Public Transport

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Urbanization and the attendant increase in population density in the confined space of cities, especially historic cities never designed for rapid transport, created ever more daunting challenges from the nineteenth century onward. City life and public transport had long been at odds: ancient Rome was already famous for its traffic jams. In the early twentieth century the issue of "traffic" was highlighted by the spokespeople of the modernist International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM), who argued that the city met four main needs: living, working, self-cultivation, and transit. The expansion of cities was inseparable from the need for transport to carry a working population dwelling in ever more distant suburbs into and out of the center.

The growth of suburbs in the twentieth century produced a vast increase in commuter shuttling between central business districts and dormitory communities. European cities, however, afforded far less room for transit needs than their American counterparts (the Los Angeles model, for example). The Americans devoted roughly four times more urban space to transportation than the Europeans. The average European, whatever the mode of transport, traveled from two to four times daily. The highly mobile Americans moved about far more frequently. Mobility was naturally a function of many factors, not only socioprofessional considerations (senior managers traveled more than wage workers, the working population more than the nonworking) but also the size and geography of urban areas. Statistics show, however, that over time mobility related to work and to the organization of the workday increased less than mobility associated with leisure activities and social life. The level of dependence on the private automobile continued to rise throughout the century, while the increasing average speed (until congestion intervened) of both private and public transport made it practical for people to travel farther and farther from city centers. In the Paris region, annual family travel after World War II averaged 4,500 kilometers by private car, 800 kilometers on two-wheeled vehicles, and 800 kilometers by public transport. The average European daily travel time was approximately one hour a day. Unfortunately, travel was subjected to uniform time constraints, giving rise to immense rush-hour overloads that could ultimately be relieved only by a staggering of work hours. In consequence, cities and their transit systems were vulnerable to paralysis at certain times of day or in the case of exceptional events such as demonstrations, power failures, and storms.


Public transport alternatives to the dominance of the private car took several forms during the twentieth century.

Streetcars and buses

The electric tram or streetcar emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as a means of decongesting town centers. After the First World War streetcars and various kinds of trolleybuses began, albeit very gradually, to give way to buses, which could maneuver their way through automobile traffic. The changeover was very slow, for there was little difference in running costs between the two transit systems in densely populated neighborhoods. The dismantling of tram and trolleybus networks accelerated in the 1950s.

Metropolitan railways

The construction of underground metropolitan railways (which did not in fact run always or exclusively underground) in order to speed up mass transit and reduce street congestion began in large and medium-sized European cities before the close of the nineteenth century. These networks could transport between five and ten thousand people per hour. Their extension beyond city limits was not always a simple matter, however, and the Paris metro, for instance, was not extended into the suburbs until the years between the two world wars. The cost was of course onerous, and generally only cities with a population of a million or more were able to undertake such a project. The greater the population density, the greater the expense for infrastructural work (often giving the advantage to the bus and sometimes to the tramway option). As a cost-saving measure, entirely automated trains became more and more common in the later twentieth century, while the number of service workers in stations was often drastically reduced in the interest of productivity. Closed-circuit television made it possible for engineers to monitor passengers getting on and off trains. Critics charged, however, that security was being given short shrift, and cited such incidents as the fire that caused thirty-one fatalities at the King's Cross station in London in 1987.

Suburban rail

Peri-urbanization and its effects were a marked feature of the twentieth century. Public transportation systems effectively addressed the periphery/center axis, but travel between one suburb and another was by and large left to the automobile. Trains were the preferred way of getting to and from the city center. As suburbs spread outward, the traffic on such lines increased accordingly. The electrification of commuter networks helped make the trains more comfortable, but in many instances complementary systems were called for. In the Paris region, for example, older railroad lines were converted and new ones were constructed under the metro tracks in order to create a Regional Express Network (RER), opened in the 1960s, which speeded travel to and from suburban stations and the airports. It thus became possible for some three hundred thousand commuters to reach central Paris without changing trains.


In most European countries, awareness of the deleterious impact of the automobile on urban space dawned around 1970. Hitherto cars had benefited from purchase prices that tended in relative terms to decline, from cheap gasoline, and from a very low level of public consciousness about environmental issues. Signs of crisis had nevertheless been visible for some time, as street-level public transport, essentially buses, began to suffer the effects of continual traffic jams and lose passengers. During the 1970s most European cities reacted with measures designed to encourage the further development of public transport.

