|Light Rail Transit Association
Light Rail for better public transport
By Horst Schaffer Deputy General Manager of VBZ (Zürich Transport Company)
When a group of totally convinced representatives of tramway operators founded the Light Rail Commission within the International Union of Public Transports (UITP) in 1978, only a few could have imagined that this transport system could one day have found such widespread acceptance. Meanwhile, thanks to technical progress the former tramway has developed into an attractive light rail system and re-conquered many towns which had shut down their old tramways after the Second World War.
Especially remarkable was and is the trend in the USA (particularly in California), the renaissance of the urban tramway in France and in Turkey. Meanwhile there are new systems in Great Britain, Spain and Portugal. The first new systems have also been realised in Asia (Hong Kong, Manila and Kuala Lumpur) and in Australia (Sydney) and these will be followed by others. In the former Eastern European states the beginning of a transformation of many old tramway systems into modernised light rail systems also can be observed.
Well over 100 projects are presently being examined worldwide and await decisions. The new introduction of light rail systems requires initial investment and demands a relatively long planning and construction phase. Hence such systems are not viewed as an opportunity for electoral success by short-sighted politicians. Advocating the construction of an urban rail system demands political farsightedness and the honest intent to really solve the mobility problem in an agglomeration. So it is little wonder that in some countries the political decision to build such systems in some cities and countries can stretch out over years.
After four years chairmanship of the Light Rail Commission, Bob Tarr (he was one of the first members) asked me: "to write an article about my perspective of the state of play and prospects for light rail and tramways throughout the world, and to get a view from me, and indeed any other views I have, about the world of public transport and the part light rail and tramways has to play in it." This invitation is a great honour and a challenge to me to order all the impressions I have acquired in my own business and in my committee activities and to compress these to a definite finding.
While - especially in the West - the central problems since the '70s have been the management of the energy stocks and the disposal of increasing amounts of waste, one of the primary themes of the coming decades will be the management of man's constantly increasing requirement for individual mobility.
More than 130 million cars are concentrated in the main traffic ways of Europe's conurbations alone. Traffic congestion in the countries of the European Union causes economic costs of more than 50 billion Euros. In the major cities the resources for additional traffic space have been long since exhausted and moreover, cities which comprise only roads and multistorey car parks offer hardly any space for an attractive life. France has declared war against the frightening increase in road deaths on its country's roads. With unorthodox and macabre TV publicity its citizens are being desperately called to reason; at a time when even small cars have more than 100 hp.
Hundreds of reports have been and are being compiled on the pollution of the environment and the atmosphere. Traffic restrictions in summer due to high ozone loads are clear alarm signs that these problems are no longer theoretical.
The development is paradoxical: For those who cause these problems there is increasingly less attractive living space in the agglomerations of the world. So they are fleeing from the towns and therefore need additional mobility. These problems have long since ceased to be only the concern of USA and Europe. Worldwide, ever more conurbations are suffering similar problems, whether in Mexico, Egypt or Japan. Everywhere the politicians face these developments more or less helplessly.
But calls for change and reason alone are not enough. On the other hand mobility is an important factor of the quality of life and the economic force of mankind. Bans and restrictions are becoming unavoidable. But in a democratic world, these too have their limits.
Two directions of action can be observed, which are being followed up by the opponents of unrestricted individual mobility: full coverage electronic traffic management systems should follow the technical madness of an over motorised means of locomotion, which can guide the motorists to their destination on the remaining free areas with as little congestion as possible. In addition the automotive industry is pumping billions of Euros into the development of small cars, to at least ease the space and exhaust gas problems.
All such developments are useful and in principle welcomed. But it would be an error to imagine that they alone could permit unlimited growth in mobility requirements.
Primarily it is not a question of giving over the existing traffic areas to even more intensive use by cars, but to win traffic areas back for the people. For instance a person using public transport takes up 90 times less traffic space than a private car. That means that efficient, effective and environment-compatible transport systems must be provided, especially for large amounts of people, which will permit a reduction in the number of cars, without limiting people's mobility.
This question is false. If the mobility problems are to be enduringly solved, then the present day prevailing way of thinking in transport modes must be replaced by a new thinking in mobility. That is to say, a suitable means of transport with the lowest environment load should be selected for each transport assignment. Hence it is primarily a question of influencing the mobility behaviour of every single person.
On average each person makes about 1000 journeys per year. On each occasion he makes a selective mobility decision; this being on the basis of his experience, current expectations and the availability of the means of transport. For that the contrast between the private car and public transports should no longer exist. Combined mobility, the combination of the advantages of an integrated public transport system with the advantages of private transportation, is the new way. This means the best possible mobility with the least possible costs and traffic.
The success of combined mobility in Switzerland shows that tomorrow's mobility will be less orientated to the transport modes than to the services provided. Not that car ownership will be important but the best possible use of all means of transportation. So primarily it is not a question of seeking new means of transport or systems, but creating alternatives to the private car in the form of comprehensive mobility offers, which can completely solve the diverse customer problems from the provision of travel advice to the transport of luggage and settlement of the travel accounts.
A highly integrated public transport system is an absolute necessity for combined mobility. In future, opportunities for public transport are better than ever before, providing it seizes this promptly and in a customer-orientated manner. Good examples are long distance travel with the French TGV and the German ICE, which can already successfully challenge the place of private cars and air travel. But also in short distance transport there are good examples of successful public transport systems. When these successful systems can become the core of comprehensive service packages permitting the attractive solution of the largest possible number of individual customer requirements, then public transport has the chance to restore the cities of the world to places worth living in.
Within such considered systems the urban rail system has especially high chances of success. It offers a high performance capability with simultaneously high compatibility with urban life and structures being both flexible and environment friendly. Light rail systems can be realised in stages and are combinable with other rail transport systems.
Light rail systems can be cost-effectively introduced as independent systems in medium sized towns or in addition to underground or urban railways in major cities.
Also false would be to assume that light rail systems were a patent recipe for every application. A series of preconditions must be satisfied if investments in a light rail system is to result in market successes. These can be summarised in five rules:
Horst Schaffer (57) is Austrian, studied in Vienna and graduated as an engineer. Since 1968 he has worked for VBZ and was engaged in a variety of important projects such as designing Tram 2000 or building the tram line extension to Schwamendingen.
Today he is Deputy General Manager of the company VBZ and responsible for planning, marketing, sales and operations. Since 1987 he has been a member of the UITP International Light Rail Commission and chaired this Commission between 1995 and 1999.
Five Rules: top