Thursday, 18 November 2010

On and off the rails

Edinburgh trams: Princes Street (click to enlarge)

I did think, in the time honoured tradition of groanmaking headings for this blog, of calling this one Transports of Delight, but on more mature reflection I resisted.

Long time readers of this blog will appreciate I have written a few posts mentioning the Edinburgh trams fiasco.

Here's a sample:

Others can be found by judicious use of the search facility.

I have not updated that as the situation becomes ever more complex, labyrinthine, Byzantine, or just plain fucked up, whatever your culchurul linguistic preference.  Keeping updated means reading the Scotsman online and the Edinburgh Evening News,  and  in particular in the comments of one SarahB, who has a grip on it all. Alas, those with a grip appear to not be employed in any capacity involved with  delivery of the trams, which I think it fair to say will not be On Time and On Budget.

Wiki on  Edinburgh trams:

and Edinburgh Corporation Tramways, closed down in 1956:

For those with an anorak interest, and especially of holes in the ground, pictures here of the tramworks in Edinburgh:

and for those transport historians amongst us;

Edinburgh trams: Calton Hill (click to enlarge)

My own view of trams is that they can be no doubt excellent and as a rail enthusiast they should be supported as an alternative to traffic congested city streets.

My one gripe is the overground wire prob in Edinburgh, especially in Princes Street (where surely the pickup could be underground,  avoiding the bristling poles spoiling views) and the wires which will be attached to historic buildings, which I fear will be damaging.

So let's not go there. Let's instead celebrate places where trams are a success.

Let's read the two terrific pieces by @williemiller of  Willie Miller Urban Design, Scotland's foremost urban design practice,  in the Guardian about trams in Bordeaux and Helsinki, and let's appreciate this country has so much to learn about urban planning.

Here I  give myself a wee pat on the back as the initial instigator of the articles (is there a new career to be had in matchmaking?)  but that's all the fame I can claim and it is with huge thanks to Willie that I am given the OK to repeat them both here . If Those In Charge of Edinburgh had any sense they would be beating that cliched path to WMUD's door and seeking more of his information but they haven't so they probably won't.

No 1: Bordeaux

Spotlight on trams: Bordeaux

In the first of an occasional series looking at the experience of trams in other world cities, guest blogger Willie Miller finds that Bordeaux's trams haven't just moved people around, the 'mobile social structures' have changed the very development of the place

The dramatic sight of the tram at night in Bordeaux. Photograph: Willie Miller/

Bordeaux is a vibrant city of 250,000 people serving a metropolitan catchment area with a population of 1.1 million and is one of the largest urban areas in France.

The city and its region are of course well known for wine making but this is also a city that makes things: optical and laser research and production, aeronautical and defence industries as well as pharmaceuticals, food and electronics.

It is also a significant administrative centre and a city attractive to tourists on the basis of the wine industry, the adjacent seaside resort of Arcachon and the city centre which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The built-up area has grown swiftly in the past decade and urban sprawl was considered to be a significant problem. In common with many other European cities, as Bordeaux expanded its periphery, industries around the core of the city declined most significantly along the banks of the Garonne.

The first Bordeaux tramway dated back to 1880. In 1946 the public transportation system had 38 tram lines with a total length of 124 miles carrying 160,000 passengers per day.

This system was abandoned in 1958 as a result of anti-tram arguments including the notion that trams hindered the flow of cars through the city.

Political change

In 1995 the city elected Alain Juppé as its new mayor. He recognised the need for action to counter the strangulation of the city by transport problems and, together with a number of other initiatives, the city adopted the tramway plan in 1997 with the support of Central Government in 2000 as a Public Interest Project. This is a very European example of a politician supporting a major project rather than disowning it. The tramway network currently consists of three lines built at a cost of EURO 800M

The first new line was opened in December 2003 and further extensions have increased the route length to just over 27 miles with more routes planned. The system is notable for using a ground-level power supply system in the city centre to placate the views of conservationists who considered that overhead wires would threaten the integrity of the World Heritage Site. The system is operated at the moment under a five year contract by Keolis, the largest private sector transport group in France.

The overall transport system (bus-tram-rail) sees some 300,000 passenger journeys daily of which 165,000 are on trams. On average, 45% of journeys on the combined bus and tram network of the TBC are by tram. In 2008 the trams carried 54.7 million passengers. The Bordeaux tramway is one of 16 towns or cities in France running a tram system integrated with bus and rail.

Wide impact on structure

Bordeaux tram stop Photograph: Willie Miller/

The impact of the tram on the city should not be seen just in terms of moving people around. It has had a much wider impact on the structure of the city and the way in which new development is allowed to take place. On the periphery of the city, the three tram routes define growth corridors along which development can take place. The new routes have defined new parts of the city where people live and work.

Tram stops become the focal points of new squares, the centres of new mixed use areas where employment and living space are co-located or the best way of getting to some of the city's remarkable new spaces such as Michel Corajoud's breathtaking Mirior d'eau opposite the Place de la Bourse on the banks of the Garonne. The tram has also allowed many traditional city squares to become areas of calm like the spaces around the Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux or around Richard Roger's Palais de Justice. Many of these spaces sit atop underground car parks so while the car can still penetrate the inner historic core, there is precious little evidence of its presence.

