Page One

Berkeley could learn a lot from Europe about transportation

Hank ResnikBerkeleyHank Resnik served on Berkeley’s Transportation Committee for nine years
Monday January 07, 2002

While traveling through Europe recently, my wife and I stopped for two days in Montpellier, in the south of France. Hardly for the first time, I was awed by the way Europeans make things work—things like transportation systems and cities, for example. The implications for Berkeley are profound. 

Montpellier is a dynamic, growing university town of about 200,000. Its center, dating back to the middle ages, is perched on a hilltop about seven miles from the Mediterranean. Outward from the center flows the new Montpellier. 

What’s remarkable about Montpellier is the way the city has refused to let the private automobile dominate everyday life. Almost the entire center is a car-free zone. On many streets all but service vehicles are prohibited. The other streets are constrained by rows of thick concrete stanchions that prohibit parking and force traffic into narrow lanes where speeding is impossible. 

Yet Montpellier’s city center is a magnet for strollers and shoppers. Plazas, restaurants, stores, and cafes abound. If you have to drive, you can park your car in one of many large garages on the periphery. But people do a lot of walking and bicycling in Montpellier. 

The city has an excellent transportation system. Particularly impressive is the tram loop of the center. The gleaming blue trams occupy their own dedicated streets. On either side of the tramways are pedestrian walkways. No other motorized vehicles are permitted. When the tram reaches the huge main square, the tracks go underground, leaving the square to the sounds of itinerant musicians, pedestrians, and pigeons. 

At the lower end of the main square begins “new” Montpellier in the form of a huge indoor shopping mall. The mall follows the terrain of the city downhill. You can enter at the top level and descend through three levels of shops to the ground floor. There you step out onto a neoclassical plaza that leads to a wide walkway through an enormous new complex of offices, shops, apartments, and restaurants. Also closed to cars, the promenade, about a city block wide, passes through variegated gardens, terraces, and plazas for about three-quarters of a mile until it reaches Montpellier’s attractive riverfront. 

It’s possible to walk from the large wooded garden at the top of the hill to the riverfront about two miles away and scarcely see a car. This amazing pedestrian zone is traversed only a few times by major traffic-bearing streets. Cars have been banished, and the city is thriving. 

Montpellier is known throughout France for its progressive urban design. I asked a friend there how all this came about. “It’s been going on for 20 years,” he said. “It’s because of our mayor. He’s a real visionary.” 

“Didn’t people need to vote on all these changes?” I asked. 

“That’s not how we do things in France,” he replied. “The mayor is a benevolent totalitarian. But one time he didn’t get his way. He wanted to tear up the city's oldest square to build an underground car park. He promised the square would be rebuilt, but it would have meant removing some of the city’s oldest trees. People campaigned against it vigorously. Finally he backed down.” 

How is all this relevant to Berkeley? One thing I’ve noticed in the discussions of the General Plan, particularly the debate about parking downtown, is a cynical and defeatist attitude along the lines of “You’ll never get people out of their cars, and nothing will ever make public transit appealing.” It’s that cynicism and pessimism that underlies the outcry for more parking downtown and Mayor Dean’s far-fetched proposal to tear up Civic Center Park for an underground parking garage. 

Cynicism and pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The opposite is vision and leadership. Given Californians’ over-dependence on cars, I don’t think major changes will be easy. But I’ve seen Montpellier. There is an alternative. All we need is the vision and will to achieve it. 


Hank Resnik 


Hank Resnik served on Berkeley’s Transportation Committee for nine years