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The formula for success in Bordeaux: Tram plus natural gas bus

The Southwest of France is growing rapidly, successfully promoted by the expansion of local public transport. In this process, CNG buses play a key role. An interview with transport policy maker Christophe Duprat.

In 2016 alone, 55 MAN Lion's City GL CNG buses took up operation in Bordeaux. Almost three-quarters of all the buses in the city run on natural gas.
In 2016 alone, 55 MAN Lion's City GL CNG buses took up operation in Bordeaux. Almost three-quarters of all the buses in the city run on natural gas.

Bordeaux, the ancient trade settlement located 600 kilometres southwest of Paris, is a town with ambitions. Ever since the massive expansion of public transit, the world capital of wine culture has undergone a transformation that today makes it one of the most beautiful and attractive metro areas in all of France. Sine the late 1990s, a driving force behind the fundamental urban renewal has been the construction of a sustainable and highly efficient public transit system. Compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles play a key role here, as 280 out of the 400 buses serving the Bordeaux metropolitan region run on natural gas. As of 2016, the city’s fleet also includes 55 brand-new MAN Lion’s City GL CNG buses. Christophe Duprat, Vice President of the Bordeaux metropolitan region, is responsible for transport policy and explains the city’s innovative public transit concept in an interview.

In his interview, transport politician Christophe Duprat explains why trams plus natural gas buses have been such a winning formula for the Bordeaux public transport system.
In his interview, transport politician Christophe Duprat explains why trams plus natural gas buses have been such a winning formula for the Bordeaux public transport system.

Mr Duprat, Bordeaux is currently evolving into a metropolis. While there were fewer than 700,000 residents at the turn of the millennium, the greater area could be home for up to a million people by 2030. How does local public transport cope with this development?

We are not merely coping, but rather actively shaping the booming growth. Building new tramlines and express bus lines has newly developed or solidified entire urban quarters. There is more room for pedestrians and bicycles – and therefore less space for cars and parking. This has made the city more humane, more liveable. While the Garonne riverbank was a black motorway some 20 years ago, it is a green promenade today. The local public transport network partakes in this development, with our passenger volume growing by 6% every year.

Are there concrete figures?

While we registered just 90 million passengers in 2009, we are up to 130 million passengers today. Overall ridership is distributed between 60% on trams and 40% on buses. With the new CNG buses, we can absorb rising demand and also renew the vehicle fleet.

Which role do CNG buses play in your transport concept?

We had decided to opt for natural gas buses at an early stage and have invested in this environmentally friendly technology since 1999. Today, almost all of our new acquisitions run on natural gas. The technology of these buses is brilliantly engineered. In combination with the 100% electrical trams, our CNG fleet provides the basis for our extraordinary CO2 balance.

What are the advantages of natural gas as fuel?

When we purchased the first CNG buses, natural gas was by far the greenest kind of fuel. And this has not significantly changed since then. Nevertheless, the utilisation of CNG technology is worthwhile only for transport services with a long-term strategy. For the conversion to natural gas is initially associated with significant infrastructural investments, such as setting up storage capacities for fuel and retrofitting the municipal filling stations. While these investments certainly paid off, there is no reason why the metropolitan area of Bordeaux should undertake another change in technology.

From your point of view, is there another technology with the potential to ultimately overtake natural gas?

It’s becoming apparent that it will probably be a while until natural gas drives will be replaced by alternative technologies such as electrical drives or hybrid CNG solutions. I would therefore predict that CNG buses shall be around for a long time to come yet.

The Bordeaux boom is often connected to building the tramlines. Yet doesn’t the investment in a modern bus network also play a significant role?

The decision to build a tram network back in 1996 was certainly the initial spark for the upswing in the Bordeaux area. Wherever the tram circulates, entire quarters were renewed and developed from the ground up. Yet without buses, the tram network could not function quite as efficiently. Especially the metro bus lines with the new CNG vehicles built by MAN are closing the gaps between the tramlines and also interconnect them in a sensible fashion. Due to the buses, passengers must no longer travel into the city centre to switch trams.

How significant was this successful formula for such effective urban development?

The development of local public transport has always gone hand in hand with urban development. Motor traffic was consistently restricted wherever tram lines and bus lines are in place – accomplished, for example, by strict access controls for cars or by creating bus corridors on the main traffic axis. We thereby were able to prevent a traffic collapse, while also greatly enhancing the appeal of the city at the same time. Today, Bordeaux is one of the most dynamic urban areas in France. It would have been impossible to accomplish the transformation of this town without a well-conceived and studied expansion of local public transit with trams and buses.

Does not the city’s rapid growth risk overburdening the local public transit system?

While the growth and success naturally comes with challenges, we still retain a wide scope of action. We will continue to invest in public transport. Yet the decisive factor is whether further jobs are created. The city can continue to grow only when housing space, the transport system and employment develop in unison.

How exactly do public transit authorities prepare for these trends?

We are currently expanding the existing tram network to the airport, and we are planning a fourth tramline and will put new metro bus lines into operation within the greater Bordeaux region. Because the next challenge will be to better interconnect the surrounding communities in order to relieve some of the pressure on the radially designed transport network. CNG metro buses are the means of choice in this. Compared with trams, they are more cost-effective to acquire, swiftly obtainable and flexible in operational utilisation.

Images © Arnaud Février

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