GMF leads study tour through France and Germany to investigate transportation issues
From May 24 to 30, GMF led a study tour through Paris, France, and Stuttgart, Germany, consisting of six congressional staffers, one Congressional Research Service researcher, and two state-level elected officials to examine transportation infrastructure, systems, policies, and financing at all levels of government.
With rising fuel prices, concerns about air quality and global warming, and the world steadily becoming more urban and less rural, mobility within cities and across regions is critical for economic competitiveness, access to social and retail services, and overall quality of life. The tour examined a broad range of mobility-related elements and issues, such as rail, bus, bicycle, low-emission zones, and social inclusion, among others, but also focused heavily on regional and even multinational planning and coordination, financing, and implementation.
In Paris, the tour started with an introduction of the city's municipal bike system. After obtaining bicycles from the local bike station by using a credit card, participants biked through Paris, stopping occasionally to look at the infrastructure and signage that has been established to support the system. Participants also observed Paris's Bus Rapid Transit system, the Mobilien, which at times shares a dedicated right-of-way with the bicycles.
The following day, participants met with Clement Michel, director of the Gare Lyon train station, where they got a behind-the-scenes tour of the station and a briefing on the operations of the station and France's high-speed train system in general. The Gare Lyon station, which handles the largest volume of high-speed rail traffic of any station in the world, is the point of departure for trains en route to the south of France. The next meeting took place at the French Ministry for Ecology, Sustainable Planning, and Development where the group was briefed on Paris' recent mobility innovations, dubbed, "the Greening of Paris." Essentially, these innovations reduce the role and impact of the automobile on city streets by giving preference to pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation, and taxis. Participants broke for lunch with Marie Claire-Daveu, who made an informal presentation on the adoption of France's environmental policy, le Grenelle Environnement, and the impact of this policy on transportation. Of particular interest to the group was the level of public involvement, including private sector transport operators, into the development and adoption of the plan.
During the second day in Paris, participants travelled via RER regional train to Le Blanc Mesnil, one of the suburbs involved in the 2005 riots, to meet with Mayor Didier Mignot. Mayor Mignot gave an overview of the mobility constraints, within the city and regionally, confronted by the citizens. Internally, the city is completely bifurcated by existing passenger rail lines, with only a few bridges for pedestrians or automobiles to traverse from one side to the other. Externally, Le Blanc Mesnil suffers from infrequent service on the RER making it difficult for citizens to access or hold jobs in the employment centers closer in to Paris. In fact, the group was slightly late in arriving in Le Blanc Mesnil due to a ticket malfunction, which caused a delay of 15 minutes while waiting for the next RER train. The mayor also outlined some of the steps that the city has undertaken in order to remedy some of the social housing and mobility problems seen as helping to fuel the riots. For example, the city is completely renovating several of the social housing blocks in order to make them more livable. Eventually, all the social housing in the city will be either remodeled or demolished and rebuilt to better accommodate people's needs. The city is also working with regional transportation officials in order to provide more frequent RER services to the city. Internally, the city is implementing a minibus system to facilitate access to the train station. The city is also working to create more jobs by partnering with the nearby executive airport at Le Bourget, which will alleviate the need to travel on the regional rail lines. Participants were then escorted via bus to see these communities first-hand.
In Stuttgart, participants were escorted by Joachim Krauss, head of the office of the Board of Directors at the Stuttgarter Straßenbahnen, to the subway/lightrail platform just beneath the main train station where they were allowed to hop aboard a training engine and experience first-hand how to operate one of the train cars. After the training exercise, Dr. Peter Höflinger, general manager of Stuttgarter Straßenbahnen, provided the group with an overview of the entire system operations, ridership, and financing, including the system's two historic lines. From there participants travelled back to the main station (Hauptbahnhof) via Stuttgart's historic Zahnradbahn, a rack railway, which functions as both a tourist ride as well as an integral part of the city's rail transport system. At the Hauptbahnhof, Bernd Hertl, Public Relations Manager for Deutsche Bahn, briefed the group on the Stuttgart 21 project, which will transform the existing train station and the rail yards behind it by burying the lines and making the station a through station. Somewhat similar to the Big Dig in Boston, by removing the rail yards, the city will be able to reclaim and develop extremely valuable real estate, at the same time greatly enhancing the functionality of the inter-city rail system and improving the rail connections to the airport. This project will also help facilitate the completion of the Magistrale Line, a high-speed passenger rail line stretching from Paris to Budapest, which is being promoted by the EU.
The group then met Lord Mayor of Stuttgart Dr. Wolfgang Schuster; Wolfgang Forderer, Head of Policy Planning; and Dr. Höflinger for lunch at the Stuttgart Art Museum. Mayor Schuster fielded questions from the delegation prior to eating and then invited everyone back to Stuttgart the following week for the Cities for Mobility Conference, which they are hosting. Mr. Forderer then escorted the participants on a quick side trip to introduce the Pedilec project, an electric bicycle that makes hilly terrain, common to Stuttgart, imminently more manageable. The day concluded with a presentation by Dr. Jürgen Wurmthaler of the Verband Region Stuttgart. Dr. Wurmthaler discussed the regional government's role in coordinating transportation planning initiatives and financing the various elements of the regional network.
On the final day of the tour participants were briefed first by Mr. Edgar Riester from the City of Stuttgart concerning the city's low-emission zone policy, which has been in effect for just a few months. The low emission zone covers only the city of Stuttgart and attempts to keep highly polluting automobile engines (i.e. older engines) out of the city. Participants then met with Mr. Claus Koehnlein, who manages Stuttgart's participation in the Deutsche Bahn's Call-A-Bike project, and Christian Mahner, Deutsche Bahn's Director for Call-A-Bike in Southern Germany. During the briefing, participants learned how to utilize the system and were told the ways in which it differs from Paris's Vélib' system. For example, in addition to utilizing a much heavier and somewhat more complicated bicycle (8 gears on the Call-A-Bike as opposed to 3 gears on the Vélib'), the Call-A-Bike system's primary difference was the use of a cell phone to both secure and return a bicycle.
Although European countries are perceived to support very strong, top-down government planning in many of these areas, local communities have an important role in the planning process and are encouraged to exercise it. Europeans do not hesitate to invest public funds heavily in transportation infrastructure or mobility measures if projects satisfy local concerns and address economic, environmental, and other quality of life considerations. Substantive planning for future mobility needs and demands is not limited to the next five to ten years, but rather 15 to 20 (if not 30) years.