On Réunion Island, it is difficult to do without your car despite the climate crisis

A symbol of freedom, wealth or uniqueness, the car has profoundly changed our habits since the second half of the 20th century. It is the same in Reunion. Since the arrival of the car on the island after partition in 1946, and other accompanying technologies, traditional ways of living, such as living together or living outside, “kartié”, have radically changed, as Eliane Wolf showed in her thesis in 1989.

As in mainland France, the emergence 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 74,000 cars in 1980 and 248,000 in 2000.



Read more: Martinique: how are big cities perceived?


If for a long time this development hid a gap of almost 20% between the motorization rate of Réunion households and that of mainland France, this has now practically been made up, as there are now 419 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants on the island that approaches the big city. figure (494). Today, whether it’s walking around the island, picnicking in the woods, or going to work, all of these activities require a vehicle.

A sectorization as a result of modernism

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

Since then, votes have been raised to change this state of affairs. This is what urban planner Jan Gehl advises in his book For human-scale cities (2012) to bring “the city on a human scale”, i.e. to maximize the experience of pedestrians and their rhythms (as opposed to, for example, that of the car), to allow soft modes of transport, promote interchanges and transform the city into living spaces.

[Près de 70 000 lecteurs font confiance à la newsletter de The Conversation pour mieux comprendre les grands enjeux du monde. Abonnez-vous aujourd’hui]

Moreover, if the car originally responded to the need to cover distances faster and had a certain social status, the development of society and the democratization of this means of transport have clearly made our relationship with the world more complex. “My car shows my desire, my way of being me”, as the philosopher Pierre Ansay says in a research report on the car, which reveals the paradox of the relationship with this means of transport.

In Reunion, the whole car is standard

As already pointed out in 2000 by Europandom’s architecture and urban planning competition, Réunion Island and the other overseas territories still suffer today from urban planning that is mainly car-oriented.

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

The predominance of cars is explained by the geographical context of the island, with two volcanoes in the middle and steep canyons, which make any new infrastructure particularly expensive, but also because of the tropical context where people find refuge from the torrential rain and the burning sun. in the ventilated comfort of their car.

Traffic jam.
Karine Dupre, Provided by the author

Admittedly, many projects are proposed, but they do not see the light of day. Thus, the “tram train” connecting north to south, which would have been the first tram on the island, was definitively abandoned in 2010 due to lack of financial support from the French state, which preferred to invest in a new road on the spot.

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, and it is often limited to one bus every hour and a few stops far from city centers, which makes the use of public transport limiting, reinforcing the attachment to the car and helping to maintain a high level of pollution on the island.

In fact, the 2015 report on indicators of sustainable development in Reunion highlights that every day there are about 860 tons of CO2.2 released into the atmosphere for commuting. Emission of greenhouse gases that contribute slightly 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 (which connects the West with the South) or the New Route du Littoral (NRL), which is the most expensive road in the world. with an initial budget that has since been largely exceeded due to technical limitations and the supply of building materials, all of which are imported. This new road is actually a viaduct that skirts the northwestern part of the island.

Estimated today at more than €2 billion, almost 42% of which is funded by the French state, the NRL venue suffered from a lack of skills and regular cyclones which undermined the original schedule for the venue, also causing bankruptcies and delays in completion.

Today, although 10 km have been completed, the pandemic and the difficulty in 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 drive up to 80 km every day, creating huge traffic jams during rush hour; the inhabitants of the island’s heights must join the economic zones located on the coast. This division is explained by the extremely rugged relief of the island, which is actually the emerged part of two volcanoes.

This phenomenon is also reinforced by the fact that the Reunions maintain a real culture around the car, often showing social ascent and allowing them to differentiate themselves.

Reunion, bless the cars.

Also visible in the way of living in Reunion, housing and the relationship with the neighborhood have completely changed. In fact, the car now occupies a prominent place: what used to be porch(a kind of porch), a friendly place where the family was welcomed, has sometimes been converted into a garage.

From now on, we generally access our homes through the garage, thus changing the notion of entry into homes in Reunion, as noted in the work of Marie-Lucie Payet, a graduate 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 6,000 users per day.

In the capital of the island, the cable car connects the low points with the high points in just under fifteen minutes compared to 25 or even 40 minutes by bus or car. The success is such that another 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 biggest cities you can also find electric city bike terminals and scooters, so you can discover or rediscover your city from a different angle (and at a different speed). Although municipalities currently only identify between 1 and 10 stations to recharge them, the current boom clearly shows the public’s interest in these softer forms of transport.

Beach road on Réunion Island
Beach road on Réunion Island.
Karine Dupré, Provided by the author

There are other positive signs, such as the recent appearance of bike racks on buses, thus promoting intermodality, as well as fiscal government incentives to promote carpooling, especially after the skyrocketing fuel prices and many traffic jams. However, in the absence of support that directly relates to all public transport (such as introducing free entry or more buses), feedback has generally been negative.

Without any real improvement to city and inter-city bus services with lanes dedicated to public transport on their own lane, it seems difficult to make a major change on the island. The climate crisis is a challenge that must be met.


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

Leave a Comment