Low-floor Tram as a disruptive innovation in public transportation sector: lessons learnt for Automotive industry

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Detroit (2022)


Amenity, autonomous vehicles, disruptive innovation, Non-step LRT, Public Transportation


Purpose of the research

This paper describes the "disruptive innovation" that have occurred in urban public transportation systems by describing the history of the development and introduction of  the low-floor LRT system in France. Through this case study, the authors aim to introduce one new point of view into the research of mobility innovation, such as electrification and autonomous.



The authors at first revisit the concept of the “disruptive innovation” stated by Christensen (1997), then give a case study of the introduction and diffusion of low-floor Tram in France.

After discussing the application of the concept of disruptive innovation on the case of low-floor Tram, the authors attempt to apply the implications into cases of the recent mobility innovation, such as autonomous vehicles and electrification.



In the post-war period, the rapid development of motorization in France led to problems such as traffic congestion and air pollution. To cope with these problems, a system of transport subsidies for regional cities was established in 1973, which promoted the development of public transport in urban areas. Public transportation was promoted in major cities such as Paris, Lyon, Lille and Marseille.

Initially, it was planned to build subways, or metro in French and auto-mated mini-subways, known as VALs, in large cities, and these public transportation systems were actually built only in the largest cities. On the other hand, trams were discontinued because of causing the traffic jam in these cities.

At the same time, as an approach to the revitalization of public transport in France, construction plans have been made to build tramway in small and medium sized cities. Nantes, in the west of France, became the first city to construct the tramway after the introduction of plan. The city's tramway line was built in 1985 and has since been extended to provide the largest network of tramways in France and the largest number of passengers.

Grenoble, in south-eastern France, became the second city of tram introduction after Nantes. At that time, the plan was to deploy existing high-floor trams, but the local disabled people's association requested the barrier-free access. This led to the development of the ultra-low-floor LRT, which has no stairs. This low-floor Tram was so well received that wheelchair users were able to get on and off the tram without assistance, leading to the introduction of ultra-low floors on subsequent trams and buses.

The success of the low-floor Tram in Grenoble led to the replacement of vehicles on the tramway network in Nantes, and all tramway networks for small and medium-sized cities in France that were subsequently developed used low-floor Tram. Since then, low-floor Trams have been introduced in 30 cities across France.

The case study of low-floor Tram in France revealed that this new mean of public transportation had two potentials of the disruptiveness. One was the flexibility of the route planning through the low-cost. The other was friendliness toward people through the barrier-free design and slower operating speed. Thanks to these two potentials, almost all the new construction project of Metro and VAL in France were replaced by low-floor Tram after the first introduction in Grenoble in 1987. Simultaneously, low-floor Tram has spread among smaller cities of 200,000 or less population.

The authors imply that the case of low-floor Tram in France can be treat aa a case of disruptive innovation, since low-floor Tram expelled the existing high-cost, high-performance system such as metro and VAL by two means. One is the low-cost, low performance system with high flexibility. The other is the introduction of the new value proposition, friendliness toward people, using the other word, amenity.



The case of low-floor Tram in France revealed the source of the disruptiveness had come from two sources, structure of cost-performance-flexibility and amenity. From this finding, authors advocate the diversified view as more robust way of assessment of the mobility innovation. Especially, flexibility and amenity should become more significant as the mobility become more public through sharing and integration into infrastructure.



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