Urban planning and mobility: “We have rolled out the red carpet for a long time”

Laurent Chapelon Paul-Valéry is a professor of geography at the University of Montpellier 3 and a specialist in transport issues related to land use planning. He has been teaching spatial analysis for over 15 years. He presents his analysis of the evolution of public policies for Midi Libre.

Laurent Chapelon, Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 University lecturer.

As a transport specialist in regional planning, have you observed a paradigm shift in the work of local authorities?

Since the early 1980s, there has been awareness of the consequences of car use in terms of pollution and the congestion it creates. However, we have known very cautious public policy for years because we know the contribution that the car offers. More recently, with improved knowledge of climate change and recognition of the direct impact of our mobility, awareness of the challenges in metropolitan areas has arisen with appropriate action.

Unless the delay seems important…

For too long, we’ve rolled out the red carpet for cars, adapting cities to make traffic more fluid. Other road infrastructures were created to face the problem of congestion, but this resulted in a new challenge for transportation. Thus, the car has confirmed itself as the main mode of travel with a modal share of 76-78%. We are now offering more efficient alternatives, especially in dense areas because it is easier to implement a cheaper public transport offer there, we are developing the car park in more rural areas…but there is still a lot to do.

Hasn’t urbanization since the 1960s and 1970s, along with the boom outside, also contributed to this car addiction?

It is obvious. Improvements in automobiles and infrastructure have made it possible to maintain similar travel times while living further in the suburbs. We pay the price for this addiction, it’s so hard to tell people to change their behavior that they contribute to pollution and congestion. Solutions like carpooling are starting to emerge, we are using the car in a smarter way.

Could the tram proposed by the Métropole de Montpellier be a good solution to provide a public transport solution even in the suburbs?

The car is generally efficient, you can easily access services with a very dense network, without respectable schedules. To encourage behavioral change, public transport should therefore offer a sufficiently high level of performance, i.e. a guaranteed journey time in its lane and a high frequency of around 5-7 minutes. This is the promise of a high-service bus, like the tram, going in the right direction.

And the upcoming free public transport?

The modal share of public transport is not growing fast enough, it remains at the level of 9% in 2019, as in 1994. There were no shocks. The idea is that there is material to overcome. It’s worth a free trial and learning.

However, road projects continue. Le Lien and Com Ouest in Montpellier, the western bypass in Nîmes also…

The challenge is no longer to not invest in the road at all, but to invest wisely. Mobility policy should be adapted to each area. Metropolises like Nîmes or Montpellier are interested in forcing the car into dense and central parts by developing public transport, intermodality with the possibility to leave your car at an exchange center… and encourage people to leave their cars in well-placed multimodal centers. It’s no shock to complete this network of bypasses to keep traffic out of the city. But you have to go with it little by little.

What do you think is missing today?

Coaches. They will be used more with increased performance. The problem today is that they’re stuck on school trips and pick up middle and high school students as close to home as possible, with travel times twice as long. They must be circulated on strategic axes, and it is up to the people to fall back on them. And they take advantage of their site at the entrance to the city, even if it means demeaning car traffic.

The bike is getting stronger and stronger …

Covid and its famous “coronapics” have been a way to accelerate community cycling policies. There is a cycling dynamic in big cities, but we need to go further to redistribute public space in favor of an electric bike that can travel up to 10 km from home to work.

Is the ZFE, which wants to banish the most polluting cars from the city centers of Montpellier and soon Nîmes, a good or bad idea?

This is a good summary of the challenge of implementing a sustainable mobility policy. Everyone agrees to look better, but the social price to pay remains complicated because not everyone is willing to let go of the car reflex.

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