How trams could save us from the ‘tyranny of the car’

| 26th April 2011
A tram

There are currently eight tram systems in the UK and one under construction in Edinburgh

Back in 2000 John Prescott mooted 25 different tram projects across the UK, but a decade later where has that dream gone? Robert Williams laments how we have lost a solution to cutting cars and reclaiming our urban streets

Transport has been the Cinderella department of almost every British government since the Second World War. Successive ministers, both Labour and Conservative, have failed to address the challenges of growing mobility, the funding and provision of public transport and the increase in cars on the road.

Over the last 30 years, most British cities have suffered from increasing traffic congestion, so that in many cases streets are at, or near, gridlock. Average traffic speeds in London, at 11mph, are slower than they were a century ago. Pollution, noise and stress for drivers and pedestrians have increased dramatically and the quality of life in urban centres has suffered. Even the most enthusiastic members of the road lobby would admit that motorists are being driven slowly, so very slowly, round the bend.

Many cities have been abandoned to what has been described as the ‘tyranny of the car’. Buses were deregulated by the Conservative government of the 1990’s, everywhere except in London, and passenger numbers fell precipitously, everywhere except in London.

Labour's big tram plans

When Labour came to power in 1997, it promised an integrated transport policy. But transport policy was one of Labour’s greatest domestic failures, and nowhere was the short term, unimaginative, bean-counting failure more evident than in the failure to invest in trams (or Light Rail) schemes.

In 2000 the then transport minister John Prescott promised that there would be ‘up to 25 new light rail lines in major cities and conurbations’. In fact, there are currently eight tramway/light rail systems in the UK—in Croydon, London's docklands, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Blackpool. In Edinburgh a new tram network is currenlty under construction. Systems were also proposed in Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool and Portsmouth, although funding was refused by the government, and they remain unlikely to proceed.

Letting tram schemes hit the buffers was a terrible error. Trams are flexible modes of transport that fit between the bus and the underground systems or conventional railway. Tram routes are certainly more expensive to construct than the bus based alternative but, in the long term, trams 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 busy cities, trams can carry significantly more passengers than conventional bus networks, including the higher quality bus-based alternatives such as guided busways. Trams can carry flows of up to 20,000 passengers per hour per direction which is about four times more than conventional buses and twice that of the largest, tram-like bus alternatives.

Bus usage would have to increase in the order of 500-900 per cent just to keep the level of traffic congestion standing still, so to speak, in any case, where there is high demand (at least 2,500 passengers/ hour/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.

If we want to attract motorists away from their cars, alternative forms of public transport must be put in place first. All the evidence shows that people will not switch to public transport unless it is reliable, frequent, efficient, safe and clean, with affordable fares. Tram systems meet these criteria.

Trams cut car use

A study for the Passenger Transport Executive Group (PTEG) found that light rail has generated levels of modal shift from road that bus upgrade schemes rarely match. Typically about 20 per cent of peak hour passengers using British tram systems previously travelled by car. At weekends up to 50 per cent of British tram passengers used to travel by car. Overall light rail takes around 22 million car trips off the roads every year in Britain, and there is evidence, particularly in Manchester and Croydon, of reduced road traffic levels following their opening.    

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. 30 per cent of Nottingham tram passengers have directly transferred from car or Use Park and ride.

More ephemerally, the very presence of the infrastructure required for tram networks - the metal rails and overhead wires – send strong signals to users that schemes are designed for the long term. They are permanent and visible reminders that the public transport system is accessible and will not be withdrawn, as can happen with bus routes.

Unfortunately, however, overall the progress on implementing modern trams has been slow and fitful – certainly when compared with our near neighbours in Europe, where not just lines but entire systems are being built in the time it takes us to get through the mountains of paperwork that characterise the approach in the UK. Now that we have stopped lecturing our European neighbours about our economic "success" perhaps we should look what we can learn from them, and especially about how cities such as Strasbourg, Grenoble and Zurich provide excellent integrated transport systems,

European success stories

In almost every city where tram systems have been built usage has exceeded original forecasts. What can be illuminating is to look at the modal splits in such cities and compare them with, say, British cities which have only buses as their public transport. In Zurich, a city of around 300,000 population - a similar size to Coventry - only 29 per cent of journeys are made by private car, whereas in Coventry the figure is more than 75 per cent. What makes this comparison even more impressive is the fact that car ownership rates are actually higher in Zurich than in Coventry, but people do not use them for many of their urban journeys.

In Grenoble, Strasbourg, Freiberg and other European cities, car park and ride sites on city outskirts, high frequency tram services, integrated ticketing and strictly controlled traffic and parking restrictions in city centres, together with a belief in the value of an attractive "urban realm", have had a revolutionary effect on transport use and made the cities much more pleasant to live and work in.

So the tram has made a comeback in many European cities, and even many American cities, to popular acclaim. The world has got the message, it seems, everywhere except in Britain. There is some hope for tram schemes. In response to queries, the Department for Transport (DfT) said, ‘We recognise that there are many clear benefits of light rail. In the right circumstances this mode could be an effective and efficient means of taking large numbers of passengers directly into the heart of a city, avoiding traffic congestion and greatly improving accessibility.’

And ministers announced in February 2011 the Department's intention to support the proposed extension to Midland Metro Line One to Birmingham New Street Station with a DfT contribution of £75.4 million towards the total scheme costs. It is now for the promoters to progress the scheme through procurement and submit a final business case to the Department for final funding approval. The Government also recently announced support for the proposed extension to Nottingham Express Transit.

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.

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