Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new extension makes it the world’s only tri-national tram system.
The new streetcar link that launched in Basel, Switzerland, on Tuesday may not look all that special. A low-slung tram painted a shade of racing green, the rolling stock is ferrying passengers just a few stops further down a line that’s been in service since 1897. But these new stops have something special, even ground-breaking about them: While Basel lies in Switzerland, they’re across the border in France. And by opening them, Basel inaugurated the world’s only tri-national streetcar system.
The system’s first adventure abroad began three years ago, when it opened stations in the neighboring German city of Weil am Rhein. An existing line, meanwhile, barely crosses into a small section of French territory on its way to serving an outlying Swiss suburb. But the newest addition extends deep into France—including four new stops—creating what must be the most international urban transit network in the world.
It might sound strange, but it makes perfect sense given Basel’s location. Situated in Switzerland’s far northwestern extremity on the banks of the Rhine, it is part of an international metro area of 830,000 people that sprawls naturally along the river’s banks without much regard for political boundaries. This tri-national area itself fits into a larger triangle of cities, as Basel lies within less than 45 miles of the major French and German cities of Mulhouse and Freiburg, with which it shares an airport located on the French side of the border. For Basel, binding this international basin together in an ever-tighter transit system only makes practical, economic sense.
Back in the days before private cars rose to prominence, these links were indeed more fully reflected by the area’s public transit system. In the early 1900s, when the French suburbs were part of the German Empire during its 1871-1918 occupation of Alsace, two trams were opened crossing the border, a service that continued in diminished form until 1957. Re-opening streetcar links allows local travelers to slash their reliance on the cars that largely replaced tram services.
That reliance is currently pretty heavy. Currently an estimated 30,000 commuters cross daily from France to Switzerland, most of them by car, clogging streets on the Swiss side and lengthening commute times. Basel is clearly hoping to get some of these drivers onto the streetcar, as a 750-space park-and-ride parking lot has been built next to the new French terminus to encourage French drivers to take their cars no further.
In trying to suture the gash left by the border, Basel is not alone. It’s just the most thorough of several attempts to use transit to knit together communities along the Franco-German-Swiss border. This April, the French city of Strasbourg extended its streetcar system over its Rhine-straddling bridge to the city of Kehl, while the tram system of the Saarbrücken, Germany, has extended to France since 1997.
The closer connections make perfect sense. This was, after all, long a region which was connected rather than divided by the Rhine. Alsace may have long been an unmistakably, even stridently French region, but it has a lengthy history of close connection with the other bank, as testified to by the enduringly large number of speakers of Alsatian, a Germanic language with very close connections to German dialects spoken on the Swiss and German sides of the border. While the nationalist tumult of the 19th and 20th centuries made this region a fault line between two of Europe’s great powers, the sharp division was abrupt and scarring. That a region with such obvious interconnections is finding everyday, practical ways or rebinding itself is both heartening and sensible.
Does this suggest a borderless future for the region in the offing? Not necessarily. Past experience with Basel’s tram link to Germany suggest that traffic was heavy because of the border rather than despite it. When it opened in 2014, it did so just after moves by Switzerland’s national bank saw a sharp drop in the exchange rate between the Swiss Franc and the Euro. The prospect of a bargain for Swiss shoppers in Germany was so tempting that the city initially had to lay on extra services to accommodate the unexpected volume of people heading to buy things on the German side of the border. Businesses located on the Swiss side were, as you might predict, not thrilled.
You might expect this shopping rush to Germany to create some business resistance to the new link to France, but locals are not predicting the same rush this time round. French prices are typically higher than those in Germany, and France requires a minimum purchase of €175 before refunding sales tax to non-EU residents, unlike Germany which offers rebates without a lower limit. If Swiss shoppers are looking for bargains, France won’t likely be their destination.
What Baselers will hopefully get, however, is cleaner air and clearer roads, with border crossing even more of an afterthought than it is now. In 10 years’ time, it may well seem hard to imagine that things were ever different.