A Transit Expansion Designed to Force Paris to Make Peace With Its Suburbs

If any European city needed a radical structural rethink, it's Paris.

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Its walls may have been demolished a century ago, but some Parisians still see their city as a fortress. Residents living inside the French capital’s narrow official limits (an area called “Paris Intramuros”) are cut off from their city’s later expansion by the canyon of the Boulevard Periphérique beltway, a form of motorized rampart whose breadth and congestion draws a sharp line around the city core. The suburbanites who live beyond (usually in conditions far more metropolitan than any American suburb) are often regarded as a separate breed, with problems that are exotic and possibly even threatening to the “real” city itself.

This sharp, archaic border does more than just institutionalize the metropolitan snobbery endemic to big cities. It creates a sometimes toxic disconnect among the people who live in Europe’s largest urban area. If any European city needed a radical structural rethink, it’s Paris.

Back in 2007, it got just that. Launched by then-President Sarkozy, the over-arching Grand Paris plan promised to reshape the French capital region. Seventy-thousand new homes would be built annually for 20 years, a new top-level suburban university inaugurated, the transit network hugely expanded and perhaps most significantly, the city’s power structure would be redrawn.

Those goals have taken some major knocks since the plan’s launch (more of which later) but last month $39 billion was agreed for the plan’s cornerstone project: the construction of 72 new transit stations and 200 kilometers of train tracks, most of them in the suburbs. This expansion will not just make travel easier, it will better integrate Paris Intramuros with its suburbs and may soften the division between the two.

Currently, that division is pretty sharp. There’s nothing exclusively Parisian about big city prejudices – Manhattanites used to be just as bad with their "bridge and tunnel" sneers, only ditched since high rents (not open-mindedness) shifted much middle class action to Brooklyn. What makes Paris different is that the situation is so extreme. Of the 10 million people who live in and around the city, only 2 million are within Paris Intramuros, the limits of what is officially called Paris. The border of this area follows a line of 19th century fortifications that were demolished only in the 1920s (and mourned long after) though the city had long since exceeded their limits. This boundary was further reinforced from the 1950’s onwards by the Peripherique’s construction on the same site.

The results of this are various. While there are still working class districts within Paris, poorer residents have largely moved out (or been pushed), frequently to large-scale housing projects on the periphery. As these new suburbs have aged, many have become neglected poverty traps, portrayed (and sometimes demonized) as the stomping ground of a disenfranchised immigrant underclass. This is a partial view of the Paris suburbs, of course, much of which consists of single-family sprawl. The area contains France’s main financial district, while Paris’ immediate western suburbs are France’s richest area after the city itself. This makes the separation between the region and Paris proper only stranger, heightening the sense that by turning its back on the suburbs, the “real” Paris is in some way turning its back on its future.

Trivially, these differences are played out through various, possibly imaginary social markers. Suburbanites are said to kiss hello four times ("true" Parisians kiss twice), be wedded to their cars (as opposed to metro trains, bikes and taxis) and shop at the tatty Forum Des Halles shopping mall, handy for suburban rail but supposedly shunned by urbanites. Despite the assumption of its superiority, this disconnect has downsides for inner Paris too. If the suburbs are a dumping ground, the city core risks crystallizing into a museum piece, an antique butterfly secured on a pin. Compared to London, the city has done brilliantly in preserving small businesses and markets, but it’s becoming increasingly staid, living on its past, with a sense that its identity fixed hard and permanently decades ago.

These are the conditions the Grand Paris plan has been working against. Undeniably ambitious – Le Monde dubbed it "pharaonic" – some of its goals have already been rejected. Initially, the plan intended to unite Paris and its suburbs into a single political area, but suburban mayors have fought this off, perceiving the move as a power grab by the city core. Likewise, the plan for 70,000 new homes a year has been tempered somewhat – no year since 2007 has produced more that 40,000. Other aspects of the plan are nonetheless alive and well. Construction has begun on an elite science and technology university designed to rival Harvard and MIT. Planned for a South-Western greenfield site in the area the French already call Silicon Valley Européenne, it should accept its first students in 2020. 

And then there’s that mammoth transit expansion. Dubbed the Grand Paris Express, it will create four fully automated new suburban metro lines and extend two that already exist, creating two orbital rail rings for Greater Paris by 2030. Costing $39 billion in total, it will also (as this Le Monde report notes) produce from five to seven Olympic swimming pools’ worth of tunnelling debris. The fruit of a national culture that embraces major public infrastructure projects (and as a result has produced a world-beating transport system across the board), Paris’ plans make London’s recent tinkerings with its network look almost shy.

Significantly, it’s Metro lines that the suburbs are getting, as up to now these areas have been served mainly by the RER (Réseau Express Régional) network. This network covers much ground in both the suburbs and Paris Intramuros, but integrates poorly with the Metro and thus inadvertently segregates suburbanites and metropolitans. Not only will this stretched, overcrowded network get some relief, the sense of two separate systems will be softened. Compared to the plan to create a single city authority, this may not be especially radical. In a needlessly divided city, it’s nonetheless an encouraging sign that Paris is thinking hard about its future.

Top image: Paris (Luciano Mortula / Shutterstock); Paris suburb (bensliman hassan /Shutterstock)

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