The policy change of the 1970s was associated with the crisis of values reflected in the political events of the late 1960s, after which it was common to stress the limits of growth and the risks it held for healthy living conditions. The assumption that the automobile was king came under fire. By this time, in fact, a large proportion of journeys by car were no more than a few kilometers long, and the majority of them were unrelated to work. The economic crisis that followed the first "oil shock" in 1973 made the need for policy change seem even more urgent. A shift in favor of public transport took place with strong government involvement. It was now viewed as essential that mass transit become more comfortable and more efficient in terms of service speed.

The solutions adopted varied from country to country. They included the building of metro systems, the reintroduction of streetcars, various extrafiscal ways of subsidizing commuter travel, and restrictions on automobile use. By the end of the century a good many cities had new streetcar systems that were quieter and more reliable than their predecessors. In Manchester trams made their reappearance in 1992, although the new network might as easily be described as a metro, because in some districts the cars run underground, as they also do in Brussels. Several French cities, among them Nantes, Grenoble, Bordeaux, and even Paris, chose streetcars over new underground railway lines on grounds of cost. These new tramways were of modern conception, however: they drew electric power from beneath, for example, thus eliminating dangerous and unsightly overhead cables. Technological progress made it possible to improve not only the performance but also the image of hallowed forms of public transit. Several places, notably in Scandinavian countries, experimented with buses powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), considered less polluting than diesel. Electric buses were also tried—small vehicles well suited to the narrow streets of the historic cities of Italy and elsewhere. But electric vehicles still had drawbacks, notably lack of independence and excessive weight. Meanwhile completely automated metro trains continued to evolve. Wireless communications networks could be expected to provide instant information to passengers waiting, say, at a bus stop. Monitoring of incidents or rush-hour dispatch management could be streamlined by means of GPS-type technology. Various kinds of "bimodal" trolleybuses and articulated buses might also be mentioned. The introduction of dedicated bus lanes on main thoroughfares did much to improve schedule speed.

The effects of the policy shift of the 1970s were felt over the long term. Bus ridership increased greatly, for example, and service speed picked up somewhat. The expanding urban periphery made cars ever more necessary for suburbanites, especially for intersuburban travel, yet measures taken in favor of public transport, such as the simplification of fare structures, bore much fruit.


The modernization of public transport and its diversification in response to new needs inevitably entailed considerable expense. Municipal governments devoted a large part of their budgets (often as much as 25 to 30 percent) to transport. In view of the financial outlays involved, local authorities rarely took direct responsibility for management; instead they delegated the organization of urban and peri-urban mass transit to private enterprise (under a variety of legal arrangements). As a result, large international transport concerns gradually emerged, operating across Europe and even beyond; the Connex group was a case in point, operating at once in Scandinavia, Great Britain, and France. At the same time, because of the massive scale of the infrastructure involved, the state frequently intervened in this structurally unprofitable sector, where, generally speaking, commercial receipts represented only a quarter of outlays, subsidies a further third, and private capital investment the remainder. In the 1980s Great Britain abandoned this model: the state gradually withdrew and left the field of mass transportation in the hands of the private sector. Other possible revenue sources were considered, from tolls on cars entering the city to taxes on drivers to support mass transit.

In the simplest terms, reducing the cost of public transportation depended far less on conserving energy than on economizing on labor. But more complex calculations were in order. The overall social cost of each particular mode of transport needed to be taken into account, for any reduction in automobile traffic meant a reduction in noise levels, air pollution, congestion, energy consumption, and security risks. The issue of air pollution due to motor vehicle emissions became more and more crucial as awareness grew of the danger of greenhouse gases. Once fully sensitized to the hazards of high concentrations of car-generated pollution, Europeans were receptive to such restrictions on automobile use in urban centers as park-and-ride plans for commuters, high tolls (London), pedestrianization in historic districts (Florence), or the establishment of bus-only lanes (Paris). The introduction of parking meters in the 1970s was an early attempt to discourage motorists from driving into city centers or staying there long; meters quickly spread to provincial towns. In France, Besançon was one of the first places to set up pedestrian zones.

Individual and collective awareness of the necessity of rationalizing the development of mass transit caused European governments to commit themselves politically and financially. There was a notable return to planning with respect to mass transit, a tendency endorsed by a largely urbanized population eager to remedy air pollution and improve the quality of life. By the end of the twentieth century it was apparent that public transport policy must not be allowed to trail behind urban development; on the contrary, the one had to be conceived in parallel to the other. The quality of transport systems became a public-relations priority for European cities.

See alsoAutomobiles; Railways.


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Alain Beltran