Myth: Trams are inflexible and hold up traffic, and should be replaced with buses
Fact: The main thing holding up traffic is other traffic, not trams. Wherever buses have replaced trams patronage has dwindled, putting more cars on the roads and adding to traffic congestion.

In the decades following World War II, while mass car ownership was becoming a reality, planners and bureaucrats throughout the English-speaking world waged a long and bitter campaign against the trams that trundled through all but the smallest towns. Trams were denounced as dilapidated turn-of-the-century relics, that clearly didn’t belong in the new era of automotive freedom. And it was clear to everyone that trams held up traffic. Everyone, that is, except the tram users, who continued to crowd by the tens of thousands onto an ever-diminishing tram fleet.

Melbourne, nearly alone among English-speaking cities, retained its extensive tram network almost by accident, through the intransigence of Major-General Sir Robert Risson. Throughout the postwar era, Sir Robert headed up the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board. A staunch conservative, he refused to see the old ways abandoned, and continued to run Melbourne’s trams long after Sydney and other cities had ‘seen reason’ and torn up their tram networks in favour of ‘efficient’ buses.

Now, of course, the humble tram is making a comeback in many of these same cities (although it has been redubbed ‘light rail’ to placate those who still see the word ‘tram’ as an anachronism). In Melbourne, trams have acquired an iconic status. Yet now and then the old myths are resurrected; in particular, the idea that trams are bad because they hinder traffic flow.

Even in Melbourne this is largely a myth. Traffic, not trams, holds up traffic. For every frustrated motorist stuck behind a tram, there are dozens of frustrated tram passengers trapped in a queue of cars and trucks.

With trams scheduled every few minutes in peak hour, it’s virtually guaranteed that whenever a queue of stop-start traffic forms on a tram route, a tram will be caught up in the queue. Motorists behind can see the tram, but won’t see the queue of cars in front of it. As a motorist, it’s often tempting to imagine that if only we could get around the tram up ahead we’d suddenly find ourselves in free-flowing traffic – rather than more congestion – but this is generally just wishful thinking.

In a congested situation, all that happens when a motorist passes a tram is that the motorist and the tram passengers have swapped places in a larger queue, to the benefit of the motorist and the detriment of the tram passengers. While motorists are within their rights to seize this advantage when the opportunity presents itself, to argue that motorists should feel entitled to do so is to endorse a ‘might is right’ mentality.

To put it another way, congestion is fundamentally a ‘zero-sum game’. And the only way so far found to make some people better off without making others worse off is to change the game – that is, to shift some of the travel from cars to other transport modes.

Let’s not forget too that even this potential source of conflict is absent on many tram routes in Melbourne, which run on dedicated reservations separated from road traffic.

Never satisfied, the road lobby likes to argue that these tram reservations take up space that could be used for car lanes – but then so do footpaths, houses, trees and so on. The space is far from wasted: even if trams only pass every couple of minutes rather than every few seconds, they’re still carrying more people per hour than a lane of congested car traffic. As Risson himself observed in the 1950s:

The basic traffic problem is moving people, or goods, and not, as commonly and erroneously supposed, moving vehicles…. [A] traffic count taken by the Town and Country Planning Board in 1947 showed that in the heaviest half-hour of the peak Swanston Street trams carried 5,472 southbound passengers over Princes Bridge on one track, while in the same half-hour two lanes of motor cars and taxis carried 727 people, including the drivers…. It is therefore apparent that public transport is by far the most economical user of street space when considered in relation to the number of passengers for which it caters.

—Major-General Robert Risson, Journal of the Institute of Transport (Australian section), August 1955.

Conflict between cars and trams arises chiefly on inner-suburban shopping streets, such as Victoria Street, Sydney Road or the High Streets, which were never intended as high-volume traffic routes. The RACV’s Travel Time Survey examined these routes in the 1990s and concluded that the reduction in average car speeds due to the trams was only 2kph. And of course, in most cases motorists have the choice of alternative routes to these. The traffic-calming effect of trams may indeed be a key factor in preserving the character of these suburban shopping strips.

Sightings of the trams-hold-up-traffic myth often go hand-in-hand with other hoary old ideas from the 1950s. Trams are claimed to take road space away from cars, when the cars the passengers would otherwise be driving would take up an even greater amount of space on the road. Tram wires are held to be a safety hazard, even though there are few if any recorded instances of people being injured by them, while people get killed or injured by cars every day. Trams are thought to endanger passengers by making them cross the road, despite the fact that people will always have to cross roads whether there are trams or not, and the real source of the danger is too many cars being driven too carelessly. And so on.

But ultimately Sir Robert was correct. For moving large numbers of people through a linear corridor with intense activity, like Sydney Road or St Kilda Road, nothing can match the inherent efficiency of electric trams on steel rails. This helps explain why in Melbourne’s lacklustre public transport system the tram system has performed comparatively well, with consistently high patronage and high cost recovery.

Rarely acknowledged too are the other beneficial effects of trams, such as when the Box Hill tram extension in 2002 triggered a 20% increase in commercial property occupancy in the area. Trams are quite literally good for business. Removing trams is a recipe for dwindling public transport use, worsening congestion and sterile communities, as even some politicians admit:

Many of our suburbs were built around an efficient light rail (tram) network. Since that was removed, traffic congestion has worsened. As a regular user of public transport I am committed to improving public transport in Wentworth.

Malcolm Turnbull, federal MP for Wentworth in eastern Sydney

Of course, the tram system is far from perfect. Long waiting times, slow travel, overcrowding, the absence of conductors, and high fares are all persistent problems. But all can be solved if the political will is there to solve them. Delays to traffic supposedly caused by trams, on the other hand, are a non-problem and a pretext for tram-bashing. Any diminution in tram services diminishes Melbourne as a city.

Last modified: 11 September 2009