In Bordeaux the tram infrastructure enables easier orientation within the city. The tracks, overhead cables and stops are now permanent features of the city's streets - predictable and stable unlike bus routes. So the tram informs and helps people to formulate a clearer image of the structure of their city. It is a feature of their communal public space.

Tram stops in the city are typically focal points in the urban fabric where local shops, bars and cafes cluster or where students meet on the way to university. This perhaps sounds like UK Regeneration speak – and it probably is – but the defining of city spaces by public transport is a part of European urbanism that predates Lord Rogers and his Urban Renaissance by a century or more'

Mobile social spaces

Bordeaux's trams are also mobile social spaces in a way that buses can never be – the arrangement of seats and standing space seems to encourage conversation. The tram is smooth running so that café au lait need not be spilled and the discussion started at the tram stop can continue without interruption.

Bordeaux Photograph: Willie Miller/

Trams in Bordeaux have also created more walkable streets. There is little if any evidence of a city centre traffic problem whereas before their reintroduction, there was traffic chaos. Generally, trams attract heavier usage than buses so their introduction and development has created a virtuous circle of improved diesel-free environments for pedestrians, more walking and increased use of public transport.

The brave steps that Bordeaux took at the end of the 20th century to reconfigure its transport system have effectively restructured the city and provided a new network of communal public spaces and a pedestrian priority city centre of which it can be justifiably proud. It is an excellent example which many UK cities should follow.

Willie Miller as an urbanist and owner of WMUD, one of Scotland's leading urban design practices - the research was carried out during the 2009 Assessment visit for the Academy of Urbanism.

No 2: Helsinki

Spotlight on trams: Helsinki

In the latest of an occasional series looking at trams across the world's cities, guest blogger Willie Miller discovers Finland's capital mirrors Edinburgh in many ways, yet trams are just a fraction of its transport aspirations.

Helsinki's modern tram operating in snow. Pic: Creative Commons

Imagine a country with around the same population as Scotland that builds Metro lines and high speed rail links, that has the ambition to build a 50 mile undersea tunnel link to another country and is built around an extensive welfare state.

Imagine the same country regularly topping international comparisons of national performance in health, education and quality of life, as well as being the seventh most competitive country in the world.

Imagine its capital city, with a similar population to Edinburgh, with an extensive district heating system, the foresight to introduce a vacuum powered district waste disposal scheme that eliminates bin collections and which is extending its tram based public transport system with six major new lines over the next few years.

Helsinki is a city of 480,000 people with a surrounding metropolitan area of around 1.3 million people. It is very similar in size to Edinburgh (478,000) and it also the capital of its country with a population slightly less than that of Scotland at 5.3 million.

It is a remarkable and beautiful city with big plans for the future which include a fast rail link to St Petersburg, promoting and developing its airport as a European hub to China and investigating a 50 mile tunnel link to Tallinn in Estonia. This is a city in which seventy percent of the land area and almost all development land is owned by the City Council. This is a city with big plans and the ability to implement them.

The city also has ambitious plans for its own expansion, particularly on to waterfront areas previously occupied by docklands and inner harbours which have moved out to a new complex at Vuosaaric on the eastern edge of the conurbation. It is expected that an additional 100,000 people will be accommodated in these new developments. A key factor in planning these new development areas is integrated public transport by Metro in part but mainly by tram.

Helsinki's tram network is one of the oldest electrified tram networks in the world. It forms part of the city public transport system organised by Helsinki Regional Transport Authority and operated by Helsinki City Transport. The trams are the main means of transport within the city centre and 56.6 million trips were made back in 2004, which is more than those made with the Helsinki Metro.

The Finnish capital has 12 tram lines and six more on the way. Pic: Creative Commons

The first tram network was established in 1890 and electrification took place in 1900. In common with many other European cities, the tram system was under threat from buses in the mid 20th century and the city decided to close the system in the early 1960s. However this decision was reversed during the early 1970s and by 1976 the network was being expanded again. Today the tram is a key part of the city's infrastructure.

The city has a current total of twelve lines with a further six lines planned over the next few years. As well as owning almost 70% of the land area of the city, the Helsinki authorities also own the public transport system and critically, the energy company that supplies power for the tram network. This degree of ownership of the core elements of the system means that it is relatively easy to extend the network and guarantee connections to new housing areas without having to haggle with different land owners, developers, public utility owners and contractors.

Another aspect of infrastructure provision in Helsinki is the way in which it seems to happen efficiently and painlessly. Not for them the contractual disputes, delays in implementation or flaws in construction which are leapt upon by a triumphant public and trumpeted in the media elsewhere.

Perhaps it is in the dour uncomplaining Finnish character to just let other people get on with things in the knowledge that they will eventually be successful. Or perhaps they are just used to doing infrastructure provision really well.

Willie Miller as an urbanist and owner of WMUD, one of Scotland's leading urban design practices - the research was carried out during the 2010 Assessment visit for the Academy of Urbanism.


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