On Trackless Trams

Zhuzhou, Hunan, China has deployed a segment of `trackless trams’ (map – it runs on the north-south route in the center of the map in this Olympics district). The technology, explained in this video, is an articulated, rubber-tired on road, electric vehicle that carries passengers on a marked right-of-way adjacent to traffic. The interior has a layout typical of trams or LRT vehicles, and it has tramlike doors. The stops are at stations with protective gates aligned with platform doors like modern LRT and Metro systems so people are less likely to be on the track.  The vehicle, though billed as “autonomous” is in fact merely  “driver assist”, as the video plainly shows a driver and steering wheel and explains. The markings on the road are used to help the guidance system (and the driver) stay centered in the lane.


There is a lot of hype about such systems. It is being widely promoted by Prof Peter Newman out of Perth (Curtin University), who has long been influential in transport policy in Australia, and has had government positions. (You may remember him from Sustainability and Cities).

In Australia, `trackless trams’ keep getting suggested for various corridors, two in particular are”

  • From the City of Liverpool (Western Suburb) to the now under construction Western Sydney airport Links: (1) (2) (3) The Liverpool – airport corridor has been mooted for public transport, and BRT seems perfectly logical there, trackless tram loses the ability to feed the line from side streets.
  • Parramatta Road from the City of Sydney to Parramatta. This is a suburban strip/car sewer for much of its length, and could be so much more. With the construction of the tunneled motorway project (WestConnex), there have been promises made to rejuvenate the road and create an exclusive transit lane for its length (it exists in places but not continuously), but commitments are fluid. The route once had trams, and today has many many buses. Links: (1) (2) (3)


One broader issue of course is that it is a bit of vapourware. There is a Chinese line as noted above (so it is decades ahead of Hyperloop), but essentially no one here has ridden on it, and many people/professionals are naturally skeptical of performance and reliability and real costs.

Politicians however are especially vulnerable to the new and shiny (the TV series Utopia/Dreamland is a documentary), anything that gets them above the fold in the newspaper or on the local news at 6, so it attracts more attention than more mundane ideas like bus electrification and exclusive bus lanes and transit signal pre-emption, in short Rapid Bus or Bus Rapid Transit.

And there is a strong anti-labour thread in these discussions, so any opportunity to automate and get rid of drivers and of the risk of labor work actions is seen as attractive. That said, the technology isn’t actually automated yet. Not to say it won’t be in the indefinite future, but not for the initial deployment.

Trams in Sydney especially are seen as expensive, and the two of the most recent tram projects (Newcastle LRT, and the City and Southeast LRT in Sydney) have had huge cost blowouts (and were poorly scoped), so naturally there is searching for other modes.

Perhaps electric bus rapid transit needs a rebranding, but no one should be confused about what a `trackless tram’ actually is. It is an advanced, electric bus in an exclusive bus lane operating like gold standard bus rapid transit. There is nothing wrong with advanced buses. There is nothing wrong with bus lanes. There is nothing wrong with bus rapid transit. Cities should deploy more of these things, and if politicians need to use the silly phrase “trackless tram” or anything else to get this popularly accepted by a political class, media, and public with the attention of a gnat, there are worse indignities the profession suffers.

The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses | A Political Economy of Access

We are pleased to make available Chapter 11: The Magic of Streetcars, The Logic of Buses of A Political Economy of Access. It opens:

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Once upon a time (1888 to be precise), the United States and the world launched a huge building boom for urban streetcars. Companies like Twin City Rapid Transit laid miles of track in fast-growing cities, extending well past the built areas to serve greenfield sites for emerging suburbs waiting to be platted and built. They did this because the streetcar promoters benefited directly from the land sales. The availability of a new, fast transit system connecting to downtown made houses much more valuable. The fares from the new passengers covered the operating costs of the system.

An argument in favour of streetcars

I am a noted streetcar skeptic. I have written blog posts about their issues. As an objective analyst, I will however admit an advantage streetcars or trams have over buses.

