Lille had Europe’s first fully automated Metro system. It opened in 1983

Ooooh tiny. Image: author provided.

Thameslink recently unveiled its automated rail technology through London. New trains will drive themselves through the central London route between St Pancras and Blackfriars, allowing for 24 trains an hour and up to 30 an hour if necessary.

It sounds all shiny and futuristic – but the reality is that the technology isn’t that modern. In fact, Thameslink trains aren’t even entirely automated: the human driver still operates the doors, and is there to take over in case things don’t run smoothly. It’s the same system run by the Glasgow subway system, and several lines on the London Underground.

If you want to see real automation in action don’t bother with Thameslink at St Pancras. Hop on the Eurostar for 90 minutes to Lille, where the Metro has been operating at the highest level of automation since 1983. Yep: Lille had automated trains in the year David Bowie released Let’s Dance.

If you want to ride a comparable system in the UK, you’ll have to go to an airport. Gatwick and Stansted’s terminal shuttles use the same level of automation, capable of operating without human intervention. Even London’s Docklands Light Railway, which shares an aesthetic with the Lille Metro, needs a human being on board to close the doors and deal with emergencies. We’re so behind.

A plan of the Lille metro network. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Lille’s two-line rapid transit system, VAL (Véhicule Automatique Léger), was based on a concept by French physicist Robert Gabillard, using a guideway with embedded sensors. Trains and stations are unstaffed, though monitored by a network of CCTV cameras. And glass partition doors along the platforms makes it very hard to get a decent photo. Damn you, health and safety.

Despite the system being 35 years old, it’s running smoothly. Sure, the design is very 1980s (plasticky trains with terrible moulded seats) and some of the station exteriors have that similar 80s vibe of bold colours and wacky shapes. But a station like Les Pres, with its high arches and wood finish, has a faint cathedral-like air – even if the view is of a car park.

What’s seriously impressive is the frequency. Even on a midweek afternoon in December, trains were running every 3-4 minutes and run every 66 seconds during peak times. Apparently the system’s capable of running a train every 60 seconds, but adds those extra six seconds for everyone to board properly. If everything’s running smoothly, the longest you should ever wait for a train at the quietest times is 8 minutes.

An underground station in Lille. Image: author provided.

Still, those trains on a December weekday were still standing room only. Even though Lille has an urban population of just over 1m, the metro trains only have two cars each. Even with trains shuttling along every minute that’s not enough, so an upgrade to double capacity is in progress.

Alstom won the contract for Line 1 in 2012, which was meant to bring new trains that were double the length of the existing sets by the end of 2017. Sadly, that upgrade has been delayed and nobody at Alstom seems to want to tell me when the new deadline is; one rumour is 2020. On completion, the plan is to boost capacity on Line 2 by transferring Line 1’s existing trains across.


That’s a shame, because these new trains will be the walk-through type, and have better electronic signage and bigger windows: on the old trains you’re kind of peering out a small gap at the front, which doesn’t have the ‘driving the train’ feel of the Docklands Light Railway. Lille’s current trains are sweet and dinky, but the city’s commuters deserve a transit experience to match how regularly they get whisked in and out.

Another part of the upgrade work is lengthening platforms. All Line 2’s platforms are 52m long, which can fit in two trains – or, one double-length upgraded train. Line 1’s platforms were built 26m long, which is obviously a problem if you want to double the length of the trains. That work has been completed, at least in the centre of Lille, leading to stickers on half the platform doors urging passengers to move along because trains don’t stop at that point (yet).

One day, Lille’s metro system will look as futuristic as its technology. If you want to see Europe’s first fully automated Metro system as it was (kind of) conceived, you should head to Lille soon.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.