Paris has a watery dream of swimming in the Seine – but can the planners take the plunge?

Could the home of croissants and infamously rude locals become the land of outdoor swimming? Image: Wikimedia Commons

It all started on a hot summer’s day in August 2015, when hordes of people defied a 1923 law and plunged into a canal in the northeast of Paris. It was such a welcomed event that, in November, the City Hall officially proposed a plan for three swimming pools to be built along the south side of the Quai de la Loire canal basin, ready for this summer.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo celebrated the plan on Twitter, writing: “City swimming: promise kept! Three pools on the Bassin de la Villette starting next July 15.” It is a bold plan that, ahem, hopefully will swim and not sink.


The Bassin de la Villette is located in the north east of Paris and is the widest part of the long and fascinating canal system that flows down into the Seine. It was inaugurated in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte to supply water to Parisians – they can't just drink wine you know – and was a former port area during the industrialisation of rivers. Now, it's a central cultural and recreational spot, boasting a theatre barge, boat rental, breweries and cinemas, and is a prime spot for summer wine drinking.

The temporary structures will be built into the actual Bassin, which connects the Canal de l'Ourcq with the Canal Saint-Martin. The smallest, a children's pool, will be just 40cm deep, a second will be up to 120cm deep and a third will be reserved for serious swimmers at 2m deep. The pools in total would stretch 90m end to end, and would take up 16m in width.

Liberté, Egalité, Water Qualité

Naturally, the water itself is a worry. The canal has fallen pray to a few rat infestations and, on occasion, you can watch giant rats being dredged up as you sip a fresh rosé on a canalside terrasse – but don't be put off just yet. Jean-Francois Martins, tasked with sports at the City Hall, offered reassurance to prospective Parisian bathers in Le Figaro newspaper, saying: "We've been monitoring the quality of the water in the Bassin de la Villette since 2009."

 

Would you jump in? Image: Pixabay

The canals were emptied and dredged under a year ago, uncovering bizarre objects hidden in their depths - from bottles to scooters to a stray toilet. Despite the occasional sight of a cupboard or some vermin, the canal is actually relatively clean and a calm hub in the bustling city, where people picnic, fish and commandeer model boats during the summer months. It is not uncommon to see overly zealous Erasmus parties dive into the canal on hot weekend evenings and there have been no reports of swimmers haemorrhaging from the mouth, eyes and internal organs after contracting Weil's disease (Google if you dare) just yet. So that’s something.

Managing the water for swimming will require stemming sewer overflow during heavy storms, illegal discharge into the water from quayside boats and barges, and agricultural run-off from farms upstream. It is doable but still a massive undertaking by the city and region of Île-de-France.

Will Paris ne regrette rien?

Is it all worth it? Perhaps. Many Parisians seem to have a thirst for outdoor swimming and will seek a cooling spot to escape the city heat again this summer – the City Hall estimates that around 1,000 people would show up to the pools on any given summer day next year. As a local and keen outdoor swimmer, a guarantee of good water quality would certainly draw me for a daily swim.

The pools will be a kind of summer pop-up, along with the annual Paris Plage which transforms the banks of the basin and Seine quayside into an urban beach every summer. This means that they will be taken down for the winter season as it is pretty unlikely that many people will want to float down a freezing canal.

Paris Plage is already a thrilling reality. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fanatics keen for a outdoor swim in the chillier months can head to the outdoor pool at Butte aux Caille in the 13th arrondissement, which is open year-round and now heated from the warmth given off by a data centre installed in the same building.

As part of Paris' Olympic bid for 2024, the city has also been overhauling the 38 existing swimming facilities; building innovative heating systems as part of a plan to make all the pools eco-responsible by 2024.

Another new, unusual, environmentally friendly pool-heating system can be found at the Aspirant-Dunand pool in the 14th arrondissement. Water from the Paris sewers is being used to warm this pool – which has cut its electricity bill by 50 per cent. A new heat pump system was installed at the pool following tests of similar systems at the pool and several others in the Paris region. The city has 2,400km of sewers under its streets and assistant mayor Célia Blauel said that the water they contained was between 13C and 20C all year round. This heat was taken from the water and used to heat the pool and showers.

In-seine urban planning

Not willing to stop at just a canal, the ambitious City Hall has also announced that they aim to make the river Seine clean enough to swim in by 2024. The city has even suggested staging Olympic events such as the swimming triathlon in the river.

Zurich already has a perfectly good outdoor swimming spot. Image: Zurich Film Office 

So, will it work? Proposals to clean up waterways are a regular occurrence in many major European cities. Berlin’s 2014 scheme included a plan to swim in a part of the river Spree, but pollution from storm water run-off and coal mining put that one on the back burners. Over in London, there is the more viable Thamesbath project. It is a partially heated twin pool rather than an open swimming area but would use river water, filtered and cleaned through tanks and aquatic plant beds. It’s reached almost £150,000 on Kickstarter but is likely to cost a fortune, so don’t hold your breath. (Sorry).

Copenhagen's harbour is now swim-friendly. Image: Thomas Rousing / Flickr

But the idea of safe and clean urban swimming for the masses does float, as there are success stories already. Both Copenhagen and Zürich have cleaned up their open waters – a harbour and a lake – making it perfectly safe to jump right in.

Paris doesn’t have many ecological factors in its favour but the city of light has a big watery dream. In spite of the odds, this project may be just about achievable, and we could one day see tourists slip in for a dip in the Seine after a visit to the Eiffel tower.

Don’t forget your swimsuit. 

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.