Sustainable city à la française

 December 1, 2015, Paris: during the half-day parliamentary conference ‘Les Matinales sur la ville durable’, speakers debated the ‘sustainable city’ and the French model for appropriating this new urban order.

In 1950, 30% of the global population lived in cities; by 2050, this figure is expected to reach 70%. Cities cover around 2% of the world’s land surface, consume about 75% of its primary energy, and emit between 50 and 60% of its total greenhouse gases. Given this mounting data, the pressing need to make our cities sustainable now, rather than later, makes sense.

Cycling in the city

There’s no doubt the unassuming bicycle is coming back into its own within the cradle of the sustainable city. While by no means a panacea, these two-wheels certainly tick (to varying degress) a number of desirable boxes – carbon neutrality, reduction of motorised road congestion, more efficient use of street space

France, however, is taking its time to embrace the bike as as a bona fida mode of transport on a par with the metro, bus, and tram. This is evidenced in various ways, such as, for example, the lack of consistent bike paths.

“You really need to be motivated to cycle in the Paris agglomeration – the bike paths are far from satisfactory,” points out Alexis Bachelay, député for Hauts-de-Seine, and member of the study group for cities & suburbs (Groupe d’études sur les villes et banlieues). Furthermore, as of yet, there are no concrete enticements, such as tax breaks and subsidies, to cycle instead of drive.”

Comparing this situation to the City of Portland in the US, which offers financial incentives to employees who bike, walk, carpool, or use public transit to commute to and from home.

Mr Bachelay reckons the French reluctance to take cycling more seriously is partly down to the country’s legacy of adapting cities to cater for the car.

This car-orientated policy, notably spearheaded by Georges Pompidou when both prime minister and president in the 1960s and 70s, represented the golden age of the automobile, the epitomy of growth during les trente glorieuses, the 30-year period from 1945 to 1975 during which France’s economy boomed.

Fast forward to 2015. The success of the Vélib bike sharing scheme in Paris Mr Bachelay puts partly down to the fact that it operates largely within the city centre, with the suburbs getting less of a look in. A further factor in its favour, car ownership (around 53% of households) is declining in the French capital, which obviously makes for a less hostile context for introducing more sustainable alternatives for keeping on the move.

Despite its rise in popularity, whether the bicycle will become the new king of the (sustainable) city roads remains to be seen. It’s not all plain sailing. “In any city, in any district, we encounter a fundamental contradiction,” points out Mr Bachelay. “While people are definitely in favour of cycling, when creating a bike lane in a street entails removing, say, 150 parking spaces, then they are not so happy. The reaction is always the same – where am I going to park my car?”

New energy order

Transport operator RATP raised eyebrows in June 2015 on revealing plans to switch 80% of its Ile-de-France (Paris and region) fleet of 4,500 buses, i.e. 3,600, over to electric by 2025.

Many doubt such a bold objective can realistically be achieved, for one, given the massive investment involved: since an e-bus today costs around €500,000 (twice the price of a diesel), such an operation will amount to some €2 billion! “Yes it represents a major investment for us,” concedes Nathalie LeBoucher, director of strategy, innovation & development, RATP. “But don’t forget that the roll-out will be a gradual process, running up to 2025.”

Note: in November 2015, RATP signed an €11 billion contract with the Stif (transport organising authority for Ile-de-France, who will pay this amount in exchange for transport services) for the period 2016-2020. In addition, €8.5 billion will be made available for the operator to invest in renewing its fleets and the network.

Rendering its buses more ecological are not the only measure up RATP’s sustainable sleeve. It is also running a programme to replace all the 250,000 existing light points in its Ile-de-France network, distributed across a total surface area of one million square metres, with 50 million LED bulbs. A move that will halve the lighting energy bill when completed in 2017.

“Nineteen percent of the electricity consumed by the metro and RER [commuter rail] networks is for lighting purposes,” clarifies François Saglier, director, Services & Multimodal Spaces, RATP.

Other sustainable actions by RATP are electric braking, automatic metro lines, eco-drivingfleet renewal (enhanced operating energy efficiency thanks to latest technologies), eco-design for its buildings and eco-processing of water and waste. Plus works are underway in the tunnels forming part of the extension of metro Lines 12 and 14 to enable geothermal collection at three stations. The energy obtained will be sufficient to cover 100% of the heating and air conditioning needs of two stations, as well as meeting 40% of the requirements of 80 local households.

