Over the past decades, more and more tracks have been laid in European cities to make way for light railways to provide commuters with high-class public transport. Light rail systems are a means of promoting connectivity, growth and social balance, but only as part of a larger urban strategy.
Denmark recently got its first light rail system and two more are on their way. In Norway, the Bergen Bybane has become the backbone of a blossoming area, while in Switzerland, the Bern light rail system has become a mental and physical link between social housing areas and the rest of the city.
European countries are increasingly investing in light rail as a mode of high-class public transport in large and medium-sized cities. In 2015, statistics from Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP) show that light rail systems were operating in more than 200 cities in Europe, and globally there were more than 15,600 kilometres of track infrastructure, with another 850 kilometres under construction and 2,300 at the planning stage.
Light rail has the potential to serve as the central artery of a city and create a connection between other modes of transport, orbital connectivity between suburbs and radial access from the outskirts to the inner city; however, its success depends very much on its integration into an overall urban development strategy.
A light rail's success depends very much on its integration into an overall urban development strategy.
It is easy for light rail systems to evoke a sense of nostalgia when we think of the old trams, but in the public and political debates, questions have arisen: do we really need light rail systems or are we just reintroducing an outdated mode of transport?
The urge to equate old trams with modern light rail systems may be tempting but in practice, the two are very different.
While passengers rumbled along in the old trams with limited capacity and comfort, commuters on the modern light rail trains experience a form of public transport with greater emphasis on comfort, frequency, speed and reliability and an increased potential to attract investors along the rail corridor.
The old tram networks were an essential transport system until they were phased out in many cities in the post-World War II period, as privately-owned cars became a widespread norm.
In response to the growing number of cars, the cities have long raised the question: what do we do with all the cars and the congestion in the middle of European cities? How do we find the right balance among the different modes of transport?
While the debate often centres on investing in particular modes of public transport, we need to take a far-sighted development perspective on the housing, businesses and institutions of the future and how they can ideally be linked through infrastructure.
The key parameters involved in determining a public transport solution are travelling time, capacity and price. How long does it take commuters to get to their destination? What is the maximum number of passengers? And what does it cost to build and run?
In response to the growing number of cars, the cities have long raised the question: what do we with all the congestion.
With a surge in urbanisation, it is increasingly important to evaluate how different areas of cities are to be serviced by public transport.
In Denmark, for example, the metro is a major investment in the inner city where space is particularly scarce, and it has the capacity to transport the vast number of daily commuters. A metro, however, is a very expensive solution because of the need for an extensive network of tunnels and new stations.
A bus route would be by far the cheapest and most flexible solution but it has its limitations in terms of capacity and, like cars, buses get stuck in traffic. Most people also know the uncomfortable feeling of bouncing around in a bus, which can deter some people from using it as a primary means of commuting every day.
Nevertheless, buses are flexible. If necessary, a bus can take another route and it is not unusual for bus stops to be added, moved or removed. This flexibility can also be a weakness in a broader urban development perspective. A rail solution has a sense of permanence, which makes it attractive to invest in areas along the rail corridors.
Light rail is more expensive than buses but cheaper than metros and railways. There is a greater sense of regularity as they receive priority in traffic, they can move far more passengers than buses and they provide a more comfortable, smooth ride.
And then there is the so-called "rail bonus" or "rail effect". Studies indicate that rail-based modes of transport receive a stronger commitment from the public because of their comfort and regularity. The fact that a mode of transport is rail-based can in itself attract 10 per cent more passengers.
The effect is hard to measure and depends on how well the light rail system is integrated into the city. In some instances, it makes no difference. In others, the rail bonus far exceeds 10 per cent.
For a light rail to produce a return on investent, it has to be an active part of an urban development plan.
Context is extremely important, and each light rail system has its own story that demonstrates its strengths and weaknesses.
A PhD thesis from 2014 studying light rail mobility in Europe demonstrates this through a series of case studies in Bergen, Angers and Bern. One of the major findings is that for a light railway to produce a return on investment, it has to be an active part of an urban development plan.
In Norway, the Bergen Bybane is an example of implementing a light rail system to transform the way modes of transport operate by removing heavy lorry traffic from the city centre and creating better conditions for cycling, for example. It also connects the city to the airport.
The Bergen Bybane was not just a transport project but also an urban development project. Access to core urban destinations and integration with the urban environment became the focal point, thus creating an urban landmark which has attracted investors, and house prices near the route have increased.
In France, the light rail project in Angers had a highly aesthetic focus with green tracks and rainbow coloured vehicles as part of a visual transformation of the city. A strong emphasis was placed on making it part of an urban redesign project allowing new urban spaces to blossom, and it marked a shift away from car-dominated development.
From a critical standpoint, the competitiveness of the new light rail system is questionable as it resulted in longer travelling times than the buses it replaced. The focus was not to provide high speeds but to penetrate narrow urban areas, which happened at the expense of travelling time.
As house prices increase in many of the larger cities, people with low incomes resort to living in the more disconnected outskirts further away from workplaces and educational institutions. The right public transport can help to create a social balance through connectivity.
The right public transport can help to create a social balance through connectivity.
An example is the extension of the light rail system in Bern in Switzerland, which broke down mental and physical barriers between social housing areas to the west and the city centre. The urban development programme also promoted upgrading and renovation of the residential areas, making the light rail a strategic tool to change the image of some of the more vulnerable districts of Bern.
Light rail systems are part of a far-sighted development strategy and create a sense of stability that allows for an increase in urban density and development. In the wider urban picture, light rail then becomes a tool – cheaper but with less capacity than metros and trains, and more expensive than buses but with more emphasis on capacity, speed and comfort.
In a sense, it is the medium-sized screwdriver in the toolbox. For it to be effective, it should be implemented when it has a meaningful role to play in an urban environment.