Is Traffic Congestion Leading to the Resurrection of Trolley Cars and Trams in Large Cities ?

I saw a Blackpool tram on the Embarcadero in San Francisco today. The destination on the side said “Tower“. At first I was dumb-struck and then I thought “That’s a bloody long way on a tram!”

I particularly liked the description of San Francisco’s Blackpool tram on the Market Street Railway website Every time I read it I hear Fred Dibnah‘s accent.

In England, “trolleys” are shopping carts. This is a “tram” and a special one at that….”

The tram drivers on the newly extended F-line that runs the length of Market Street and then along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf seem to like this tram. At lunchtime they park a few trams outside the newly renovated ferry building at the end of Market Street and all sit in the Blackpool tram to chat and eat. It really is quite a site. It’s even illuminated! For those who don’t know the Blackpool illuminations are a national institution in the UK and date back to the days when electric street lights were such a novelty that people would travel miles to see them.

Anyway all this got me thinking about trams and more particularly their rise, fall and recent resurrection as a serious form of public transportation.

In the UK Trams were introduced in the late 1800′s. Manchester, for example, had its first horse drawn tram in 1877. Steam power was tried for a while but rapidly replaced with electricity at the turn of the century. By 1927 British tramways as a whole operated 14,481 cars on 4110 km of track. The internal combustion engine soon proved a more flexible power source. Busses did not require expensive track or electrical power supply systems and private automobiles delivered the ultimate in personal transportation flexibility, not to mention increased social standing. After the second world war the automobile came within the financial reach of the average person and the trams were slowly phased out. The last tram in Manchester ran in January 1949, on the Manchester to Hazel Grove route. Its number was 1007.

By the 1970′s and 1980′s the automobile had became ubiquitous in many cities in the developed world. These cities became severely congested during the morning and evening rush hours. The virtues of the old trams that had been scrapped in the 1950′s slowly became self-evident. A well organized and run public transport system based on trams can carry greater numbers of people with more efficiency in and out of major cities than open access to private motor cars can support. This is definitely true of the relatively compact cities developed before the motor car but the sprawling cities developed since its invention, like Los Angeles and Phoenix, can probably never be saved.

Trams returned to Manchester with the opening of the Metrolink in 1992 the first test run through the City streets was made by vehicle number 1007. The Metrolink has proved so successful that other UK Cities are following Manchester’s lead and reviving tram systems.
lists 41 current light railway systems being built in cities around the world.

I think the trend of rebuilding tram systems in major cities is a response to the way automobile congestion affects transportation networks. All commuters act out of self-interest by trying to shorten their journeys both in duration and distance. By having their own single or double occupancy vehicles commuters also have the convenience of traveling to a particular location at a time that is convenient for them. This strategy is more efficient than top down regulated systems of multiple occupancy vehicles with limited routes (Busses). But only up to a point. That point is somewhere just short of gridlock when journey time increase significantly. Here it becomes more efficient to travel together in multiple occupancy vehicles on a limited number of routes. Or at least it would be if everyone did so, the problem is that multiple occupancy vehicles get caught in the same traffic. There are two main ways of solving this problem.

  1. Reduce traffic by punishing travelers for using selfish, low occupancy, modes of transportation. London’s new tax on entering the city in an automobile is exactly this type of punishment.
  2. Provide segregated routes for multiple occupancy vehicles. Bus lanes, car pool lanes, and segregated tram lines all provide this form of advantage. This still leaves the question of why trams and not busses? A debate that appears to have been going on for years with no clear conclusion.
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  • rPm

    ah, the romance of a train ride in the city…

    i’ve recently taken to riding trams in san francisco, although only in special circumstances. i balance the rest of my travel with my car, my feet, and my bicycle (where possible).

    a few thoughts come to mind…

    • in san francisco, one thing that anyone with a car knows is that part of any journey is the time you spend to park once you get to Point B. mass transit helps to alleviate the parking crunch.
    • sometimes, it’s still faster to drive, get stuck in traffic, and have to park than it is to take public transportation. this is mostly due to the fact that mass transit routes usually cover a miniscule fraction of any large city, and often require multiple transfers and waiting time between said transfers.
    • in large urban cities, i would argue that there is a socioeconomic stigma associated with taking some forms of public transportation…you’d never see a rich person stuffed on a bus, rubbing elbows with the masses. cars have evolved into a means of individual expression, for better or for worse. i think this may be more true in the US than in other places…
    • trams (and other similar public transportation systems) are subject to vandalism and crime, and are thus often not available late at night (when vandalism, crime, and low usage combine to create an undesirable state of affairs for everybody involved). this forces people to drive their cars if they need to be out late (e.g., i go out for dinner and drinks after work, and can’t get home on mass transit if i’m out too late).
    • to what degree is the viability of tram systems a function of political systems (specifically, those aspects relating to the allocation of funds for public works projects)? the infrastructure development costs must be extremely high for the construction of trams (or subways). it’s hard to imagine city (or even state) governments in the US coming up with the funds when they can just stick with the status quo.

    it probably goes without saying, but i think it comes down to a fundamental question of why people travel between places, and what motivates their choice of transportation mode. it’s a complex human equation, one involving psychology, economics, history and sociology, and it’s probably not amenable to a simple ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.

    don’t get me wrong, though. i love trams. :-)