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Coming out about trams 2 February 2012

Posted by cooperatoby in tram.
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5008 in rue Moris

5008 in Rue Moris

It’s time I came out and wrote a bit about trams. I don’t doubt that my fascination with them is some kind of boyish enthusiasm: as someone I admired (Adrian, if you read this, get in touch) at university said in a life-changing moment “oh I didn’t know you were into trains”. His benediction was significant. If one could describe something so shamefully nerdish in the same hip terms as one referred to music preferences, then clearly the world was a friendlier place than I was finding it in that painful period of insecurity and growing up. I suppose it was touching base with being male. I had found out that boyish enthusiasm is basically okay.

Vehicles of my dreams

So, I like trams. For some inexplicable reason I find them friendly. They cheer me up when I see them. This quite probably has deep psychic roots, and indeed on occasion I dream about them. At some periods of my life I have had clusters of dreams involving trams. The typical scenario is that I am changing trams and there is a confusion of tracks. It might be a multi-level interchange. Or more exotically, tramtracks are winding out over the countryside like some psychedelic album cover from the 70s. I confess this to people at parties, and if they fall into that sadly small category of people who think dreams are interesting, they ask me what I think that means. I think that to me trams signify regularity and predictability. A tram knows where it is going and it proudly displays the fact. What’s more, it is democratic and open – everybody is welcome on board for a shared journey. To that extent – and it’s remarkable the things you discover sometimes just by writing down what you think on the spur of the moment – they are like co-operatives. A piece of synaesthesia too far maybe. But at any rate, trams are a proud monument to the mobility of the masses. It’s not just me, because if you ask older people, they mostly have great affection for trams. (Full disclosure, my Mum would never dream of taking a taxi even given the difficulty she had walking, because she always remembered hopping on a tuppenny tram.) It’s no coincidence that publicists so often include a photo of a tram in their promotional leaflets.

So, trams are lodged in people’s affection, and this is not only pure nostalgia, but hints at something fundamental about them. This is that you know where you are with a tram. You can pretty much rely on it to turn up in the right place and the right time. Sometimes people ask me at Horta, the station next to my flat, “does this tram go to Midi?” and I say – “Yes, it’s the 3rd stop.” And then I add – “There are no points, so it has to.” They don’t understand what I mean of course. But every vehicle that leaves Horta can do no other than pass through Midi about 4 minutes later. This is a very reassuring thing to know at the start of a busy working day.

You know where you are with a tram

Trams are also very pedestrian-friendly. When you are in a busy shopping street, you can know to the centimetre where the tram will go – it can’t swerve and run you over like a bus can. The acme of this safe ‘closeness to the citizen’ is to be seen in Leidsestraat in Amsterdam, where 3 busy tramlines run the length of a shopping street only 12 metres wide. The lines in each direction are interlaced (i.e. they overlap), to allow as wide as possible pedestrian space at either side. They spread out to allow passing places on the bridges over the three grachten. It’s true the service speed isn’t very high, but it is convenient. And this is another good thing about trams – their ‘hop on, hop off’ nature. They pull up right in front of you and you step right in, with baby buggy, double bass or other encumbrance. They have pinpoint precision in delivering people speedily and directly to busy targets.

Customer satisfaction is certainly a vital part of the jigsaw. But there are more aesthetic reasons for tramophilia too. Trams adorn the urban landscape. Placing a tramway in the middle of a street instantly elevates it to an important thoroughfare. Visually, it has the opposite effect from a carpet of snow, which wipes out clutter and simplifies outlines, making a street seem peaceful and infinitely wide. A tramtrack does the opposite. The hypnotic stretch of the parallel bands of steel emphasises the length and directionality of the street. It seems as if it is going somewhere with an added sense of urgency. The best example I know of this is a negative one, also in Amsterdam, where traffic planning is simplified by the successful suppression of cars. Spuistraat runs up the western side of the city centre ‘island’, and is (since the closure of the Haarlem line) tramfree. A few years ago it was ‘reprofiled’ to provide a single-lane one-way carriageway with loading bays, a broad cycle path, and of course ample pedestrian space. In my view this makes it a much more attractive public space, one with clarity and perspective, echoing how it was in earlier decades.

The French are past masters in using the installation of a tramway as an excuse of the entire makeover of a street. But the best book on the subject that I’ve come across, surprisingly, is American. Street Smart – Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century (Reconnecting America) is a large format multicolour extravaganza showing the benefits trams can bring (being American, this includes property values). We need more of this results-oriented publishing in Europe.

A timeless way of travelling

This is one reason why I find so astonishing the omission of trams from one of the most seminal works of urban planning, Charles Alexander’s A Pattern Language (OUP 1977). This astonishing book is a hypertext avant la lettre, being structured in the form of 253 ‘patterns’, which are nested one within the other. Thus at the top level we have ‘1: Independent regions’ via ‘126: Something roughly in the middle’ (brilliant!) all the way down to ‘253: Things from your life’ It’s a ‘language’ in the sense that it gives us a way to talk about towns and the way we live in general.

Pattern 126 - something in the middle of Villingen, Black Forest

Alexander certainly thinks about getting about in great detail, and sees public transport as the only possible way to do it. Pattern 11, ‘Local transport areas’ discourages the use of cars for short journeys, and ’23: Parallel roads’ proposes that they should be channelled into parallel roads between 100 and 400 yards apart, one-way and in alternate directions, connected to ring roads. You can experience attempts at this in many city centres that were redesigned in the 70s.

The pattern most relevant to trams is ’16: Web of public transportation’. This is mostly about intermodal connectedness, and mentions ‘rapid transit’ (Alexander worked at Berkeley and so had the Key System and then BART on his doorstep). But he’s more interested in what you do when you step off your light rail vehicle than what it’s like while you’re in it – he proposes that it’s community-owned  interchanges (pattern 34) that should come first, and the mode that links them second. His model for this is the Swiss railways.

It may have been that in the 70s he thought streetcars were already out-of-date. Thank heavens, the turnaround in public policy since then is proving him wrong.

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