“RATP is fully committed [to the sustainability cause],” assures Ms LeBoucher, adding that all these actions are, of course, likewise aimed at making its operations more cost effective. “But rather than functioning in a silo, isolated from the rest of the city, we form part of the whole urban ecosystem, she insists. And for the sustainable city to become a reality there needs to be synergies between all the different urban sectors.”

Digital revolution

RATP is embracing digitisation as part of its approach to the sustainable city. “Multimodality is already a reality in transport,” says Ms LeBoucher. “It’s important for the consumer to have choices so he or she can make better informed decisions over which modes to use, depending on times and needs.”

By the by:I think RATP’s mobile application is really encouraging people to take the bus more, by enabling them to use routes they weren’t aware of previously,” Mats Gunnarsson, managing director, Scania France, told Passion4Transport in December 2015.  Indeed he was full of praise for the service, which he regularly uses to plan journeys around Paris. “It means I use the bus more because the app tells me which routes serve my destination before setting out, and often makes a door-to-door trip by bus possible.”

When we talk about digital, the first thing that springs to mind is connectivity. Here RATP says its main concern is to accelerate 3G/4G/Wi-Fi coverage both over- and underground. “We realise the importance of real-time information for altering travel plans mid-route, when necessary,” explains Ms LeBoucher. “However the dissipation of energy when providing connectivity underground is proving a drawback to deployment. But we are working on it.”

Right now, only parts of RATP’s RER  and metro networks offer 3G/4G coverage. If plans go according to schedule (they have already been delayed), the whole should be in the loop by 2017.

With regards to connected objects, the operator sees potential in the fields of real-time information and corrective solutions.

And for big data, it is eyeing predictive fleet maintenance, and more besides. “For instance, predicting when an escalator needs attention ensures it will always remain in service,” says Ms LeBoucher.”Consequently passengers can count on it, which will encourage their loyalty, as well as, hopefully, encouraging ridership.”

Introducing Wizway Solutions

On December 3, RATP, Gemalto, Orange, and SNCF (French Railways) officially announced the creation of  Wizway Solutions, a joint venture dedicated to developing contactless mobility, i.e. transport ticketing on NFC-enabled smartphones.

“We have been innovating in ticketing since the launch of its contactless travelcard [Navigo],” commented Elisabeth Borne, president, RATP. “Wizway Solutions matches our ambition to  embrace sustainable mobility and the smart city by developing new digital services to facilitate the daily lives of passengers.” 

The four founding members (who avoided disclosing the exact sums invested, although when pressed by journalists “the total amounts to several million euros,” conceded Olivier Piou, managing director, Gemalto) each own 25% of the venture, which, they insist, remains open to other mobile phone companies (SFR and Bouygues have since confirmed they will be joining) and transport operators. The plan is to make the offer available to transport organising authorities and operators in 2016, with a view to public deployment in 2017.

 New technologies and connectivity will help us create sustainable cities, sums up Ms LeBoucher.

Water & ways

“Managing water lies at the heart of the sustainable city. Yet in France it is a particularly complex subject, with around 30,000 organisations involved,” says Michel Lesage, député for Côtes-d’Armor, and president of Groupe d’études sur la politique de l’eau. There is little doubt he is impatient to see the overall management model revised in order to render the whole system more efficient, and fair: “Why should taxpayers who don’t pollute the water pay for those who do?”

In his assessment report on ‘water policy in France’, published in July 2013, two of the 12 orientations propose to ‘implement a new governance structure for water by mobilising the [French] territories’, and to ‘rethink our business model for financing water’.

“Optimising urban management implies doing things differently, and this includes water,” adds Anne Charreyron-Perchet, senior advisor, ‘sustainable cities’, Department of the Commissioner-General for Sustainable Development (CGDD). And she has a suggestion: “Instead of water companies being renumerated based on the quantity of water consumed, why base this payment model on the amount of water saved?”

