programme FLUIDE

FLUIDE programme

What possible roles exist for water-borne transport and inland ports?

Can the river ports of Paris, Lyon, Lille and Strasbourg provide a sustainable transport solution to bring freight into their urban areas, as part of the chain that extends from major international flows to urban distribution? The road is the dominant mode in France and the rest of Europe for freight transport, for both long and short distances, and for urban distribution in particular. Water-borne transport plays only a marginal role. But does this mean we should consider the mode has no future?

The road monopolises freight transport, accounting for more than 80% of the market in France. However, and almost surprisingly, water-borne transport is not dead. After a long period of decline it has been growing since the 1990s.
Good intentions and fashion aside, water-borne transport can contribute to sustainable transport if it proves itself to be competitive with the road. This means not only that the costs must be similar to or lower than those for road transport, but that it must provide high quality freight transport services. Another possibility would be for its higher cost to be compensated for by improved environmental quality, particularly if there is a policy to monetize the environmental effects in question (by means of urban tolls, pollution permits, eco vouchers …) which would directly affect road transport costs.

Paris, Lyon, Lille and Strasbourg

Four of France's river ports are located within urban areas that are of major importance both because of their population and their contribution to the national economy. They already handle a considerable volume of river-borne freight and their connection with a major seaport (Le Havre-Paris, Dunkerque-Lille, Antwerp/Rotterdam-Strasbourg, Marseille-Lyon) further augments the amount of traffic they could potentially handle, particularly in the event of an expansion in container flows on the rivers. Rivers could play an extremely important role in optimizing inland services to these major seaports which face road traffic congestion problems, particularly in their port areas. Shipping lines are on the look out for modes other than the road that could extend the benefits of consolidated maritime transport inland. The very strong growth in containerized traffic in ports that we have seen over the last 30 years is expected to continue, at least for the next ten years, in the absence of any major geopolitical event. Working in harmony with road and rail, major river routes could play an even more crucial role in the organization of transportation corridors between the seaports and the major inland conurbations than they do today.

Apart from river traffic as such, these four river ports are also very important multimodal hubs and home to many logistical and industrial activities which are not exclusively linked to waterborne transport and which generate considerable volumes of traffic that pass through the cities, mainly by road. These ports also occupy large areas of land in the heart of the urban area. The river port can easily be seen by the city authorities just as a source of pollution that creates few jobs on an area of land that could potentially be used for residential or service sector building projects with higher short-term added value, without mentioning its amenity value (for recreational and sporting activities, walking or as a feature of the landscape).

Our four selected ports are in metropolises that are dominated by the service sector. In terms of its contribution to economic activity, for example as a percentage of GDP or the total number of jobs, transport is not vital and river transport is negligible. In this respect they resemble other French and European cities which are less industrial now than in the past.

Without effective systems for transporting goods these metropolises cannot function in a satisfactory manner. One of the stated goals of the Urban Travel Plan (Plan de Déplacements Urbains) for the Greater Paris Region is to "protect the operation of the metropolis". The cities therefore attach a great deal of importance to transportation and logistics because of the importance of consumption-related flows. Today's urban economy characterized by split shipments, consumer demand for diverse and differentiated products, and increasing delivery frequencies which means that all the cities in question have very similar, and very large, freight flows. What sets the four studied cities apart is the fact that they have a river port: how can this be integrated within the logistical plans of the cities and the urban fabric?

This is the complex context within which we propose to study these four French river ports. The question that underlies our investigations is as follows: can river ports play a full role in the development of a sustainable freight transport system, in particular by encouraging modal transfer to rivers, while at the same time integrating harmoniously within very large urban areas?