Thursday, 1 September 2011

Tram Lines: The Love of Solutions

Scottish Television got in touch with me yesterday asking me to comment on the trams. I did so, with reference to Aramis and Aalborg. Original article here.

It was with a wry sense of irony that I read the other day that the company that runs the Paris Metro, RATP, had offered to run the Edinburgh Tram.

Back in the 1970s, the company along with French multinational Matra, spent billions of Francs on a project called Aramis.

This was to be a wonderful modern transport solution for Paris. A cross between a tram and a taxi. You’d hop into a car at your local stop, press a button for your destination, and Aramis would whizz off with no stopping in between. Funnily enough, Paris is now still renowned for the Art Nouveau Metro signs, not super-modern Aramis. Something similar has just opened at Heathrow Airport. It will deliver you to your car park.

In a study of the “death” of Aramis (subtitled, Or the Love of Technology), the French sociologist Bruno Latour described how the engineers, managers and politicians around Aramis almost literally fell in love with the idea. This blinded them to the massive technical challenges of the project and a basic social challenge – when asked, Parisians were rather worried about being sat in a driverless car with strangers. If you’re wondering what did happen to Aramis, if you’ve ever been in a Renault Espace you’ve driven in it. And if you’ve ever been on the TGV you’ve been powered by its motors and stopped by its control system.

Similarly, when the Edinburgh Trams were first getting stuck in late 2008, I was reading a book about a very modest transport project in the city of Aalborg in Denmark by the planning academic Bent Flyvbjerg. Rationality and Power describes how a project to close and pedestrianise some streets and build a bus station ended up taking well over a decade and was wracked with controversy.

Everyone agreed that Aalborg needed a transport solution and the plan was Very Good. Supporters and detractors of the project could marshal all the rational arguments they wanted to but what mattered was the messy business of politics and power. The traders blocked it because they feared the loss of business and had the ear of the politicians. The project stalled as municipal politics swung in one direction and then the next. At one point work stopped due to an economic crisis and reductions in government spending.

All sounding very familiar. Many commentators have caterwauled about Edinburgh’s inability to complete the project compared to European cities. I wonder how many of them were residents in these towns and cities during construction and listened to taxi drivers stuck in congestion. Or read decades of local press cuttings in French or Spanish to understand what the local conflicts and arguments were. I have not, which is why I’m using these two texts that have been published in English. And from these, it seems Edinburgh’s problems are almost universal – we “love” the tram, but are having a lot of difficulty giving birth to it.

I don’t want this to read as “I told you so”. But back in the early 2000s when the grand transport strategy of three tram lines, congestion charging and underground car parks was being dreamt up, I wonder if people would have been quite as ambitious if they had delved into this literature. Or even looked back at the difficulties Edinburgh had with Colin Buchanan’s 1971 Transport Study for the city. Big projects are difficult, complex and expensive.

I’m just enjoying sitting back and watching rather than saying what the “right” solution is.

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