of their constituents. As such, since these politicians are close to their constituents, they are supposed to make decisions that are in line with community priorities. This has prompted some politicians to become better informed about urban planning and design issues. It’s also worth noting that often the most senior cabinet positions within city government are held by urbanists. Anne Hidalgo, for example, the current mayor of Paris, previously served for ten years as head of urban design for the city.
Additionally, France adopted a law in 2001 that requires zoning codes to be updated and harmonized with local planning and sustainability documents, which is to say long-range planning documents that set forth a 15-year vision must be consistent with applicable zoning regulations. The preparation of these documents represents an ideal opportunity for mayor to articulate and implement their visions for their cities. It should be noted that this required coordination forces politicians to think beyond their six-year electoral cycles and short-term political motives.
To be honest, I was surprised that the people with whom I met in various U.S. cities, cities with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, didn’t begin by showing me their long-range planning documents. In Cleveland, for example, the city seemed to be focusing heavily on the downtown business district and on injecting new life into it by focusing resources there. I got the impression that Cleveland, like many other U.S. cities, hoped that efforts such as this would catalyze more and better development outside the target district rather than to have city halls plan everything for the entire city in great detail. This approach can result in excellent results, although the benefits tend to be very local. This said, it also gives many actors more freedom to get involved.
I also think that mega projects in France that receive significant public funding seem to be viewed with increasing suspicion, both because of more meager public coffers and also because of greater skepticism of the political process. I would agree with you, however, that it is essential for cities to have well-trained and competent urban planning staff. It also helps when a city’s elected officials are well-versed in urban planning and urban design principles. The question is how to give some room for participation and innovation to non-experts, and especially to citizens, within this system.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.