This is not the ‘permanence’ justification that is often heard and easily disproved (i.e. where are they now if they were so permanent?). But it is related, once laid down, tracks are harder to move than buses, and tracks are more expensive, so it is harder to make routes circuitous. Many bus routes look like they were designed by drunk transit planners. One local bus the 370, which runs near my office and my home is so circuitous it is faster to walk even ignoring schedule delay. (It is not quite faster to walk end-to-end though, walking time is 2:30 vs. 1:14 on the bus, so the effective bus speed, assuming schedule compliance, is about 9.6 km/h vs. 4.8 km/h walking.) I have written about this before in Minneapolis, (and nearby Rosedale) and circuity is hardly an unknown problem.

370 Bus Route on Google Maps
370 Bus Route on Google Maps

Now there are undoubtedly reasons for every indirect deviation that diverts buses from the straight and narrow. However, every circuitous zig also loses passengers, and bus routes in the US are much more circuitous than travel by road. Serve this building, serve that one, cover this street, reduce pedestrian walking time.

In contrast, trams in practice are much more straight-laced, paragons of transit routing virtue. The historic Sydney Tram Map, as this map in wikipedia shows, gives a sense of routes that were pretty much as direct as possible.


Now it can be argued this particular bus provides and east-west service that no tram did, which is true in part. But that doesn’t mean trams could not. It also could be argued that almost no one rides the 370 end-to-end. Though I have not checked the Opal data, this is probably true as well. But a well-structured suburb-to-suburb transit network (my fantasy map is here, Jarrett Walker has done this as well) could avoid this. To be fair as well, the Sydney frequent network is not nearly as circuitous as the 370 bus, which has a roughly 20 minute headway

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

On the Four Paths

Photo by Jesse Vermeulen, posted at Unsplash.

First Path

In the beginning was the path. It was undifferentiated, shared by people and animals alike, and eventually wheeled vehicles pulled by humans and animals. While dating the First Path is impossible — the very first First Path must have been a path that was reused once, and slightly better than the unimproved space around it — it operated both in early settlements and on routes connecting nearby settlements.

Today’s version of that is the sidewalk or footpath. It is now used for people walking, sometimes for people moving goods, and occasionally for people on scooters and bicycles. It should not be used for storing cars, though it is. New uses will include low speed delivery robots, as shown in the photo from Starship.

When we see a raised crosswalk, we know the First Path is given the pre-eminance its venerable status warrants. When we see shared spaces, we know those harken back to the early undifferentiated path-spaces of earlier centuries. When we see pedestrian-only zones, we see a First Path that has grown up.

Starship Technologies

Second Path

The Second Path diverges from the first path with the emergence of the first street or roads with sidewalks (footpaths).  Spiro Kostof (1992) dates it to about 2000 BCE in Anatolia. And it is clear many Roman and Greek cities separated sidewalks from streets, which the Romans called Semita.

Post-Rome, sidewalks were rare, making appearances in London after the Great Fire, and in Paris after Haussman.

But to be clear, today’s sidewalk is not the second path, it is the first. The second path is the road which is largely free of pedestrians, intended for the movement of vehicles. Originally these were animal powered vehicles, as well as human. Later fuel-powered machines took over the street and roads.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Third Path

Cyclists Avenue Sydney Cyclists Avenue Sydney (1900)

The Third Path actually emerged well before the Second Path was colonized by motorized vehicles. It is for bicycles, and initially was paved in contrast with the unpaved streets and roads of its time. Given the first Velocipede was only 1817, and the first bike chain (which we associate with modern bicycles) was 1885, these came relatively quickly compared with the First and Second Paths. While ascertaining the first bike lane or separated bike path is tricky (there are many claims, differing in nuance), I have compiled some claimed firsts and earlies here (thanks to people who replied on Twitter):

While bike lanes have now been around as a technology for well more than a century, throughout most of North America and Australia, bike lanes are not provisioned, so bicyclists have the Hobson’s Choice of driving in traffic with much heavier and much faster automobiles and trucks on the Second Path, the roadbed or illegally in many cases on the First Path, the sidewalk.

With the advent of the smart phone, new modes are becoming feasible, most notably dockless shared bikes and scooters.

Regulations in many places limit the use of bikes on footpaths. The reasons for this are clear from the pedestrian’s point of view, bikes are traveling up to 4 times faster than walkers, and collision can create injury. Dockless shared bikes emerged in Australia in 2017, after a few years on the road in China. Their main contribution has however not been transport (they are used about once every 3 days) but instead as a the recipient of complaint about sidewalk clutter (unlike say cars, which are always parked perfectly). As a consequences they have been targets of vandalism. The obvious solution will eventually get adopted, geofenced corrals for parking bikes (shared and private), taking away one parking space per block perhaps.

