When I visited Besançon in May 2014 the new tramway had been installed but was not yet operational, as only two of the nineteen trams had been delivered. They were already doing some test runs, but I did not see any of these during my visit.
The new tramway was designed to be the backbone of public transportation for the entire “agglo” = agglomeration of Grand Besançon. All the bus lines have been rearranged to provide convenient transfers from the 31 new tram stations.
In Besançon itself, the tramway runs partly on the right bank of the river and partly on the left, and crosses four bridges to do so. If I have counted correctly, there are only seven or eight tram stops in the city of Besançon, and the rest are in the adjoining municipalities.
The new tramway went into full operation on September 1, 2014.
This is Besançon’s second tramway system. The first one operated from 1897 to 1952, when it was replaced by buses and cars.
Near this bridge there is a tram station called Canot, located directly in front of the international student residence hall, the Cité Universitaire.
As in other French cities which have installed new tramways in recent years, such as Bordeaux, Reims and Paris, the new tramway in Besançon is part of a concerted effort to upgrade neighborhoods, calm traffic and provide a pleasant environment for pedestrians and cyclists. Here a new walkway has been built, transforming a formerly bleak stretch of riverbank into a promenade between the tram tracks and the river.
In September 2011, three years before the tramway went into operation, this Maison du tram (House of the tram) was established in the center of Besançon, on rue de la République, to provide information about the project and prepare people for the changes that the tramway would bring.
Opposition to the tramway project came of course from the automotive lobbies and car fetishists, who feared (correctly) that the tram would be a step towards reducing the dominance of cars in the streets of the city and region. This is indeed one of the goals of the tramway project, to make the streets livable and not merely drivable.
Some left-wing groups opposed the tramway because they feared (also correctly) that real estate prices would rise near the new tram stations and that the ensuing urban renewal would eventually force poor people out of their homes. The tattered protest notices of these groups were still taped to lampposts when I visited Besançon in May 2014.
This map in the House of the Tram shows the route of the new tramway, which runs roughly from northeast to southwest through the agglomeration of Grand Besançon.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the word agglomeration does not have such negative connotations in French as it does in English. The French word agglomération means simply a city and its suburbs and nearby towns which have joined together to cooperate in various ways, without totally giving up their independence. (There is a national law which strongly encourages them to do this.)
This brochure urges motorists, cyclists and pedestrians to “share the space” with the tram.
This photo in the House of the Tram shows the tram named “Victor Hugo” crossing Battant Bridge in a test run.
There are always safety issues when a new form of transportation is inserted into an existing system, so the authorities mounted a large publicity campaign to inform people about how their habits will have to change. This first slogan in the window of the House of the Tram says: “The tram always has the right of way.”
This slogan, with a photo of an elderly couple, reads: “One tram can conceal another. We remain vigilant.” This is a variation of that quintessential French road sign Un train peut en cacher un autre, a sign that used to be (and probably still is) posted at every grade crossing where a road crosses a double-track railway, warning motorists not to start up when a train has passed before checking to see that another train isn’t coming from the opposite direction.
See also: my post on the Butte-aux-Cailles in Paris. (Scroll down for Un homme peut en cacher un autre = ‘One man can conceal another’.)
This one says: “The tram is silent. I remain attentive.” The silence of the tram is indeed one of its positive and negative features, positive because it helps reduce the mind-boggling cacophony of our cities and negative because people have become accustomed to navigating the city streets by ear, instead of watching where they are going.
The urgency of the Besançon safety campaign was brutally demonstrated in the first week of operation of the new tramway when an 81-year-old man, a tourist from another part of France, was struck and injured by a tram in Besançon and later died of his wounds. Witnesses said he had tried to cross the tracks without looking to see if a tram was coming.
A few days later, a fourteen-year-old boy was hit and slightly injured by a tram as he crossed the tracks, wearing earphones, in front of his school.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.