Given that the priority in France, has, until recent years, been given to the roads and cars, less investment has been channelled into developing transport modes such as the waterways. Yet the tide has now turned, in part driven by the ever growing need for transport infrastructure. To prove his point, Mr Bachelay reports that “business is booming at Port de Gennevilliers,” the number one dock in Ile-de-France (situated 5km from Paris) in terms of surface area and activities.

“The long-term objective is to link up all the major agglomerations of France by the waterways, and to increase the latter’s share of goods transport,” he expands. “Plus, don’t forget the pollution factor. Using water takes trucks off the roads, which reduces emissions and noise, as well as cutting down traffic jams.”

“For a long time cities turned their backs to their waterways, preferring to focus on other modes of transport,”  says Eric Alazeut, député for Doubs & member of the Commission des Finances. “And while today attitudes are definitely changing, we can’t ignore the fact that globally water levels are rising,” he warns. “This means there is a greater risk of rivers flooding, which obviously poses problems when it comes to urban planning.”

Note: the severe flooding in the Indian city of Chennai (November/December 2015) was not only triggered by extreme rainfall. Urban planners, builders, and administrators have been criticised for allowing the city to grow without following a coherent procedure.

The importance of urban planning

While not adverse to urban sprawl per se – “it is a sign of opulence” – Vincent Renard, research fellow at IDDRI (Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations), & advisor to the ‘Fabrique Urbaine’ programme, points the finger at the disparate nature of urban planning, with projects that are “generally too small.”

Instead he would like to see them “better organised and coordinated,” adding (and ruffling some feathers both on the Matinales podium and among the audience), there are far too many [around 600,000, i.e. 1% of the population!] elected representatives [élus] in France. Plus there is the French exception – the power of city mayors.”

Waste not, want not

“Contrary to popular belief, our city waste services are highly competent. There really is a point to sorting and recycling,” says Johann Leconte, relations director, councillors & associations, Eco-Emballages.

A private company founded in 1993, and recognised by the French public authorities, Eco-Emballages seeks to develop a sustainable approach to packaging between companies, local communities and consumers. Twenty years on, the firm recycles 2/3 of the packaging it handles, “which obviously means there’s still room for progress,” admits Mr Leconte, “even if reaching 100% might be improbable.

“Our lifestyles evolve faster than urban planning,” he exands. “So we need to adapt our measures to current ways of working and living.” By way of example, during COP21, Mairie de Paris, Eco-Emballages, and Plastic Omnium unveiled Trilib’, a new modular infrastructure designed to encourage voluntary waste sorting and recyling in cities.

“One of the keys to uptake of recycling habits is user-friendliness,” explains Mr Leconte. “While in the early years, it was considered more efficient to have the bins inside the home, today, their proximity [the basis of Trilib’] is seen as a more efficient approach. And when you consider that it takes just three seconds to sort your waste, who can’t do it? But it must be simple, easy, and efficient.”

Further to this first objective to bring sorting within the fold of urban development, a second seeks to extend the process to include all types of plastic, not just bottles. “But to pull this off means reviewing all our existing infrastructure,” warns Mr Lecomte. There are currently too many sorting centres in France today, around 250, and they are undersized.”

Win-win for all?

Other topics raised among the speakers included employment – if and how activities key to the sustainable city movement, such as the waterways and waste management, can create jobs.

According to a study by the French Institute de l’économie circulaire, recycling and the circular economy  should enable the creation of up to 440,000 jobs in France by 2030.

Ms Charreyron-Perchet pointed out that co-working spaces, an example of her aforementioned “new ways of doing things”, also form part of the debate. Furthermore she reminded everyone of the export potential of the sustainable city for French companies. “It represents a major economic force for France. The country certainly has a strong card to play in this field. It has proven expertise in many of the sectors involved.”

For her part, Ms LeBoucher advises all actors to keep their ears to the ground. “We really must listen to what the X and Y generations have to say. Plus they want to know what we are doing for them, i.e. the future, in the field of sustainable development.”

There is no one model for a sustainable city. It is rather an ideal, an objective to be attained,” sums up Ms Charreyron-Perchet.

“Three important points to bear in mind are the need for a systemic vision, taking all the different urban functions into account – for a long-term vision beyond electoral mandates, e.g. what kinds of cities are we going to leave to our children – and for shared governance, whereby all city actors – from citizens to city hall – have their say.”

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