Melbourne has the largest surface Light Rail network in the world (there were larger ones, mainly in the Americas, but these all fell to the fashion of the mid last century for all-in motordom). And this network, despite its foibles and peculiarities, is part of what makes Melbourne such a successful, connected, and particular city. The presence of the trams (as they are generally called) and the patterns they set undeniably shape the quality of the street experience there. Melbourne is, to an important degree, defined by its trams. And gloriously so.
They carry a fair load too: Melbourne’s 250km tram network carried 204m passengers in the year 2015-16, compared to 233m on the 830km train network. Buses moved 122m. So trams in Melbourne do a great deal of the work that in many other post-tram cities, like Auckland, is done with buses.
Melbourne is extremely fortunate to have retained this system; it would be prohibitively expensive to return such a widespread system to any city that lost theirs in the great global anti-streetcar pogrom of the 1950s (I’ve seen estimates over $A100b for Melbourne). Yet many cities across the world are rebuilding surface Light Rail systems, or more accurately are building new Light Rail routes, not returning to widespread bus-like networks. This includes Sydney which is currently adding its second LR route of the modern era. Its first, the Dulwich Hill Line, a strange hybrid of a rambling tourist focussed section and an efficient movement focussed conversion of an old goods line, is now hugely, almost problematically, successful; ridership up 59% over the last year.
Both these cities have fully grade separate rail networks, which are vital, and are currently being expanded. But as we know from all over the world even cities with widespread Metro systems still require surface Transit as well, and choosing Light Rail on key high demand and high place value routes is an increasingly popular option for cities across the world. We have looked at this possibility for Auckland primarily from a movement and transport economics perspective but it also has significant place quality effects and these are want I want to look at in this post.
So last month while in Melbourne I hung out on Bourke St with my camera, as this section of Melbourne’s network is most like what we can expect for Auckland’s Queen St. And what I had confirmed from this lengthy observation is exactly what you experience when passing through; there is something of an almost perfect mix between pedestrians and these big Light Rail vehicles which entirely defies the scale imbalance. It is like people are swimming freely with benign whales; slow and entirely predictable, generating no ghastly fumes, not silent, but discretely clanging and bell-ringing, while pedestrians shashay around them like so many pilot fish, in step with the big beasts’ movements, but effortlessly so and without palpable risk.
Rolling Public Realm
The difference between being inside or outside the trams here is small; or should I say seamless. The trams are as much place as vehicle: There is an elision between street and tram and tram and city. And this is certainly more true with the modern E-Class Light Rail machines than the older more angular streetcars. These are smaller with steep stairs and narrow doors, where as the round-nosed Jumbo-like E-Class with their low floors and and wide doors, more approximate moving rooms than metal boxes. Focusing on this aspect of the technology may horrify our transport professionals, trained as they are in the math of travel time savings above all else, but it is a real value, though qualitative rather than quantitative.
For indeed, they are slow here, Melbourne’s trams average 11kph in the city centre. Yet they are well used, they work, they shift a heap of people every day. And of course have speedier sections away from the city centre, so the average speed over longer journeys is not entirely defined by this section. In fact it is not here that I think Melbourne’s trams routes are too slow, but it is further out that I think that Melbourne could get more value out of this already successful system, in particular by removing the curb-side parking on more streets (Brunswick St below).
Practical Street Theatre
While I was observing the dance on Bourke St I was treated to two police cruisers, one fire engine, an ambulance, and a rubbish truck using the Transit Mall. In each case these interlopers worked their way seamlessly between the near constant flow of trams, without holding them up nor appearing to be restricted in their tasks. Each vehicle used whichever set of tracks were free, helped of course by the certainty of the larger vehicles fixed direction and slow gait.
The same holds for deliveries, although these are organised temporally as much as spatially, which is to say they occur outside of the peak tram/pedestrian times, early morning most noticeably:
‘A train isn’t a vehicle. A train is a part of the country. It’s a place’ -Paul Theroux
The urban version of this might read: ‘A tram isn’t vehicle. A tram is part of the street. It’s a place’
Because of course this moving architecture also takes its luxury and something of the glamour of the city centre out to wherever it reaches, it values the suburban dweller and city visitor the same; it is some mighty democratic tin: