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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How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.