So are trams really better than buses?

A tram in Milan. Image: Getty.

Look! A tram! Here’s another:

Melbourne. Image: Getty.

My god, they’re everywhere!

Manchester. Pleasing that all these cities start with M, isn't it? Image: Getty.

In all, according to this helpful and informative guide by the Prague transport authorities (in Czech) there are 265 active tram systems in Europe. Which is quite a lot of trams.

In some countries, though, there are a lot less than there once were. As anyone who’d seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit will know, in the 1950s, the “streetcar” networks that had fuelled the growth of American suburbia were ripped up to create more space for the motor car. British tram systems generally died at the same time.

And, the thing is... it’s not immediately obvious that this was the wrong decision. Trams, after all, are basically less flexible buses: they take up space on roads, they’re relatively low capacity, and you can’t make them go where you want.

Except – people love trams, don’t they? If they were talking about building a new tram line near your home, then you’d probably be quite excited about that. If they were talking about a new bus route? Well, probably not so much.

So what gives? Are trams really just, as the Economist Explains once explained, “a waste of money”? Or is there some rational reason for our attachment to them?

Two rails good, no rails bad

First, let’s run through the case for trams.


They’re visible

You can tell if a tram line runs down the street you’re standing on: there will be subtle hints, like the massive steel rails in the road. Permanent lines are more likely to encourage permanent stops and network maps. And, as the entire existence of Citymetric has served to prove, it’s the maps people get excited by.

So, if you want legibility in your transport system, trams, not buses, are the way to go.

They can’t be removed on a whim

Okay, they’re harder to build – but that’s actually a plus, in its way. Rails have an air of permanence that bus routes lack. That makes it easier for residents to plan journeys, employers to decide where to base themselves, and so forth, without worrying that the transport links they rely on are suddenly going to vanish.

They’re cleaner

No spewing out exhaust fumes, at least in the city itself. (If they take their electricity from fossil fuel power stations, they may be doing it elsewhere, of course, but still.)

They’re easier to segregate

Which is good as it means they’re less prone to disruption by things like traffic jams.

Okay, technically you can achieve this by segregating bus lanes, too... but those are pretty easy to undo, and the authorities are likely to come under pressure to undo just that. (After all, why should one category of vehicle get special treatment, just because it’s way more efficient?) A segregated tram route is likely to stay segregated.

Oh, and you can give them priority at signals, too. All of which means...

They’re faster and more predictable

None of this “getting stuck in traffic for ages and then turning up in groups of three”. Passengers can be reasonably certain that, when the information board says there’ll be a tram in five minutes, there’ll be a tram in five minutes.

They’re more comfortable

Stand on a bus, and you risk getting thrown all over the place as every time it brakes sharply. But trams tend to brake and accelerate more gently, so you’re relatively comfortable, even if you’re standing the whole way.

Oh, and you can extend trams by adding extra cars during rush hour, without clogging the road or hiring more drivers. Try doing that with buses.

So, they’re higher capacity, too.

Look, they’re just better, alright?

Trams are seen as good for regeneration and place-making – partly because they encourage development, partly because building them is so expensive and complicated that it often ends up used as an excuse to achieve those things.

But also because they are just cooler. The bells! The whirring sounds! The screeching noise they make when they go round corners! How many times have you gone to a strange city and found yourself thinking, “Oooh look, a bus”? Unless you’re a tourists visiting London for the first time, I’m going to guess the answer was: never.

Trams, though. Trams are brilliant.

Two rails good, no rails better

Except, are they? Because they also come with some downsides.

They can’t be removed on a whim

Once you’ve put in a tram, you’re stuck with it. If you mucked up the planning and it goes to slightly the wrong place? Well, tough. Too expensive to change it.

They don’t mix well with bikes

Don’t get stuck between rail and pavement if you value your continuing existence.

They take up too much space  

To get most of the advantages listed above you need to give trams segregated road space – and space is at a premium in most cities.

So: trams come with a huge opportunity cost. A tram lane is something you can’t use for something else.

They can’t move around obstacles

Trams are great if you can segregate them properly. But sometimes you can’t – see above – and when that happens you’re stuffed. They’re on rails, so can’t move around blocks in the road. A bus, with difficulty, can.

The big downside, though, is:

They cost a fortune

You have to lay new track. You have to redesign roads. Then you have to buy the vehicles, which generally cost more than buses. Oh, and they may be more expensive to run (research on this seems to vary).

Why bother, when you can achieve most of the same transport goals with a fleet of buses?

Well – I explained why you’d bother above. There are good reasons for it. But whether there are enough good reasons is going to depend not just on the circumstances in every individual city, but on the political and economic cycle too.

Trams are brilliant. But you don’t have to look far for reasons why they declined in some countries – or why they’ve been so slow to return.

Still, trams, eh? Phwoar.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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