On Reunion Island, it's hard to do without your car despite the climate emergency

Symbol of freedom, wealth or singularity, the car has deeply transformed our habits since the second half of the XNUMXth century. It is the same in Reunion. Since the arrival of the automobile on the island after departmentalization in 1946, and other corollary technologies, traditional ways of living such as living together or living outside, the "kartié", have radically changed like the showed Eliane Wolf in her thesis in 1989.

As in mainland France, the rise of the car is mainly after the Second World War: there are then 1200 cars on the whole island, which will increase rapidly to reach a fleet of 74 cars in 000 and 1980 in 248.

If for a long time this evolution hid a gap of nearly 20% between the motorization rate of Reunionese households and those of mainland France, this has now practically been caught up since there are now 419 vehicles per 1 inhabitants on the island, approaching the metropolitan figure (494). Today, whether it is to go around the island, picnics in the forest or go to work, all these practices require a vehicle.

A sectorization resulting from modernism

This omnipresence of the car is not new, but the result of a process of sectorization of our cities, historically initiated by the modern movement in the 1920s and 30s. Le Corbusier, one of the emblematic architects of modernism, advocated the zoning whose principle is to separate the functions, no longer mixing, for example, work, leisure and housing spaces. To tie it all together, he creates highways and thus places the car at the center of our modern lifestyles.

Since then, voices have been raised to change this state of affairs. Thus the town planner Jan Gehl advises in his book For cities on a human scale (2012) to bring "the city on a human scale", i.e. to maximize the experience of pedestrians and their rhythms (as opposed to that of the car, for example), to allow soft modes of travel, to promote exchanges and transform the city into living spaces.

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Moreover, if originally the car responded to the need to cover distances more quickly and had a certain social status, the evolution of society and the democratization of this means of transport have clearly made our relationships with the world more complex. car. "My car shows my desire, my way of being me" as the philosopher Pierre Ansay said in a study report dealing with the car, which exposes the paradox of the relationship with this means of transport.

In Reunion, the whole car by default

Just like the Europandom architecture and town planning competition had already pointed this out in 2000, Reunion Island and the other overseas territories still suffer today from urban planning that is mainly car-oriented.

The all-car policy – ​​advocated more by default than by choice – excludes the development of other cleaner modes of transport such as the bus, the tram or softer modes such as the bicycle. It also participated in the abandonment of transport which could have been upgraded, such as the train who would walk the coast road, admittedly at low speed and with a reduced passenger capacity.

The predominance of cars is explained by the geographical context of the island with two volcanoes in its center and steep gullies which make any new infrastructure particularly expensive, but also because of the tropical context where people find refuge from the driving rains. and the scorching sun in the ventilated comfort of their car.

Traffic jam.
Karine Dupre, Provided by the author

Certainly, many projects are proposed but do not see the light of day. Thus the "tram train" connecting the North to South and which would have been the first tram on the island, was definitively abandoned in 2010 for lack of financial support from the French State, which preferred to invest in a new road instead.

To date, the only public transport is the bus, subject to the vagaries of traffic jams and bad weather (flooded or dangerous roads due to falling rocks). But the intercity bus network is very limited, often being limited to one bus every hour and a few stops far from city centers making the use of public transport constraining, which reinforces the attachment to the car and helps to maintain a high level of pollution on the island.

Indeed, the 2015 report on indicators of sustainable development in Reunion points out that, every day, around 860 tonnes of CO2 are released into the atmosphere for commuting. Of the greenhouse gas emissions which contribute a little more to climate change.

The list of the most expensive road in the world

Today, this policy favoring the car is still visible with the construction of many new roads such as the Route des Tamarins (linking the West to the South) or the New Route du Littoral (NRL) which is the most expensive in the world with an initial budget that has since been largely exceeded due to technical constraints and the supply of building materials, which are all imported. This new road is in fact a viaduct that surrounds the northwestern part of the island.

Estimated today at more than 2 billion euros, nearly 42% of which is financed by the French State, the NRL yard suffered from a lack of skills and regular cyclones that undermined the initial schedule of the yard, also causing bankruptcies and delays in completion.

Today, even if 10 km have been completed, the pandemic and the difficulty of supplying materials still prevent the remaining 2,5 km from being completed.

80 km per day

In Reunion, many people take the car to work and travel up to 80 km every day, creating huge traffic jams at rush hour; the inhabitants of the heights of the island having to join the economic zones located on the coast. This division is explained by the extremely rugged relief of the island which is in fact the emerged part of two volcanoes.

This phenomenon is also accentuated by the fact that the people of Reunion maintain a real culture around the car, often exhibiting social ascension and making it possible to differentiate themselves.

Reunion, blessed be the cars.

Also visible in the ways of living in Reunion, housing and the relationship to the neighborhood have completely changed. Indeed, the car now occupies a preponderant place: what was previously the veranda, (kind of veranda), a friendly space where the family was welcomed, has sometimes been transformed into a garage.

From now on, we generally access our homes through the garage, thus modifying the notion of entry into housing in Reunion, as noted in the work of Marie-Lucie Payet, a master's student at the School of Architecture in Reunion.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

However, new projects are emerging, such as the Papang urban cable car in Saint-Denis, launched in 2015 and inaugurated on March 15, 2022, which can accommodate up to 6 users per day.

In the capital of the island, the cable car connects the lows to the highs in barely fifteen minutes compared to 25 or even 40 minutes by bus or car. Success is such that a second cable car is planned for 2023, which will also be connected to the public transport network.

The new Papang cable car
The new Papang cable car.
Camille Renard, Provided by the author

In the largest cities, you can also find electric urban bike terminals and scooters allowing you to discover or rediscover your city from another angle (and with another speed). Even if for the moment the municipalities generally only identify between 1 and 10 stations to recharge them, the current boom clearly demonstrates the interest of the population for these softer modes of transport.

Seaside road on Reunion Island
Seaside road on Reunion Island.
Karine Dupré, Provided by the author

Other positive signs exist, such as the recent appearance of bicycle racks on buses, thus promoting intermodality, as well as, on the financial level, government incentives promoting carpooling particularly following the surge in fuel prices and the many jams. However, in the absence of aid that directly concerns all public transport (such as the introduction of free access or more buses), the feedback has generally been negative.

Without any real improvement in urban and interurban bus connections with lanes dedicated to public transport on their own lane, it seems difficult to make a major change on the island. The climate emergency is a challenge that must be met.


Marie Lucie Payet, student at the ENSAM Antenne de la Réunion in Master 1 is at the origin of this idea of ​​article and strongly contributed to this research.

Karine Dupre, Professor in Architecture, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com / andrmoel

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