I’ve been thinking about trams today. The origin of this post is that yesterday’s post about modal versus other questions concerning public transport led to a conversation about how in some places, namely Vancouver, the light rail versus subway debate is big. And that got me thinking about how cities that do not have subways arrange their streetcar networks. These cities exist, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe, and often have very strong public transport – this is for example the Zurich model, based on a combination of streetcars and an S-Bahn system. Some such cities don’t even have an S-Bahn system. How do they arrange their tramway networks?
The top tram cities
I asked on Twitter what the busiest tramway network is in cities without a subway. Across all cities, including ones that have both streetcars and metro tunnels, the answer was Saint Petersburg at the beginning of the 21st century, and today is either still Saint Petersburg, where ridership has been in decline recently, or Budapest; Prague is the third. All have around 400 million annual riders, or somewhat less.
Among cities without subways, it’s harder to tell, because the information isn’t always out there; streetcars are not as well-studied as subways, a pattern of which I am guilty of contributing to with the focus of the Transit Costs Project (for now). Zurich, Brno, Zagreb, and Melbourne all have around 200 million annual passengers each, and Bratislava, Kraków, Łódź, an Belgrade are all plausible contenders except that I have not been able to find ridership figures for them.
Additional cities with strong ridership but not 200 million a year include the Upper Silesia complex with about 100 million, which is weak for its size with high car modal split for a Polish city, and smaller cities like Leipzig, Dresden, Linz, Basel, Geneva, Košice, Gothenburg and Lviv.
The pattern of tram cities
All of the high-ridership tram cities I’ve been able to find have historically maintained their systems. Cities that closed their streetcars in the postwar era and have since reopened them as modern light rail systems sometimes have very strong ridership, like Paris, but that’s in conjunction with a metro system; the Ile-de-France tram network is strikingly circumferential and barely penetrates city limits, where the Métro predominates. In the United States, the busiest modern light rail system is Los Angeles and the busiest without a subway is Portland, with 40 million annual trips, in a metro area of comparable size to Upper Silesia, which is much more auto-oriented than monocentric Polish city regions like those of Warsaw and Kraków.
Moreover, nearly all examples I know are in Central and Eastern Europe. Elsewhere, trams were shut down in the postwar era, or replaced with subway-surface Stadtbahn systems as in San Francisco and most West German cities. This is going to color the analysis, because just as there are American, Soviet, British, French, and German traditions of how to build rapid transit, there are national and areal traditions of how to build tramways, and with the exceptions of Melbourne and Gothenburg, all of the top systems in metro-free cities are in one or two macro-regions (Warsaw Pact and German), which means that shared features may be either the key to success or just a regional cultural feature.
The shape of strong tramway networks
For example, here is Zagreb:
Here is Melbourne, which doesn’t yet have a metro but is building one at very high costs:
Here is Brno, which has around 200 million annual passengers in a metro area of 700,000:
The striking features of these networks and others without as good maps on Wikipedia (Gothenburg, Zurich), to me, are,
- The network design is radial – crosstown routes are rare and sporadic.
- The lines form something like a mesh in a small city center, perhaps the size of the historic premodern core, in which one can walk from one end to another; Melbourne, which does not have the history of a walled European city, shows convergent evolution with the same pattern.
- Owing to the long history of such systems, the ones I’ve used (Prague, Zurich, Basel, Leipzig, East Berlin) have basic stations with shelter and in Zurich’s case ticketing machines but no other facilities.
- There is extensive interlining and branching in all directions.
Moreover, as I should blog about soon in the future, Melbourne exhibits the same pattern even with a weak city center: the centralmost 100 km^2 of the city, which in Canada or Europe or the most centralized American cities should have 30-40% of metropolitan employment, only have 15%.