Suburban Transit Revolution

by Laurent Vermeersch

Paris is on the verge of a massive transportation upgrade, largely for the benefit of its long-neglected suburbs. The Boulevard Périphérique is currently a physical and psychological border between two unequal worlds. The 2.2 million residents of Paris intra-muros rarely set foot in the banlieue, home to a primarily lower-income and more ethnically diverse population of 9.5 million.

Source: Sprachcafe

Tours Aillaud housing complex in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. Source: Skyscraper City

Reaching education and employment centers is extremely difficult for many suburban residents. They often face longer commute times to the center than those from provincial cities linked by high-speed rail. As central Paris becomes a playground for the well-to-do, suburbanites remain marginalized. Frustration reached a boiling point in 2005, when riots broke out in Paris suburbs and spread across the country.

Paris riots in 2005. Source: Spiegel

French officials launched the ambitious "Grand Paris" plan in 2007 to connect suburban residents with economic centers throughout the metropolitan area and reduce their need to travel through the center. Two weeks ago, $34 billion of the proposed $50 billion investment was approved, and construction is to begin by 2015.

Source: Société du Grand Paris

Four new driverless metro lines, spanning 200 kilometers, are scheduled for completion in 2030. The so-called "super metro" should drastically improve transit around the periphery, with 72 new stations linking isolated areas like Clichy-sous-Bois — where the 2005 riots began — with airports and business districts.

The Grand Paris plan is on course to bring a transformation more profound than Haussmann's famous boulevards. If succesful, other cities may learn from this experience and prevent the isolation of low-income communities before frustration gives way to violence.

Laurent Vermeersch is a Brussels-based journalist and historian. He works as a staff writer for and keeps a blog called Connect with him on Twitter @thecitygeek.

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  1. Very interesting case. Transport infrastructure is a great way of strengthening a city and region if the funding is there. I wonder how France is able to make this investment during an economic downturn. Also interesting that the right-wing government of Sarkozy initiated Le Gran Paris. Imagine a conservative politician in the USA proposing something like this.

    1. Hum it's a bit more complicated in fact (I'm french^^). Sarkozy's right wing government have more or less nothing to do with the project. It was initiated by Paris' Mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, who is member of the socialist party, in association with the city council, associations of citizens, and the city councils of peri-urban towns. I'm making it simple, but all in all everything's there.

  2. maybe the french suburbs will become nouveau garden cities of to-morrow. build local economies and smaller homes and ebenezer howard might smile in the afterworld.

  3. Here is a link with more information on the project from Stephane Kirkland, author of "Paris Reborn":

  4. The reputation of the Parisian suburbs is greatly exagerated.
    Paris suburbs are in large majority middle class communities.
    The big housing blocks are only a minority of the widely diverse housing space in the suburbs.

    I always find funny the big generalisation about Parisian suburbs. There are over 9 million inhabitants living here. How can you generalise a such big place ?
    The reality of suburbs is very diverse, the difference between two suburbs can be very wide.
    While it is true that suburbs have the poorest place in Paris area, they also host the poshest places of the metropolitan area. The majority is in the middle.

    The border effect of the Peripherique is also truly exagerated, there are million of people who cross it everyday to work, shop, studies...
    Million of suburbanite work in Paris (the majority of the people working in Paris live in suburbs) but there are also several hundred of thousand people living in Paris who work in suburbs (over 30% of working people living in Paris live in suburbs).

    True, many people living in the City of Paris don't often set a foot in suburbs but how many people living in Manhattan, Central London, San Franciso set the foot in the suburbs or in the outer districts of those cities ? This is quite normal case, people living in the central area of the city don't go often in the periphery.


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