Down to Earth

River transport reborn?

Rivers are now offering a modern mode of transport and a cleaner way of delivering goods.
Rivers are now offering a modern mode of transport and a cleaner way of delivering goods. © FRANCE 24

They pierce through the heart of most cities, yet their potential is often overlooked. Rivers are now offering a modern mode of transport and a cleaner way of delivering goods. The Down to Earth team takes a closer look.


The transport sector is responsible for 24 percent of global CO2 emissions and it's also heavily to blame for pollution in cities, with cars and trucks generating the large majority of greenhouse gases. Trains are often billed as the obvious alternative to transport goods and parcels, but rarely are boats put forward as a solution despite presenting numerous advantages. A boat uses up to five times less CO2 per tonne transported, three to four times less energy. More importantly, it releases fewer air particles into the atmosphere.

Strasbourg, a model city for river transport

That's why Thomas Castan created Urban Logistic Solutions, a boat delivery business in France's eastern Alsace region. Located on the Rhine river, Strasbourg serves as a model for how cities can use waterways to limit traffic and air pollution, having banned trucks over 7.5 tonnes from the city centre. Boats have now come to replace vans, which can only deliver goods until 10.30 am. 

The company's boats can reach the city centre in less than 30 minutes, transporting up to 122 tonnes of goods. "That's the equivalent of 150 vans," Castan explains. "It can solve a major part of the pollution problem, as well as congestion and traffic problems."

Once the boat docks outside Strasbourg's cathedral, the journey continues on electric bicycles that can carry loads of 180 kg. The company has even begun delivering supplies to construction sites. 

"It is incredibly fast, incredibly easy and not at all a nuisance for residents," says Castan, adding that on their way back the delivery men also take recyclable waste with them. The young CEO is confident that this model could easily be implemented across Europe, in cities built along rivers: Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and many others. 

Waterways are making a comeback

For Dominique Ritz, it is no surprise that river transport is making a comeback: "Using rivers is indeed a very old mode of transportation. It's a mode that has been forgotten but today it’s being reborn because there are benefits for the community."

As the director of Waterways France (VNF), Ritz manages an entire network of rivers across the country. In recent years, he has witnessed the steady rise in the transport of goods by boat: a 5 and 10 percent increase in traffic in 2018 and 2019 respectively. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed down growth, but Ritz says there is great potential for evolution. "To give you an idea, on the Seine we transport 20 million tonnes today, we could multiply the traffic by three or four without modifying our infrastructure," he explains. 

Rivers could be turned into highways. And unlike major roads, they could also be used as recreational space, as long as boats make the switch to less polluting sources of fuel. "Boats today are mainly powered by diesel engines, so they do emit greenhouse gases and fine particles," says Ritz. "That said, a boat engine is quite comparable to a truck engine. When you take a boat that weighs 4,000 tonnes, it will carry the equivalent of 200 trucks. Emissions are extremely reduced."

The missing piece in France's river network

Another project has been in the works since the 1990s: a major river link between France and Belgium, the Seine-Nord Europe canal. 

"There is an environmental urgency to reduce pressure and traffic on roads and highways," argues Pierre-Yves Biet, an engineer in charge of the project. "It is the missing link, the missing piece in the French river network."

At 107 km long, 60 metres wide, with 60 bridges and six floodgates, it will be a major feat of engineering. River traffic is expected to multiply by four a few years after it is commissioned in 2028. The boats that navigate on the Canal du Nord will transport 15 million tonnes of goods per year, the equivalent of 500,000 to one million fewer trucks on the road.

"You can see the advantage, from an ecological point of view in terms of CO2 emissions but also from a noise point of view for the residents," Biet concludes.

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