Given the disparities of speeds on the first (5 km/h) and second paths (30-120 km/h), there is a clear market niche for an infrastructure network  for vehicles faster than foot and slower than cars. Physically, one imagines it generally lying between the existing kerb and removing a lane now devoted to the storage or movement of cars. And for many if not most urban places globally, this has been recognized and networks of third paths have been, or will be, built out.

This Third Path is important not just for bikes, but for electric bikes (which are becoming increasingly feasible with progress in battery technology) and electric scooters.

Fourth Path

A Fourth Path for buses (and other high occupancy vehicles) is also now considered. The first bus lane emerged in Chicago in 1940. The reason for bus lanes again is in part operational differences compared with existing road users. Buses start and stop in traffic much more frequently than cars. But a second reason is in fact the opposite, not because buses would block cars, but because cars would block buses. Buses carry more passengers than cars, and so should move faster, and can do so if they are not stuck in queues behind cars.


The Kerb – Once a nondescript piece of concrete now forms the edge (both physically and metaphorically) of the sharing economy: taxis, Ubers, autonomous mobility services. The Kerbspace differentiates and separates paths, but we now have new questions:

  • Who manages kerbspace? 
  • How is it regulated?
  • Is it even mapped?

Comp(l)ete Streets

The complete streets movement advocates for streets with sidewalks, bike paths, and are otherwise designed to promote safety and efficiency. The figure below is not exactly what they have in mind.

Justicia Urbana by Todorovic (https://www.flickr.com/photos/unhabitat/23003427510)

On the Replacement Bus (or Hot, Jerky, and Crowded).

(Kiss Me) On the Bus, by the Replacements, is one of the great transit songs about public displays of affection. Today I was on the Replacement Bus for the T1 train, which was closed for works between Strathfield and Epping. This is a train route I take with my kids weekly to their Saturday class, we board the train in Redfern at 12:56 and arrive at 1:25 or so in Eastwood. Add  about 10 minutes on either side for access/egress costs.

Historic Sydney Bus. Ours was newer, but less well ventilated.
Historic Sydney Bus. Ours was newer, but less well ventilated.

We took the train from Redfern to Strathfield. The signs were excellent at both stations. At Strathfield we were easily routed to the replacement T1 bus with stops at West Ryde, Eastwood, and all stops to Hornsby. So this was in one sense more direct than a train, which had additional stops. In another, more important sense, it was not.

The bus runs in traffic along Concord Road [Map] from Strathfield to Ryde. Concord Road is heavily congested most of the time, aligning with one of too few bridges across the Parramatta River, the great tributary of Sydney Harbour. With the trains out-of-service, traffic is probably worse than normal.

More to the point, there were several other issues besides it being slow:

  1. The temperature was 24C (about 80F), with a humidity of about 100%.
  2. The aircon was not working on the bus (or rather it worked fine for the driver, not for the passengers.
  3. The windows were all closed. Someone eventually opened the emergency access on the ceiling to vent the bus.
  4. The bus was pretty crowded. I counted about 50 passengers, all the seats were taken and there were a lot of standees. It was hard to get an accurate count because that required me to face backwards. I have seen more crowded conditions, but obviously I would tend to avoid them if I can.
  5. The traffic was not merely slow, the bus driver was a lurcher, moving the bus to gain a couple of meters and than braking hard, as if maximizing physical jerk was a performance measure. That no one fainted or was actively vomiting I consider a minor miracle Perhaps the song should have been titled (Sick Me on the Buss)
  6. We made the strategic error of sitting facing backwards.

The Replacement Bus arrived at Eastwood station at about 2:05 pm, so 45 minutes slower total. (To be clear, this is significantly faster than scheduled local bus services between these destinations, as we avoided local stops.) Given we caught the bus almost immediately from Strathfield, that 45 minute extra travel time is compared to 15 minutes of train travel from Strathfield to Eastwood, meaning the effective bus speed (and for that matter car speed, since the bus was in traffic almost the entire time) would be about 3x slower.

