Mixed use square in central Bordeaux. All photos courtesy Giles Bailey

Mixed use square in central Bordeaux.

All photos courtesy Giles Bailey


August is very much the time of travel and holidays in Europe and, particularly so this year, with the perpetual heat waves we have had across much of the continent since the late spring. This year, my holidays involved a trip to southwest France and the city of Bordeaux. Bordeaux is world renowned for the wine trade and this underlies much of the prosperity in the region. It is also however, a handsome historical city and the model for the rebuilding of the Parisian “grand boulevards” by Baron Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century. It is also a modern city of technology and education as well as tourism.

Bordeaux, like many French cities, has embraced the return of the modern tram over the last two decades. The result is an impressive city of mobility options anchored in a strong sense of local street design.

Trams were finally removed from Bordeaux in 1958. As in many European cities after WWII, they were seen as an old fashioned means of transport and were leading to street congestion versus the need to serve the growing needs of private cars. The city had also been historically focused on its port, which was spread along a broad sweep of the river Garonne in the city centre and increasingly this required access by fleets of modern trucks.

Tram stop at shopping center in Central Bordeaux.

Tram stop at shopping center in Central Bordeaux.

When modern transport options were considered in the 1960’s, the focus was on an improved road network including a new outer orbital motorway and a new river bridge as well as eventually an underground subway system. Nearby Toulouse eventually implemented this type of urban subway service in 1993 using automated VAL technology. For various political and financial reasons the subway system did not progress, but many of the highways did. Also, the central city port area declined and was replaced by more modern port infrastructure to the north of the urban area. As in many cities an opportunity was created for reimaging the city’s waterfront while trying to protect and reinvigorate central business and retail areas.

Bordeaux is the centre of the sixth largest urban area in France with population of nearly one million inhabitants. It was a relatively late comer to the urban tram revival in the country that began with Nantes and Grenoble in the mid-1980’s.

Having not proceeded with the earlier subway proposals as well as in seeing the success, popularity and urban renaissance from other tram system redevelopments, Bordeaux proceeded to redevelop its public transport offer around a comprehensive tram service. Service began in 2003.

St. Jean railway station in Bordeaux.

St. Jean railway station in Bordeaux.

A key issue in the city is the extensive area of historic architecture across the central area. This includes residential, public as well as retail and office areas. The city has a low rise skyline without an overwhelming central area office core. The central area of Bordeaux is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The insertion of a modern tram scheme would need to be carefully considered to protect this history as well as enhance the city. Three key outcomes were: the decision to renew the historic waterfront and return it to use by residents and visitors by the urban design as a result of the insertion of trams; the dedication of the Napoleonic era main bridge over the Garonne to public transport, pedestrians and cycles; as well as the decision to not use overhead wires throughout the city centre and implement the new at that time “APS” ground level power scheme which is only energised as vehicles pass by.

The results are impressive in creating a relaxed, modern, service that mixes multiple transport and land uses and is sympathetic to the historic architecture and look and feel of the city. The modernity and history seem to counterbalance each other.

Also, of note is that over the last 15 years and continuing today, the city has expanded the tram service to include three lines on both the east and west banks of the Garonne. A fourth line is currently under construction. The systems totals 66km or 40 miles. The service is operated under contract by Keolis Spa — a major French and global transport service provider.

Citadis tram vehicles from Alstom, which are operated across France and many other global cities, are used on the scheme, albeit with a bespoke vehicle profile to capture a local sense of identity.

Electric car sharing in central Bordeaux.

Electric car sharing in central Bordeaux.

As is the case in a number of European cities, due to geography and history, the main railway station — a typical focus for much urban activity in most European cities, is not in the centre of Bordeaux, but to the south. There are no other more central railway stations. Thus, the new tram scheme offered the opportunity to renew connections between the St Jean railway hub and the rest of the city centre’s activity hubs. The main railway station is also now served by high speed rail services which offer a non-stop service to Paris (500km or 300 miles) in just over 2 hours and was fully opened in 2017. The speed and quality of this service has reputedly encouraged many Parisians to relocate to Bordeaux and part time commute back to the French capital.

The dispersed, and distinctly low-rise nature of the city, has led to three major central service hubs being implemented — adjacent to the City Hall and main cathedral; at an historic central park — Place Quinconces; as well as at the main railway station. A further hub is on the east side of the river.

Thus, the network is providing a comprehensive urban network of quality services.

Buses are still a priority for the local operator — TBM (Transports Bordeaux Metropole) and these services fill in the service gaps not otherwise services by trams, including some high capacity articulated routes in certain areas.

The tram network has, yet, to reach the local airport to the west of the city. A dedicated bus shuttle connects the airport with the city centre at present.

Trams along the waterfront in central Bordeaux. Photos courtesy Giles Bailey

Trams along the waterfront in central Bordeaux. Photos courtesy Giles Bailey

The city’s tram system is part of a wider urban mobility service managed by TBM. As well as buses this includes a central area boat shuttle across the river, an integrated smartcard ticketing scheme, well used travel information and ticketing centres — including a very impressive site under the mature trees at Place Quinconces. The city has an electric car sharing scheme — “Bluecub,” other car-sharing services, as well as the now common in France range of cycle hire services and now e-scooters. Cycle lanes are plentiful in the city as well as the wider region — the reason for this author to holiday in Bordeaux and the Les Landes region. The city has also developed the concept of “mobility shops” that support the transition to cycle use via training, advice on type of cycles on the market including e-cycles, etc.

A series of underground parking garages have been built in the city center to displace surface parking lots as well as provide some capacity for drivers to park in the city centre — albeit in a discreet way.

The regional government provides a network of regional bus services — “Trans Gironde” — linking the smaller towns in the region, particularly west of the city amongst each other as well as to Bordeaux.

There are numerous other examples of impressive tram schemes creating broad based public transport mobility across regional France including examples in Dijon, Rheims, Strasbourg and Montpellier. What is consistent in all of these schemes is a strong sense of design and that the development of a tram service is an opportunity to redesign the urban landscape. Thus, the trams become a core urban icon for the city as well as means of transport. Furthermore, the schemes are typically rapidly expanded to cover much, if not most of the main urban areas to allow buses to then support the core tram service. However, there is a sense that some suburban bus services may become quite limited in operation as a result of the focus on tram services. The services seem to be well used and maintained and integrated with other mobility options.

France still has relatively high car ownership and use and remains a major manufacturer of motor vehicles. Public transport is not necessarily the default option for urban mobility and many smaller towns have a relatively limited public transport offer. The impact that the tram service in Bordeaux — as an excellent example — as well as in other cities in France is an impressive example of what trams and integrated public transport thinking can offer to discourage the use of the private car.

Giles K. Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London-based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation.

About the author
Giles Bailey

Giles Bailey

Director, Stratageeb Ltd.

Giles K Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation.

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