Pros and Cons (and Future) of Trams

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Sean Marshall dated the rebirth of the tram (which he, being a Toronto native, calls a “streetcar”) to the 1980s, although initially this took the form of “vintage” lines “mimicking New Orleans’ famous St Charles Streetcar line.”

These heritage streetcars use antique or replica equipment and were mainly intended to cater to tourists, or to support downtown commerce or redevelopment.

Marshall says the first “new, modern streetcar system” built in North America was Portland’s, which opened in 2001, followed by lines in Tacoma, Salt Lake City, Tuscon and Atlanta. In addition, Washington DC, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Detroit, St Louis, Milwaukee and Charlotte, North Carolina are “building or planning their own.”

St. Charles streetcar, New Orleans.

St. Charles streetcar, New Orleans. (Photo by Dan Soto / CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)

Marshall, who claims to have a soft spot for streetcars (but who spends a lot of time talking about how annoying he finds it to ride the Toronto cars at rush hour), basically argues that while streetcars have their charms, moving people efficiently is not one of them. In this, he leans on the work of public transit consultant Jarrett Walker, author of the Human Transit blog. Back in 2009, the very day Portland announced a plan to extend its downtown streetcar line to the rest of the city, Walker touched off a discussion about streetcars that continues to this day.

I noted in the first article in this series that a return to public transit is broadly viewed as a necessary part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To this end, simply replacing multiple private vehicles with a single public vehicle is an accomplishment — even if the single vehicle runs on fossil fuels — but replacing multiple vehicles with greener forms of transportation is the real goal.

So the question is, what type of greener vehicle? The CBRM has announced it is considering electric buses — Energy Minister Derek Mombourquette has fast-tracked funding for a study to determine if electric buses are feasible for the municipality and if so, what type of buses — but what if we considered bringing back the tram system?

I thought it would be interesting to weigh the pros and cons.



The biggest advantage to trams, as far as I can tell, is that people like them. That probably sounds like a fact you’d file under “nice but not important,” but it is actually quite significant because it means people are more likely to use them.

As a result, they are often introduced as a way of spurring development as much as a way of moving people. Portland is often cited as an example of this. The streetcar, which linked the city center to the Pearl District — an area that had been given over to a rail yard and factories — is one of the factors credited with the rise of that neighborhood (although it’s not the only factor, and Walker says more research is needed to determine how much of the effect was attributable to the streetcar.)

Trams also have an advantage over buses in terms of capacity. As Walker explains:

[R]ail transit is important for its ability to carry large numbers of riders per vehicle, and hence per driver, usually by combining cars into trainsets. European streetcars are often huge trainsets with capacities of 500 or more. Typical single streetcars used in the US have a slight advantage; they have a capacity of around 200 compared to 120 for a typical articulated bus.

Toronto streetcar

Toronto streetcar. (Photo by Megaloman at wts wikivoyage, CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not sure why he considers the capacity advantage of a 200-person streetcar over a 120-person bus “slight” (it’s a 70% difference) but we’ll let it stand for now. And on a related note, trams, as Jonn Elledge pointed out for CityMetric, are also more flexible than buses — you can increase capacity at rush hours simply by adding a car (or cars) instead of adding another bus (with another driver).

Elledge’s list of tram “pros” also includes comfort — they tend to “to brake and accelerate more gently, so you’re relatively comfortable, even if you’re standing the whole way” — and the ease with which they can be “segregated” from other traffic, which makes them less “prone to disruption by things like traffic jams.” Elledge acknowledges that buses can also be segregated — you can put them in designated bus lanes — but this isn’t always as effective. For one thing, bus lanes can be un-designated as easily as they can be designated.

Walker, who uses the F-Market streetcar in San Francisco as an example of a tram replacing a bus, explains the problems that had plagued the bus this way:

…[it] ran in the right (outside) lane, where it had the usual interference from parallel-parking movements, right-turning cars, etc.  Some of its stops were pullouts (a designated gap in the parking strip where buses pull up to the curb, largely leaving the traffic lane). Pullouts are good for getting buses out of the way of cars but not a good way of running buses reliably, because the bus often has difficulty getting back into traffic.