Why would anyone drive when they can take the train in Sydney?

Now of course the train cannot serve every origin-destination pair, but it serves many of them, and people self-organize to take advantage of the services.

I don’t have any brilliant suggestions for what to do when the tracks are closed for works. Ideally that could be minimized, conducted automatically at night by robots, or some such. However given that they need to be shut down at least sometimes, this is where dynamic lane control might be useful. Ours was far from the only Replacement Bus, there was a veritable convoy. A dynamic bus-only lane would have sped the many thousands of people using buses on Concord Road, stuck in traffic behind many more vehicles carrying many fewer people. Similarly it might have been possible to reverse lanes from one direction to another in places. I realize this is a temporary condition, and trains will likely be back in service next Monday. On the other hand, there might be other conditions where these controls could be useful. Futher, I don’t think the buses had balanced loads, judging from an eyeball observation through the windows. Two buses made the same trip at the same time. Our was full, the following bus was not. This might have been managed better at Strathfield.

RTA Transit Innovations Series

I will be talking, over the Internet, in Raleigh-Durham on January 8 about accessibility and transit at the RTA Transit Innovations Series.

The Regional Transportation Alliance has launched a new RTA Transit Innovations Series to support and advance current discussions on transit in Wake County.

The sessions include in person and/or videoconference presentations from experts on bus rapid transit and related innovations and research including express lanes, freeway caps, land use, circulators, and periodic comparisons with various rail transit options such as commuter rail, streetcars, and light rail.

    (Download pdf overview of the RTA Transit Innovations Series here).

With the exploration of new and emerging transit innovations, the development of a bus rapid transit-based alternative(s) as a basis for comparison with the current draft plan, and the clarification and prioritization of goals and objectives, our community can evaluate the potential mobility and economic benefits of transit for our community and make an informed decision on our enhanced regional transit future in Wake County.

There will be no cost to attend any of the events in the RTA Transit Innovations Series.  Scroll down or click here if you are interested in sponsoring either an individual session or the entire RTA Transit Innovations Series.

Detailed schedule of all past and future RTA Transit Innovations Series events.

Next Session
RTA Transit Innovations Series
Session 2:  Research on land use and tradeoffs

Wednesday, January 8, 2014, 3:30 pm EST
Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce


Presenters, via Cisco WebEx videoconference:                        

  • David Levinson, Ph.D., University of Minnesota
    –  Editor of the Journal of Transport and Land Use and Director of the NEXUS research group
  • Stephanie Lotshaw, Manager, U.S. and Africa, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy
    –  Author of More Development for your Transit Dollar 

RSVP online or contact  Natalie@letsgetmoving.org by Monday, Jan. 6

Join the Conversation on Twitter @RTATriangle, and use the following tag:  #RTATransitSeries.

Bus stops by Metropolitan Area

As part of some recent investigation about Bus Stops in the Twin Cities, I wanted to find out how many bus stops there are in various cities. Sadly this information has not been pre-compiled on the Web … until now.

This is the first list of bus stops by transit system that I know of. It is of course, incomplete. Feel free to add information in the comments (with references, and system definitions as necessary), I will try to update the list periodically. Also feel free to add this information to Wikipedia to preserve this information for posterity.

World Cities:

  1. London 17,866
  2. Delhi 4,627
  3. Singapore 4,615

North American Cities:

  1. Los Angeles 15,967
  2. New York City 15,000
  3. Dallas 12,500
  4. Twin Cities 12,268
  5. Washington MetroBus 12,000
  6. Chicago 11,493
  7. Toronto 10,173
  8. Houston 9,960
  9. Seattle 9,400
  10. Atlanta 8,978
  11. Boston 8,500
  12. San Francisco MUNI 3,500
  13. Alameda County AC Transit 5,600

Motoring enthusiast builds 367mph bus – Telegraph

The solution to the mass transit perception problem:
Motoring enthusiast builds 367mph bus – Telegraph

Reflections on the Streetcar of Portland

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

Riding for a conference from the Portland airport to Portland State University on Light Rail Transit (LRT) and then streetcar gave me time to reflect on the Elysian Fields of transportation engineering, the Nirvana of networks and nexi.

