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article imageOp-Ed: More Urban Transport Means less Pollution and Illness Special

By Michael Cosgrove     May 6, 2009 in Environment
Air pollution in large towns and cities represents a major health risk, and much of it is caused by cars. At the same time, and I don’t think I’m playing Cassandras here, we shall probably run short of usable oil soon.
I say “probably” because estimates have varied over the years, between running out in the 1970’s to never running out at all.
This means that the days of cars in their present form are numbered, and the sooner we develop alternative forms of transport the better. For now though, it’s all about pollution, traffic jams, and the respiratory, cardiac and other illnesses caused by them. One way of combating this is to reduce the need for people to use their cars in cities whilst still ensuring quick and efficient transit of people in urban areas.
In other words, by improving and developing public transport networks.
I thought you might like to know about how they do things here in Lyon, France, which has a public transport system, called the TCL, which is second to none.
Lyon is the third biggest city in France, with a population of 500 thousand people.
The system uses a dense combination of subway lines, “metro” in French, tramlines, and bus routes, which, between them, stop at over three thousand places, with well over half of all trips needing only one change, or none. It’s almost impossible to find somewhere in the city that is over five minutes walk from at least one form of transport, and the majority of people have the choice of at least two.
Not only that, but the average waiting time for transport here, depending on which mode you are using, is 2 to 5 minutes during rush hours and 4 to 8 minutes the rest of the time.
Here is a subway train. The picture does not show the back of the train however, but the front. That’s because the train has no driver. The view from the front is great for kids and tourists!
This subway line is entirely controlled by computers, with front mounted cameras showing what is happening in front of the train. Sat in offices, opening and closing doors and manually controlling speed and braking only when an incident occurs, surveillance staff “drink coffee and look out for incident warning lights” as a TCL employee friend told me.
Driverless Subway train  Lyon France
Driverless Subway train, Lyon France
Michael Cosgrove
My train once stopped very abruptly between stations and moved off again a couple of minutes later. When I got off, at the next station, I asked a member of staff what happened.
“Oh, someone threw a newspaper onto the tracks. On this line, if anything falls onto the tracks or if anyone climbs down onto it, sensors pick it up and trains brake and stop instantly and automatically. We know it was a newspaper because CCTV films the tracks permanently.”
However, getting people to use public transport also means making it attractive, as well as safe. Done deal. Here is a subway station, complete with real trees and airy lighting. Every station is unique in its design and decoration features. My local station has a blown-up map of the whole world on its walls, from one end of the station to the other, floor to ceiling. The detail is amazing and you can learn some geography whilst waiting for your train.
Subway Station  Lyon France
Subway Station, Lyon France
Michael Cosgrove
The implications for pollution and the use of oil (petrol/diesel) are enormous in terms of developing efficient city transit systems.
The system here handles 20 percent of all para-urban traffic but generates only 3 percent of transport-related pollution, because 70 percent of the system uses forms of energy other than oil, and electricity in particular. In one year the TCL covers 60 million kilometers (over 37 million miles) and carries almost 600 million passengers a year.
Looked at another way, each time someone uses public transport they emit an almost negligible quantity of CO², and the savings in terms of barrels of oil and pollution are more than significant. The tramlines are a good example of that.
(The building you see in the background here was used as the Gestapo headquarters, detention and torture centre during WWII. It is now a Museum and conference centre dedicated to the memory of the thousands of people deported from France to the Death Camps and shall be the subject of a future article.)
Tram  Lyon France
Tram, Lyon France
Michael Cosgrove
The bus is the only mode of transport still using diesel, in some 20 percent of cases. The rest have electric engines, such as the one in the photo below. You can hardly hear them drive by. A busful of rush-hour passengers means 40 less cars on the streets, which in turn means 70 thousand litres of petrol less in one year for rush-hour traffic. Multiply that by the many thousands of rush-hour buses that run over a year, and you are talking a lot of economised oil. If you count clean-energy Subway and Tram passengers, the figure runs into many millions of barrels.
Electric bus  Lyon France
Electric bus, Lyon France
Michael Cosgrove
The positive effect of all this on urban pollution here is significant. Respiratory and other diseases caused by petrol pollution are being reduced, and urban road deaths and injuries have gone down significantly. The streets are quieter and safer, and pedestrianised zones are becoming more and more common.
Many roads have had the number of lanes for cars reduced to make way for bus and tram lanes. Downtown car parks cost a fortune and there are almost no free parking spaces left in the close inner-city (and none at all downtown). Municipal Police armed with tickets are everywhere and fines are hefty. Driving in Lyon is becoming a nightmare, and it’s a deliberate policy.
Yes, the car is being pushed out of central Lyon, free parking is becoming scarce, traffic jams have been slightly reduced downtown but are getting even worse for those who try their luck up to the inner-city perimeter. And they are being pushed further and further out as time goes by.
Oh, and by the way. I had to take three subway lines, two bus lines and two tramlines to go around the city in order to take the photos I took for this article, a few of which you see here, and get back home. Seven trips in all. Would you like to know how much I paid for those trips?
I paid 1 euro and 30 cents. That is 1 dollar and 70 cents.
A monthly pass card for the network costs 40 euros, or 53 dollars. With that card you can take 100 trips a day if you wish. There is no limit.
My car insurance used to cost twice that alone, without counting credit, petrol, depreciation, service and repairs.
I no longer have a car. If I want one in order to leave the city for any reason I hire it from the city pool.
But if the idea of getting around the city using underground public transport doesn’t appeal to you on a sunny day, you have yet another option. Go and pick up one of these bicycles. There are thousands of them in racks all over town. Get one, use it, put it back in a rack, stay fit. Cycle lanes are everywhere. And they are included in the price of the card.
Public bicycles  Lyon France
Public bicycles, Lyon France
Michael Cosgrove
Behind the bicycles is the River Rhône and you can just see the top of a cruise boat. That reminds me that plans are also being made for river transport of passengers by the TCL.
Let’s face it. The numbers are on the wall. We should be planning and implementing the future of urban transport now, because petrol will not last forever. Those countries and cities which don’t make the effort to improve their urban transport networks now are eventually going to learn the meaning of the time-honoured expression “Prevention is better than cure” the hard way.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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