photo: A metro train at Paris' Gare Du Nord.
Full house: A Metro train at Paris's Gare Du Nord. Christian Hartmann/Reuters

The good news: Transit ridership is booming in the French capital. But severe crowding now has authorities searching for short-term solutions.

After five years of unprecedented passenger growth, the Paris Metro system is now perilously close to full. According to data from transit authority RATP released this week by newspaper Le Parisien, the French capital’s subway saw its annual ridership leap between 2013 and 2018. Rising from 1.76 billion to 1.84 billion trips annually over the period, the system is now hosting a remarkable 217,837 extra trips every day compared to 2013.

Some lines are more packed than others: Paris’ Line 13 is now the fifth most congested in the world, surpassed only by two lines in Sao Paulo and two in Buenos Aires—both cities with notably lower per capita spending on their public transit systems. So what can Paris do to ease the flow?

The overcrowding issue is in many ways a success story, since the city’s flagship policy has been to discourage car use. While Paris has witnessed a steady drop in driving over several decades now, its current administration has been particularly intent on reshaping Parisian mobility habits, and can claim responsibility for some of the ridership spike. Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s campaign to overhaul the city’s transit system has been contentious at times, but with current polls showing her on course to be re-elected in the next municipal election coming up in March, she seems to have retained overall support for her program.

Transit is nonetheless a significant talking point for the upcoming mayoral elections. Green Party candidate David Belliard is promising to go Hidalgo one better and “free Paris from cars;” maverick outsider candidate Marcel Campion, meanwhile, is calling for the creation of another beltway in a tunnel beneath the current one.

In this somewhat fractious climate, remedies for the current subway crush are now being explored, and this Tuesday, an ambitious solution was proposed at a city council meeting: the construction of new Metro lines that would almost entirely encircle the city.

If you are a Paris-watcher and think that idea sounds familiar, you’d be right. Paris is indeed already in the process of constructing a grand orbital Metro line, along with three other new lines and two extensions of existing links; the mega-project, dubbed the Grand Paris Express, is due to open in stages between 2020 and 2030. This major extension will mostly run through Paris’ vast suburbs, making it easier for residents of outer Paris to connect with each other without having to travel into Paris itself.

But the new Metro lines now under discussion would be different. Forming a backwards “C” shape, the link would be made up of two lines totaling 40 kilometers. Much of it would cleave closely to the line of the Boulevard Périphérique—the city’s automotive beltway—and lie within the boundaries of Paris Proper, but it would also reach out beyond in its eastern section to connect the fast-gentrifying inner suburbs of Montreuil and Pantin. This, it is hoped, would alleviate pressure in central Paris in much the same way as the Grand Paris Express: By intersecting with the three busiest existing Metro lines, it would remove some of their habitual users and ensure that these lines reached the city center somewhat less packed than they are currently.

Such a project is very loosely estimated to cost between €5 and €10 billion and would take 15 years to complete. Proposed by communist member of the Council of Paris—who co-operate on a minority basis with the administration of socialist Mayor Hidalgo—the proposal also faces long odds, politically. At present it is likely to stand more as a possible future solution rather than a plan to be immediately adopted. Valerie Pécresse, president of the Paris Region, has promised to veto any new transit links that do not lie within her suburban constituency. And it would be hard to secure another massive funding round before the Grand Paris Express is even running.  

In the meantime, transit officials are working on cheaper, quicker means of easing congestion. Among the options: automating all trains, making trains larger, and bringing in experts from Japan (a nation that knows a few things about stuffing more people into trains) to help redesign access to platforms.

The first option is already in progress. Most Metro trains are currently six cars long, a length that could feasibly be extended to eight cars. Such extension was due to be adopted next year on Line 14, allowing each train to transport up to 1,000 passengers. The RER commuter rail network, a vital link between the inner city and the suburbs, enlarged its capacity in 2017, when it introduced double-decker trains on Line A. This capacity upgrade will extend to RER Line B in 2025.

Additionally, train frequency could be increased if lines were fully automated, something that has been the case on the axial Line 1 since 2012.

Other ideas involve getting more riders off the train. Paris has been trying hard to encourage more commuters to cycle, creating incentive schemes for battery-boosted e-bikes, a mode of transit that is perhaps more suited than regular bikes for commuting across long distances. There is also much talk—but as yet not a whole lot of action—of promoting remote working to lessen the volume of commuters on the rails.

Changes like these would help grease the rubber-tired wheels of the Paris Metro. In a city that is pushing hard to remove private motor vehicles and replace them with greener modes, however, it seems likely that the city will indeed need to invest heavily in expanding the network if it is really going to tackle transit congestion.

Paris is by no means alone among Europe’s megacities in this. London is constructing the major new commuter link Crossrail and pumping $2 billion into new trains; Moscow is on course to deliver all of its 76 planned new subway stations by the end of 2020. The scale and cost of such projects might raise eyebrows in transit-challenged places like the U.S., but in a world moving—fitfully—away from private cars, the assumption that subway systems mainly completed in the last century can meet today’s needs will start to look increasingly naive. That new orbital line might be a good idea after all.

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