Why is light rail still in the sidings? The case for trams

Nottingham Express Transit. Image: Elliott Brown/Flickr/creative commons.

Transport has been the Cinderella department of almost every government since the Second World War. No minister of any party has ever been in office for long enough to address the challenges of growing mobility, the funding and provision of public transport and the increase in cars on the road.

Tram schemes have been promised, and then disappeared with depressing regularity. Green Light for Light Rail, was published by the Department for Transport in 2011. Several similar reports have been written, usually about every decade or so, and nothing is ever learned by the government of the day

Letting trams disappear from our city streets was a terrible error. Failing to build new schemes compounds the mistake. Trams fit neatly between buses and metro systems or conventional railways. Yes, they are more expensive to build but, in the long term are cheaper to operate for a given capacity, have lower whole-life costs, offer higher commercial speeds, reduce pollution, and are more successful in attracting motorists to public transport.

In the UK, in almost every city where tram systems have been built, usage has massively exceeded original forecasts. Since Croydon introduced trams in 1995, public transport usage has increased by 30 per cent and car use has dropped by nearly 19 per cent. In Nottingham, public transport usage in the tram corridor is up by 20 per cent in the peak periods and road congestion has been reduced by as much as 9 per cent. Some 30 per cent of Nottingham tram passengers have directly transferred from car or Use Park and ride.

Buses are not a cheaper alternative as much as an inadequate short -term fix. Where there is high demand (at least 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction) trams are cheaper than buses. Large numbers of buses are needed to provide equivalent capacity, leading to high staffing and vehicle costs, and roads becoming congested with (empty) buses, as anyone who has travelled along Oxford Street in London will recognise.

We might usefully look across the Channel to mainland Europe where light rail schemes abound and where engagement with utilities does not create the same problems. This is partly down to legislation, partly to culture, but also to less demanding standards, such as the depth required to excavate before laying new lines.

Across Europe – especially in France, with Grenoble, Strasbourg and Nantes, to name but three schemes – high frequency tram services have been combined with car park and ride sites on city outskirts, integrated ticketing and strictly controlled traffic and parking restrictions in city centres. This, plus an overarching belief in the value of an attractive “urban realm”, has had a revolutionary effect on transport use and made the cities much more pleasant to live and work in.

Several studies looked at the lessons we can learn from the French approach to planning new trams. They all concluded that integration, regeneration and secure funding are keys as to why France has more light rail systems than the UK. (It is interesting to note that more recent comparative studies are hard to find – perhaps repeated examples of why other countries have built new networks and the UK has not become a little galling after the first few).

This means there is an opportunity. As the 2019 Conservative manifesto said, Leeds, with its population of 700,000, is the biggest city in Europe without a tram. Perhaps the party forgot that it had been in government for the last 10 years. At any rate, the government should be encouraging of these and other revenue raising possibilities for local authorities. It should allow local authorities to issue bonds so that they can invest in transport infrastructure

If the government is serious about devolution, localism and “levelling up the North”, it should give local authorities more freedom to develop funding packages and new sources of local revenue. 

Equally, devolution means that the Government must take local views seriously when making decisions about Government funding for trams. Where local authorities and local people believe that a tram is the best solution for their area, the government’s role is to help build the tram, not to try to persuade them that the bus is always best. 

People won’t leave their cars at home until there is an efficient, reliable and comfortable alternative. Trams provide that alternative. No other form of public transport allows you to travel about town smoothly and quietly, doesn’t emit noxious exhaust fumes, doesn’t need a parking space, runs so frequently that you don’t even need a timetable – and actually enhances the urban environment.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.