Trouble with Trams

I follow Chris up the stairs, relieved that I didn’t have to make a request to do so. I will never understand why anyone would choose the first level of a double decker bus. We sit on the left side of the aisle. I’m in the window seat. I turn my body to face Chris as she tells me the story of the Edinburgh trams. Two young couples are sitting on the right side of the aisle, directly behind Chris in my line of vision. It becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate on the story as it becomes increasingly clear why these couples have chosen the second level. They are taking full advantage of this “private” public space… Luckily, I find good reason to look away as Chris gestures out the window.

We are navigating through construction, again and again, as we try to make it out of New Town in Edinburgh and towards Tranent, the hometown of my wonderful hosts in Scotland – Chris and Malcolm. Torn down the middle, the streets are being prepared for the addition of a tram network. Had this project gone according to plan, I would be riding the tram two years into existence. As it stands now, the suturing of the pavement has been pushed back to an unknown future date, leaving the innards exposed in this otherwise gorgeous city. The beauty of the adjacent Georgian row houses is certainly tainted when juxtaposed to the orange construction equipment, metal fences, and upturned soil.

The bus lurches around the corner. Unused to riding at this higher elevation, I fear we will tip. I quickly turn to look out the window, half expecting to see the ground rising up to meet us. My eyes meet the landscape. I cannot remember my last thought – I have come face to face with the rugged coast of Scotland. The sun breaks through the clouds, the water glistens, my heart warms. Glaciers have kissed this land, carving out a craggy oasis. I become lost in the beauty through the remainder of the 45-minute ride.

We turn landward and come to a stop. I am reluctant to get off the bus. A short walk brings us to the doorstep of Chris’ house where her husband, Malcolm, meets us. Over a cuppa, Malcolm and Chris continue to explain the tram project. Frustration coats every word. They both questioned the project from the beginning, not understanding why Edinburgh needed trams given the reliability, efficiency, and breadth of the bus system. The timeline of the project has only heightened this distrust, proving to them the stupidity of the idea. I ask why it was ever started. Their mouths open… and close again. Silence. Then Chris says, “Manchester.” Malcolm agrees, “Yeah, they wanted to be like Manchester.”

Just that morning, I had traveled by coach from Manchester after spending a couple of wonderful days visiting family. To catch my 9 am Megabus, I rode the tram from one end of a line to the city center. The tram was efficient, very well used, and particularly livened by the excited chatter of uniformed children returning to school for the first day of fall term. This system has been successful within the context of Manchester. What works in one city cannot necessarily translate to another.

I soon learn that Malcolm and Chris are certainly not alone in their tram evaluation. This word has become synonymous with government inefficiency on the streets of Edinburgh. I would suggest avoiding the subject altogether.  Not taking my own advice, I continue to press for more information on the project. Professor Eric Laurier from the University of Edinburgh provided some background information over our lunch meeting.

The tram idea was birthed in attempt to connect the city center of Edinburgh and the airport by public transit. While commendable in purpose, Professor Laurier believes the easy solution was overlooked in lieu of the grand. The current rail system runs just past the airport and into the city center. A simple link between the two (rail and airport) could have avoided the massive construction efforts necessitated by the tram.

Donald, my guide to the Scottish highlands and co-owner of the Hairy Coo Tour Company, continues the story.  Not only is the project behind schedule but it has also doubled in price yet shortened in track length. Businesses located along the construction have suffered. Getting to a shop just on the other side of the street can require walking multiple blocks out of the way and then looping back to it. I myself couldn’t be bothered to make the extra effort to visit a store that initially peeked my interest. These are the costs of expanding transportation, but what if the new network was never needed?

Donald is a man brimming with Scottish pride. He speaks of now-US Open champion Andy Murray as a son. He can remember every detail of Scottish history with perfect clarity. His tours operate on a “tips only” basis – he wants people of all budgets to experience the Scotland he loves. Yet, he sees this choice of the government to be very misguided. The Lothian bus system – the main provider in the city of Edinburgh – is regarded as the best, and most extensive, in the United Kingdom. It allows access to every part of the city as well as the surrounding suburbs and towns. With such a great system already in place, why expand in such a costly manner?

When I found out how far away my hosts lived from the City Center of Edinburgh, I was a bit disappointed. I thought the commute would be a hassle, taking time away from my precious few days in the city. I was pleasantly surprised to see it become a favorite part of my visit. The ease, and beauty, of the journey transformed a “means to an end” into an experience in and of itself. The Lothian buses serve the people of Edinburgh perfectly. In this context, it is hard to imagine a prospering tram, unless it comes at the cost of the bus system. I don’t know which scenario is worse.

I leave Scotland first and foremost with a newfound love. I fell head over heels for the warmth of the people, the charm of the city, and the beauty of the land. I also leave with an adjusted view on transit expansion. More isn’t always better. Yes, light rail is sexy. But it’s potential in a city must be carefully analyzed before introduction. Its success in a neighboring region is simply not enough to validate the costs.

Globalization can lead to wonderful shared innovation, but it can also rob cities of their individuality. We must be careful to perceive and preserve this uniqueness. Edinburgh deserves to be more than a shadow of Manchester.  It deserves a transit solution designed specifically for its own needs and limitations. Maybe the tram will prove to be exactly this; maybe Lothian buses were already enough.

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