Could trams return to the streets of Glasgow?

Trams on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, 1910. Image: Hulton Archive/Gety.

History has a funny way of repeating itself, and transport in UK cities seems to be no exception. As our cities grew during the industrial revolutions many built extensive tramways as an industrial means of transport.  They then went through a metro-midlife-crisis, seduced by the apparent freedom offered by the motor car. We did not get that freedom: instead we found sprawl moving us further apart, negating any mobility gains for those who could afford their car while creating barriers through our cities to everyone else. 

As our cities emerge into another stage in life, so too are we re-examining how we support people to travel through and within them. Manchester, Edinburgh, and Nottingham have cracked on with rebuilding tramways. Glasgow is catching up having established a Connectivity Commission “to generate bold, fresh ideas to transform Scotland's biggest city; making it a more liveable and breathable place”. Among these bold fresh ideas is the re-introduction of trams to Glasgow, once the home of one of Europe’s largest and busiest tram networks. But how did Glasgow go from a tram-city to a motorway-city? And how could the city move forward to support inclusive transport for the people?

The only remaining light rapid transit in the city is the Glasgow Subway, the third oldest underground system in the world, which forms a 10.5 km circular route. But two decades prior to beginning construction of the Subway, the UK Parliament passed the Tramways Act of 1870, which set out to “facilitate the construction and regulate the working of tramways". It allowed district councils to construct tram lines under the clause that private companies be given the operating lease for a minimum of 21 years. 

In 1872, Glasgow Town Council (later Glasgow Corporation, now Glasgow City Council) laid a four-kilometre route from St. George' Cross, north of the River Clyde, along the Jamaica Bridge to Eglinton Toll in the south side. The tram lines had an unconventional track gauge of 1,416mm compared to the standard gauge 1,435mm. At the time, Glasgow was a centre for shipbuilding: the unusual gauge allowed for heavy rail wagons to run on short sections of the tram lines to carry freight to the shipyards.

The council handed working responsibility of the tramway to the newly formed Glasgow Tramway & Omnibus Company (GTOC), which operated horse-drawn wagons. Its tenure expanded in 1893 when it took over the neighbouring Glasgow and Ibrox Tramway and the Vale of Clyde Tramway in Govan. 

One year later, Glasgow Town Council withdrew GTOC's responsibility for the network after their minimum 21-year lease, as per the Transport Act 1870, expired. The tramways were taken into public ownership in the form of Glasgow Corporation Tramways in June 1894. 

The Corporation oversaw the electrification of the tramways in 1898 and the last horsedrawn tram was retired in 1902. By 1938, Glasgow had one of the largest tram networks in Europe, with more than one thousand trams operating on a total of 227 kilometres of track. The tramways served a vast population of the Clyde Valley with routes running to towns, such as Clydebank and Bishopbriggs, more than 10 kilometres outside the city centre. 

A map of the Glasgow tram network in 1938. Click to expand. Image: Glasgow Museums.

The frequency of trams on certain routes was regularly one every 2-3 minutes with some stops in the city centre witnessing trams, of varying routes, every 12.5 seconds. But despite the people’s love for their tramway, the system would eventually reach the end of the line. From 1953, the network was gradually reduced in size and frequency until, in the September of 1962, more than a quarter of a million Glaswegians took to the streets to watch the last tram car pass through the city. 

The demise of the trams was evoked by various factors and parties. From the end of the World War I, private car ownership was increasing across Britain. Buses manufactured for the transport of troops during the war were later sold to private companies who became direct competitors to the tramways. Trams were seen to impede on the freedom of private car owners in the city: the authorities believed that removing the tramways and replacing them with buses would allow for easier transport in and around Glasgow. People who had previously used the trams were expected to transfer to buses: all the same, the end of the trams fuelled a sharp rise in car ownership during the 1930's and 1940's. “After the second world war, their fate was sealed and urban planners were obsessed by car based redevelopment of war damaged cities, a vision which never included trams on urban motorways or roundabouts,” notes Oliver Green, former curator of the London Transport Museum.


Trolleybuses, which used the same overhead power lines as the trams but weren't bound by fixed rails, were the initial successors to the tramways in Glasgow. They operated on the same routes as the previous trams but were considered safer and more convenient for other road users, as they could pull into the side of the road to let passengers alight. The first trolleybuses began in April 1949, but were short-lived: the service was scrapped in 1967, in favour of diesel-powered buses. 

One consequence of the tramway closure was a fall in gender equality in the Corporation workforce. During the First World War, woman were allowed to become tram drivers for the first time, as well as guards and conductors, and this continued after the war until the tramways closed. But woman were considered to lack the necessary strength to steer buses which, at the time, had no power steering. 

Glasgow was the last city in Britain to operate an urban tramway until the resurrection of new tram systems at the end of the century, when the Manchester Metrolink opened in 1992. During the 1990s, indeed, there were several attempts to bring tramways back to key strategic routes that lacked access to the heavy rail network in Glasgow, such as the route planned between Maryhill in the north west of the city to Easterhouse in the far east. 

What lessons can the city drawn from Edinburgh’s recent tramway experience? Almost scrapped just weeks before construction started in 2007, the system opened in May 2014, at twice its expected budget, three years behind schedule and on a route less than half of what had been initially proposed.  However, ridership has steadily increased by around 10 per cent annually since 2015, 6.7% higher than expected. By 2017, the system achieved pre-tax profitability two years ahead of schedule. In March 2019, Edinburgh Council approved a 4.6km extension to Leith, expected to be open by 2023. The success of the Edinburgh tram is not surprising: as in Glasgow, the city’s tenemented streets led to sustained high population densities, a key factor leading to high ridership of mass transit. 

To meet climate and air pollution targets, Glasgow must adjust street space away from private cars, reducing the utility that driving currently presents. A new tramway could entice current drivers onto public transport. In the past people made the direct jump from trams to cars, missing out buses: perhaps that historical jump in reverse is what’s needed to help Glasgow become the modern, inclusive European city it aspires to be. 

Jack McInally and Bethany Adam are final year civil engineering students at the University of Glasgow. Their project was supervised by Dr Ali McCay.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.