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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TfL published some tables about Tube Capacity and they are amazing

Budge up. Image: Getty.

Have you ever wondered just how busy the tube is as you’re sardined in every morning? Or which the quietest tube line is in the depths of night?

Well it turns out that Transport for London (TfL) holds this data and quietly released it a few weeks ago in response to a written question to Sadiq Khan from Conservative London Assembly member Tony Devenish. He asked about the capacity on the tube and TfL decided to publish the data it has in the form of three excellent tables which I’m sure the audience of CityMetric will be poring over for some time.

So, most of this won’t be a surprise to many of you veteran commuters: trains being at or over capacity in the morning peak, busy again in the evening peak with a solid use through the rest of the day. However, the data does throw up some interesting nuggets of information about how busy the tube actually is.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

One of the most surprising aspects is how busy the tube remains throughout the day. The Central Line in particular is at 66 per cent capacity from the moment the first train runs and doesn’t dip below 35 per cent throughout the rest of the day, even those late-night services past midnight. Indeed, all of the deep level lines are pretty well used all day.

In the morning peak between 8-9am, the 130 per cent capacity on the Northern Line will be a surprise to nobody, but that is nevertheless very high. The note underneath states that this was calculated this on the basis of standing at a density of 4 people per square metre, so 130 per cent is having 5 and a bit people in just a square metre, again something many of us are familiar with. The Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines are also above 100 per cent, but it’s interesting to note the jump from 15 per cent to 82 per cent on the Waterloo & City (W&C) Line from 6-8am.

Compare that with just how quiet the Metropolitan and W&C are throughout the day and late at night. A grand total of no one uses the W&C before 6am (it isn’t open), with only 4 per cent using it after midnight. The other sub-surface lines are also relatively quiet after 9pm.

The other trend is the slight increase in use after 10pm on the Bakerloo, Central and Piccadilly Lines. This happens after the commuters go home by 8pm, so the usage dips before bouncing back. It is most likely due to more people making their way home after their evenings out in central London, but an interesting point.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

The second table shows when capacity is over 50 per cent. Again, the Central Line is the busiest with 10 hours a day over half capacity, including before 6am, and the Northern remains busy until 9pm on a typical weekday.

However, the table shows the tube is only more than half full just 35 per cent of the time – something to remember when you’re crammed in at 8:34am. It would be interesting to see if the increase in flexible working has had an impact in recent years. And if you do work flexibly, you should get a quieter commute the earlier or later you head in – just avoid 8-9am.

Click to expand. Source: TfL.

The third table shows if all of the seats are taken on the tube. Amazingly they are all taken 71 per cent of the time, and are all taken all day on the Central, Jubilee and Victoria Lines. Again, the Metropolitan is your best bet for a seat, with seats being available for 14 hours a day. The W&C offers a seat for that short journey for 13 hours a day.


How might we expect these tables to change in the next few years? Well TfL recently announced it was extending the morning and evening peaks on the Victoria Line to three hours, with a train every 100 seconds, so those figures could drop. Also, the Four Lines Modernisation programme will see increased service on the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan Lines from 2023, so again TfL will be hoping for those numbers to drop as more trains become available. It will also be interesting to see this table once the Elizabeth Line Crossrail opens.

Thinking further ahead, when the New Tube for London rolling stock upgrade progamme finally arrives from the middle of the next decade onwards, it’ll mean more trains on the Piccadilly and Central Lines initially, followed by the Bakerloo (which could be extended) and W&C. But with population growth expected to continue in London, will it make much of a difference to these tables? Probably not.

Now, to find out what this table would look like for Night Tube, Overground, DLR and Trams…

James Potts tweets @JamesPotts.