Portland, Oregon is one of the major battlegrounds in the mode wars (car vs. transit and the internecine rail vs. bus). It has since the 1980s been held up by planners as the exemplar American city that does almost everything right. The foremost thing they do right in the view of the planning establishment is promoting LRT and bicycling.

The fascination with rail transit in particular (especially as compared with bus) was something I have never quite grokked. As a rational observer with formal training in transportation, I have had a hard time understanding the emotional relationship people have with rail. Why do people like LRT more than bus? Is it simply how we operate them, or that it is modern capital, or is there a psychological benefit associated with deterministic tracks vs. widely diverging roads? There are lots of theories on the matter, I will identify a few below.

  1. Ride quality. The quality of the ride on an LRT is smoother and less herky-jerky than a bus, and passengers have a nicer facility.
  2. Navigability. It is hard to navigate current US bus systems, while the fewer number of rail lines are fairly easy to figure out. Because trains cannot steer, they cannot get lost the way a bus can.
  3. Speed. Trains are faster than local buses, especially if they have their own right of way and few stations.
  4. Permanence. I can make a permanent investment decision based on the location of rail lines, as the transit system is committed to this line, while a bus line may be temporary.
  5. Nostalgia. People who like LRT recall (or wish they could recall) the immediately post-World War II America when streetcars were at a maximum. 1946 was a magical period in US history, a boom following the long depression, when streetcar networks if not at a maximum were really close. (Coupled with a conspiracy theory about their removal)
  6. Sexuality. This is part of the theory presented by Jonathan Richmond’s in his book Transport of Delight and earlier paper The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles. The image of the train entering the tunnel clearly evokes a primal response.

There are logical rejoinders for the first four (though not the nostalgia or sexuality argument I suppose), the most obvious is that if you spent the kind of money you are spending on rail on buses instead, and operated them better, buses would be quite nice. Navigability could be improved with a bit of thought (and trains can divert), while permanence of the last generation of streetcars (1887-1954) clearly was temporary.

The theory I have now adopted comes from my recent trip from Minneapolis to Portland accessing the airport at both ends via LRT, and then riding the Portland streetcar almost full circle. Rail transit forms an urban superstructure. Guideway transit, esp. LRT makes the city more like a single structure, and makes everything seem closer. The LRT vehicle is continuously running, and if activities are along the path of the vehicle, everything seems quite coordinated. In a way by organizing activities linearly (or multi-linearly), it simplifies the city. Hopping on a train is much like getting on an elevator.

LRT, like walking indoors, keeps you enveloped within civilization, while walking, biking, or driving is a frontier experience, you alone in the wilderness. (And bus falls in-between). We can posit that distances within buildings seem shorter than distances between buildings (Some literature along the notions of this idea exist, see Tversky, but it is not directly on point). Distances connected by the urban superstructure will likely feel closer than those which are not so connected. Walking through a modern airport, or the Minneapolis Skyway, will tell you enveloped distances can be quite large, but still not feel as large as leaving one building into nature for another.

Preferences for civilization or frontier-crossing (or degree of each) vary across individuals. Driving of course places you in a machine, but you, not civilization, are operating the machine, so just as driving is freedom, not everyone wants that freedom to drive, they may prefer freedom from driving. The extent to which you believe in the importance of community over individuals (or vice versa) will affect your perception of the issue.

( LRT may also be more popular than traditional underground subway (Metro) systems. People of course like being able to walk out the door and step onto a train more than having to descend through the gates of hell, Metro to get to the underground subterranean system. There are many reasons, not least of which is the extra time and energy required to so descend. The advantages in principle are faster point to point travel time, but that depends on the access cost vs. the in-motion speed. )

Transit invokes further passions because of the positive feedback loop between ridership, revenue, and route frequency, especially where transit is weak as in much of the US. My riding transit creates a positive externality for you (more riders, shorter headways, and more routes), so of course if you ride transit, you want to impose your preference on me. It is only selfishly rational. Further cars use scarce roadspace. While similar feedback loops may exist on the highway side (more drivers means more closely spaced roads), congestion mitigates that and the network is largely built out, so drivers do not feel the same need to impose their modal preference on the transit riding minority. Finally, drivers may benefit in the short term if other drivers take transit. (Where transit is already congested and frequent, additional riders produce few positive externalities as diminishing returns set in).