Over the first weekend of October 2016, five members of the Key Transport Consultants team jetted off to Bordeaux to investigate practices within the city, which is of a similar size to the West of England, and twinned with Bristol.
The aim of the study tour was to understand how sustainable transport systems have been integrated into the heart of a bustling European city and to compare and contrast, looking for lessons that could be shared between the two cities. KTC were lucky enough to be welcomed, and given a guided two-wheeled tour of the city, by Association Bordeaux-Bristol President Valérie Bonnet.
It was a pleasant surprise that the 45 minute, 12km (7.5mile), journey only cost €1.50 (approximately £1.30) and the service operated largely via a smart ticketing system at each of the bus’s three doors, meaning that for locals who utilise the bus between the airport and the city centre, stops were swift. When compared with Bristol’s Airport Flyer bus which costs £7 (or €8) one-way for a 35 minute, 8 mile (12.8km), journey, and which still requires individual tickets to be purchased from the driver along its entire route, it became quickly obvious that public transport was being actively promoted within the greater Bordeaux region.
With a continuous level floor throughout, the bendy-bus was convenient for those wheeling cabin bags and clearly superior to a double decker in that respect but it certainly was bumpy at the back going over Bordeaux’s many speed bumps!
Why we went
One purpose of the study tour was to examine how the reintroduction of a tram network to Bordeaux has influenced travel around the city. It seems that traffic congestion in the 1990s prompted the Mayor Alain Juppe, elected in 1995, to investigate solutions. By 2000 the tram scheme had central government support and the current network of 44km was opened in stages between 2003 and 2008. The existing network consists of three separate lines which intersect within the city centre and stretch far out into the suburbs.
While travelling the busy network on the Saturday evening, Valérie explained to the KTC team that the tram fare is €1.50 for up to one hour of travel, which makes it an attractive option for residents commuting to work, or socialising, as well as for those on a leisure visit. We observed that the tram largely has priority over all other vehicles with a number of prioritised signalised junctions along its route, and for most of the routes, tracks were segregated from other vehicles, all of which enabled it to run a reliable and uninterrupted service.
To say it was segregated is a half-truth. Cyclists (including the KTC cohort at one point) were observed to cycle along tram lanes in areas where segregated cycle lanes were not provided, in turn, accommodating this second form of sustainable travel. We also learnt that the segregated tram routes can be used by emergency services to quickly travel around the city, something the emergency services in Bristol would doubtless dream of being able to do!
The trams themselves have relatively short cars (either 7 cars at 6m or 5 cars at 5.5m each, depending on the line) enabling them to turn tight corners in the World Heritage status city centre, parts of which date back to medieval times.
A second key feature is the innovative third rail power supply, which provides 750V DC power only when the tram is over the track, meaning that pedestrians don’t get electrocuted when the tram pulls away – an important safety feature! – and there are no overhead wires cluttering up the street scene in the historic centre. To further promote itself as a environmentally sustainable form of transport, the trams have a regenerative braking system, meaning they capture energy during braking and store it for use once the tram rolls again. The tram also provided a much smoother ride than the bendy-bus, making it easier to stand for short journeys.
Bordeaux by Bike
“V3” hire bicycles provided at docking stations by VCub (Vélo Communauté Urbaine de Bordeaux or the Urban Community of Bordeaux and vicinity, now officially re-named Bordeaux Métropole, but the bike sharing system still has the same name as before) were commonplace on the streets of the city centre, at tram stations in the suburbs, and at the major train stations, which act as travel-interchanges.
We didn’t find the machines were as easy to use as they might have been for a group to access the bikes. With no obvious option for group payment, for each bike we had to enter the payment card details, then print receipts, memorise a security code, then re-enter it in order to finally release one bike. So with no bikes at our local VCub station, the payment machine locking up at the second, it did take a while to get our bikes at the third station visited. A phone app did help identify locations with bikes or parking spaces available.
Once released the bikes themselves were excellent and eventually the KTC team were safely mounted on ten wheels and off to investigate how easy it is to navigate the city as a tourist.
Although only two of the party are regular cyclists, the bikes were easy to ride and, with Valerie guiding, we soon found ourselves travelling across the city, taking in the southern extremity of the tram Line C at Begles, where we found a very modern school dedicated to the first President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel (we asked why but found no answer!). This area had been quite deprived but the tram has brought new investment.
A few hours later at Le Lac in the north of the city we found the 1km long exhibition centre and FC Bordeaux’s New Stadium, the Matmut Atlantique, which opened in 2015. In between, in parts of the old city centre, some cycle lanes were segregated from vehicular traffic by parking bays, something that worked well but is not standard practice in the UK.
Elsewhere, in busy central suburbs where road space was at a premium, the cycle lanes were squeezed between parked cars and road traffic, the busy street activity of a Sunday market and congested traffic making cycling a bit hair raising at times for our less confident cyclists. Meanwhile, we crossed the Garonne River twice, first across the oldest bridge, the Napoleonic Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge), and then back across the newest, the extraordinary Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas lifting bridge, opened practice in the UK.
Elsewhere, in busy central suburbs where road space was at a premium, the cycle lanes were squeezed between parked cars and road traffic, the busy street activity of a Sunday market and congested traffic making cycling a bit hair raising at times for our less confident cyclists. Meanwhile, we crossed the Garonne River twice, first across the oldest bridge, the Napoleonic Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge), and then back across the newest, the extraordinary Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas lifting bridge, opened across controlled pedestrian/cycle crossings within the city centre.
What did we learn
Something that really stood out to the KTC team was the attitude of car drivers towards cyclists. Not only did they give adequate space while overtaking cyclists but there were many times throughout the day where drivers actively gave way to cyclists, even when they would not strictly be required to do so. That said, this may be partly down to the fact that it was the first Sunday of the month, which is ‘car free’ day in Bordeaux, or because we were a party of six cyclists. Whatever the reason, the KTC team was prompted to conclude that, even with improvements to cycle infrastructure in the UK, there is only so much that can be done whilst car driver mentality is that they rule the roads. To the best of our knowledge, the UK is one of only five countries in Europe that does not operate a strict liability regime for road users, which may go some way to explain our surprise at the courteous car-driver-to-cyclist behaviour observed in Bordeaux.
In terms of pedestrian movements, the large number of railings and bollards within the city were noted, as these were largely in contrast with UK practices in the last several years and the move to “declutter” our streets. Questions were raised about how vulnerable users might struggle to use the space but any concerns were quickly quelled by the overall feeling that the city centre really was a pedestrian dominated zone and cars, cyclists and even trams are only visitors to that space.
Car drivers/residents who still wish to drive into the city centre are catered for in underground car parks, many located under public squares. Access ramps often have steeper gradients than would currently be used in the UK.
Some research into figures found that the tram has so far cost €1.074billion. Some of this money was granted as a loan from the EIB (European Investment Bank) but a majority was sourced through ‘versement transport’, an employment payroll tax. A quarter of the cost of the project arose from land acquisition and relocation. Following the completion of stage 2, within a walking distance of 500m, the tram can reach 37% of the population, 50% of all jobs in the metropolis and 65% of all schools and universities.
The study tour wasn’t all hard work, facts and figures though. Time was also found for sampling some local produce and even a trip to La Cité du Vin (Bordeaux’s wine museum) to recover after our cycle tour of the city, and David even did some maintenance on a familiar sign.