Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Urban Planning: Bringing Poitiers into the 21st century

Poitiers + Suburbs (pop. 127,489+students)

Like many American cities, Poitiers is fighting to keep its central business district from being overtaken by outlying mega-stores. There have been a handful of articles in the local press about ways to draw more people into centre ville, including more parking, adding a tram line, changing traffic flow,... The discussion has culminated in the screening of some major French urban planning firms in hopes of revitalizing the Plateau (as the center is called here because, well, it's on a plateau).

Topographical map of centre ville and surrounding area

In riding my bike around, it's easy to see how frustrating driving (and parking) a car here can be. There are only a handful of (4) two-way streets in centre ville. You end up zig-zagging through a series of narrow one-ways while circumventing the pedestrian areas to get to your destination. And since some of these streets are so narrow they don't even have sidewalks, you still end up having to dodge pedestrians.

See if you can find the 4 two-way streets (click to enlarge)

Believe it or not, it's not much faster on a bike. Apart from the obvious hills separating the flat center from the rest of Poitiers, the one-way streets are so narrow, I usually opt for the long route instead of going against traffic and getting squeezed into parked cars or the curb. While some people cycle on the pedestrian streets, this is something I usually avoid. Pedestrians are even more unpredictable than drivers (and much more fragile). If they pass a shop and something catches their eye, they may wander into your path without warning. I'm not yet sufficiently confident in my French to berate someone for their unpredictable walking.

Now that you have some kind of picture of how things move around here, what to do about it? Oh, and don't forget about the few dozen historical sites, some of which date back to Roman times, that need to be preserved. Clearly, this is a problem requiring some thought.

Perhaps the problem could be solved by shifting the idea of what "normal" is for people who live here and making a few tweaks to the transportation system at the same time.

The bus system is extensive and frequent in Poitiers and the associated suburbs. But the buses stop at 9pm. Dinner and a movie on the Plateau? Better drive. Going out to see live music with your friends at the Pince Oreille? Who is the designated driver? Want to hang out in Parc Blossac on a summer night?...

Well, you get the picture. The municipality wants people to come to the center to shop and then go home by 9 pm, but shopping for things like clothes, food, umbrellas, and BD's is only one facet of "quality of life."

It's no secret that the French love their leisure time. There has been strong opposition to a law that would allow more businesses to open on Sundays, and the current law also requires all businesses except bars, restaurants, and tabacs to be closed by 10pm every day of the week. But having some (limited) number of buses run until late night/early morning would greatly expand people's entertainment options. Maybe more people would stop by the Deitrich for the Friday the 13th Triple Feature, or get their fix of punk rock/heavy metal at the Café du Clain.

This also relates to the problem of teen alcohol consumption that was mentioned earlier in our Vin Chaud post. Normally, the drinking age is 16 in France, but the mayor of Poitiers has raised it to 18 because of fights and destruction of property. Since these kids can't drive (they start driving between ages 18-21), and they can't take a bus to alternative forms of entertainment, what else are they supposed to do? The situation has essentially created a bored, isolated population in a metropolitian area.

One thing to consider are the solutions that other cities have come up with to increase the number of cyclists. Besides low-cost bike rentals, tax incentives, bike lanes and bike parking (all things Poitiers already has but could use more of), there is one thing that is often overlooked. This is the ability to take your bike with you on public transportation. Many municipalities in the U.S. equip the front of their city buses with collapsible bike racks or allow bikes on the subway.

Let's say your home or destination is not close to a bus route...riding to the bus stop and then throwing your bike onto the front and hopping in would be a great alternative to taking a car for the entire journey. Even if you live close by, but you are just beginning to bike or (as is common here) the weather takes a turn for the worse, using a combination of bike and bus is the perfect solution.

It would be especially appropriate here with the combination of the hills that form a uncyclable barrier (for normal people) around centre ville, and the relative cyclability within centre ville.

Before you hire a big-shot urban planning firm to plant a few trees and add some roundabouts to improve traffic flow, the addition of bike carriers to the buses seems like an easy, low-cost win-win solution. In fact, given the large student population, much of whom live on the periphery of Poitiers, being able to take your bike on the bus may prove to be a little too popular.

A lot of people waiting for the bus at the University

Overcrowded bike parking at the School of Engineering
notice that Jefe's bike (not pictured) is keeping a safe distance

In Conclusion
Poitiers has so far failed to demolish lots of buildings to make concessions to the automobile in the form of wide fast-moving boulevards like post-war Berlin. We look at this as a unique opportunity to leapfrog many cities by taking the medieval infrastructure of centre ville and tweaking it into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly area. Adding buses (with bike carriers) that run later at night would make it easier to get to, and around, centre ville for a lot of people, something even the protest-prone French might like.

Instead of continuing to make excuses as to why driving here isn't easier, maybe the mayor should admit that maybe this isn't the best place live if you own a car, and that this is a good thing. Given the increasing interest in sustainability and alternative methods of transportation, this could become a strong selling point for the city.

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