F-Market streetcar ran in the left or inside lane and stopped at island platforms, which “eliminated conflicts with right turns and also eliminated the pullout problem.”



The same thing that can be positive about trams — that, unlike bus lanes, tram lines are not easily removed — can also be a negative. As Elledge says, if your route-planning decisions are wrong, correcting them will be expensive (probably prohibitively so).

Trams cannot go around obstacles, they don’t mix well with bikes, they take up too much space and “they cost a fortune,” as Washington DC can tell you. According to the Washington Post:

…an ambitious band of city officials set out to cut through the bureaucratic mire and launch a vast streetcar network that would be a model for the nation, eventually running 20 to 40 miles or more. The first leg was supposed to open in 2006. But as 2015 comes to a close, officials are scrambling toward their latest goal of opening a diminished, 2.2-mile streetcar line east of Union Station after the latest tests are finished early next year.

The chief problems the Post identified with the Washington project, though, are hardly specific to streetcars:

Officials working with a succession of mayors failed to keep a tight handle on the sprawling effort, which was marked by poor management, hasty designs, construction problems and political struggles…

Writing about trams for Politico in 2017, Debra Bruno noted:

When it works—as with Portland, which got a head start on second-generation streetcars in 2001—streetcars can unify cities, boost real estate and draw investment. When it doesn’t, though, cities can end up with millions of dollars dumped into a glorified theme park ride. Recent projects in places like Cincinnati and Tucson, Arizona, have been budget-busters that have cost about $50 million per mile of track, says Jeffrey Brown, a transportation expert at Florida State University. The earlier wave of second-generation streetcars ran about $10 million to $30 million a mile.

And Jarrett Walker argues that sometimes the benefits attributed to trams could probably be achieved with buses, provided they benefited from the same improvements — like right-of-ways, off-board fare collection, signals, etc.

Walker also suggests that, especially if you haven’t ridden a bus in some time, you might have a very dated idea of what they’re like in 2020 and that many recent improvements in bus design can be directly attributed to the designer’s attempt to imitate trams. These are included (but not limited to):

  • reduced noise
  • wider doors
  • fewer seats, higher standing capacity
  • research toward “new propulsion systems” (like electric batteries)

And, of course, the CBRM is considering purchasing electric buses.

But there’s one last twist I’d like to throw into this discussion: trackless trams.


Work of ART

The Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit (ART) vehicle is produced by China’s CRRC Corporation, the world’s largest producer of rolling stock, and is described by Popular Mechanics as:

…some kind of cross between a train and a bus or tram. The ART runs on roads like a bus, but only on designated paths like a tram. It’s modular like a train, and carriages can be added or removed to accommodate different numbers of people. Each carriage can fit about 100 passengers.

Here’s a video of the first test run of the vehicle in China’s central Hunan province on 23 October 2017:


Peter Newman, a professor of sustainability writing for The Conversation says he believes these trackless trams will replace both buses and light rail, noting the vehicle:

…replaces the noise and emissions of buses with electric traction from batteries recharged at stations in 30 seconds or at the end of the line in 10 minutes…It has all the speed (70kph), capacity and ride quality of light rail

I’ve read that the ART has also passed various tests under cold weather conditions in the city of Harbin, the capital of Northeast China’s Heilongjiang province and that a city councilor in Edmonton — Edmonton! — has been pitching the technology for that non-tropical city.

Because the vehicles need neither tracks nor an overhead power source, the infrastructure is much cheaper than that for trams or light rail or trolley buses. Newman estimates the installation cost per mile at $6 to $8 million.

I know this sounds futuristic, but there’s actually a pretty sound case to be made for a form of transit like this linking the various communities that make up the CBRM — the way the electric tram system used to link Sydney and Glace Bay and Sydney Mines and North Sydney.

It’s not just that trackless trams could connect the various communities via a clean (provided we stop generating power with coal) mode of public transit, it’s that they could encourage the redevelopment of the various communities.

Another factor in reducing emissions will be ensuring people don’t have to travel far to meet their basic needs. Planners have different ideas of what should be within walking distance, but most of the lists I’ve seen include amenities that used to be available in all the various municipal units before cars came along and sent everyone to the mall.

Okay, my crystal ball is starting to fog up, so I’ll stop here, but it’s fun to dream, isn’t it?