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Lessons From Paris

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Lessons From Paris

View of a Parisian suburb
The Parisian suburbs are separated by sharp class divisions. Image courtesy of Hektor, Wikimedia Commons.
A new vision for the Paris metropolitan area crystallized in early March when French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced that the government would proceed with an unprecedented expansion of the city’s metro system to increase mobility within the city’s densely populated suburbs. The Grand Paris Express program will add approximately 125 miles of rail service and more than 75 stations to the existing metro system, including circular routes to connect inner-ring suburban communities with each other and with the central city.

Policymakers anticipate that the ambitious project will address longstanding social and economic divisions between the approximately 2 million people living in Paris Intramuros, the traditional urban core, and the approximately 4 million who live in the Petite Courone, the city’s innermost suburbs. Public transit serves many Paris suburbs, but most rail lines extend along linear routes from the urban core, making travel between suburbs a cumbersome process requiring transfers within the city center. Combined with the relatively sparse distribution of stations and inadequate bus service, suburban residents do not benefit from the extensive access to transit of their urban counterparts. Many of those living in the low-income areas of the Petite Courone — known pejoratively as banlieues — are left with a system that does not reflect the diffused economic and social structure that exists largely independent of the city’s traditional urban core. The lack of direct transit service between suburban areas has helped perpetuate income inequality and class divisions across the metropolis, with the social and economic conditions in the banlieues similar to those found in the neighborhoods of disinvested American cities.

Map of the Grand Paris Express showing the circular transit routes designed to connect communities.
The Grand Paris Express aims to expand mobility and promote economic development in the suburbs by directly connecting communities along circular transit routes. Image courtesy of Yann Pilot, Wikimedia Commons.
The Grand Paris Express project addresses these challenges by recognizing the city’s periphery as central to the future success and growth of the entire metropolitan area. To date, the plans for the project are the most tangible outcome from the Grand Paris Plan — former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s effort to establish a new course for the Paris region that explicitly recognizes the social and physical disconnect between the banilieues and the central city. Although Sarkozy’s vision originally included the creation of a regional governance structure for the metropolis, those plans were shelved amid local concerns over sovereignty. Thus, supporters look to the $39 billion inter-suburban metro expansion — the largest such project underway in Europe — as a galvanizing force for increased mobility and economic growth in some of the region’s most disinvested and disenfranchised neighborhoods.

The social and economic conditions that spawned the Grand Paris Express program are becoming increasingly familiar in the United States. The 21st century has seen the suburbanization of poverty nationwide, which has presented new, dynamic challenges to communities and to the public policy goals of affordable housing, mobility, and the creation of interconnected regions rich with opportunity. Policy responses to these challenges play out differently across and within our metropolitan areas. In the San Francisco region, where the suburbanization of poverty is partially the result of high housing costs and subsequent displacement from the urban core, local leaders are retrofitting low-density suburban sites close to regional transit stations to accommodate growth that includes affordable housing. This effort, along with a proposed expansion of the transit system, leverages existing assets to provide low- and moderate-income families with housing opportunities near public transit.

Other metropolitan areas are acting boldly with visionary infrastructure plans that will dramatically transform their regions. In metropolitan Denver, the FasTracks program will provide 120 miles of commuter and light rail across six new lines. The multibillion-dollar investment will connect job centers within an eight-county area to provide greater mobility and expanded housing opportunities. In the Washington, DC metropolitan area, a western expansion of the regional transit system is set to open later this year, connecting employment-rich areas along the once-exurban Dulles Corridor with the rest of the metropolitan area. Local policymakers are also exploring a potential transit expansion located inside the northern boundary of the Capital Beltway — an east-west route connecting employment-rich communities in the Maryland suburbs. Underlying these investments is the realization that housing is not truly affordable unless it provides access to employment and other services without dramatically increasing a household’s transportation budget.

As Paris moves forward with its ambitious transit expansion, the region provides inspiration for cities and metropolitan areas around the globe. Although the bold initiative aims to reshape the geography of opportunity in Paris, it follows years in which investments have disproportionately benefited some residents, at the expense of others. This has helped fuel sharp class divisions and social unrest that threatens the underpinnings of a healthy democracy.

With the rise in suburban poverty in its metropolitan areas, the United States faces similar challenges. The federal government is responding to these challenges by investing in communities across the country. For HUD, this response takes the form of policies and programs that leverage investments in people as well as places, thus promoting opportunity-rich neighborhoods in suburbs and inner cities alike.



The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.