Climate Conscious
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Climate Conscious

Trams Are Beneficial for the Environment

Trams I Image Source: Author

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This famous quote is attributed to Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Whether he actually said it or not is debatable, but one thing is certain: this quote alludes to cars and must have been said during the late 1890s or early part of the 20th century when cars made their first appearance in the world.

The people forget that much before cars emerged on the scene, trams were efficiently transporting people faster than horses.

History of Trams

Trams, often called streetcar or trolleys, are a public transport system that mostly runs on tracks laid on urban roads.

The history of trams began in the early years of the 19th century when the first trams were introduced and pulled by a team of horses.

Running the streetcars on rails pulled by horses allowed for a smoother ride. Early evidence of the tram system emerged in New York City, which began streetcar service in the year 1832.

Trams — NewYork Harlem Line I Source: The Tribecatrib

Given the challenges associated with animals, horse-drawn transport service made way for mechanical trams powered by steam, gas, cable, and electric systems. The mechanical ones proved to be more efficient and fast.

The world’s first electric tram was invented by Ukrainian-born engineer Fyodor Pirotsky in 1875. Later in 1879, an electrically operated streetcar was presented by Siemens & Halske at the Berlin Industrial Exposition. In 1881, the electric tram began its operations on the streets of Berlin and carried more than 10,000 passengers in the first three months.

Hence the electric tram came about five years before Carl Benz applied for a patent for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine” in 1886 and more than 20 years before Henry Ford’s first car hit the street.

Trams started gaining popularity

The success of electric trams running on Berlin streets reached other parts of the world, and various urban centers started updating their tram systems to electric ones.

In 1883, the tram system started in Vienna worked with electricity served by a more efficient overhead line with a pantograph.

Trams became synonymous with public transport in many cities across the world, offering affordable and comfortable rides to the working class.

The decline in the Trams system

With the advent of cars, busses, and high-speed trains, gradually tramway system fell out of fashion by the middle of the 20th century.

Often trams were found clashing with other means of transport — colliding with cars & busses, running over a pedestrian, bicycle wheels getting caught in the track grooves — caused some serious accidents.

The higher costs of laying down permanent tracks and overhead wires compared to running buses added to the misery.

Many cities which started tram systems slowly stopped running it altogether or curtailed their network.

Revival of the Trams system

However, the advantages of the tram system are too hard to ignore, and slowly by the 1970s and 80s, they again saw a revival. The trams became faster, comfortable, efficient, and had a higher carrying capacity.

Benefits of the Trams

Better Carrying Capacity:

Trams can be much more capable in terms of road usage than cars, and in many cases, they have a higher capacity than buses.

Cheaper to install:

Trams are much cheaper to install than metro trains, subways, or other forms of heavy rail.

Offer last-mile connectivity:

Considering high-speed trains cannot connect all the spots in the city, busses and trams offer last-mile connectivity for daily commuters.

Faster accessibility:

Passengers can reach surface Tram stations much more quickly compared to climbing up and down for underground and elevated stations.

Provide sightseeing and tourist attraction:

Trams are a tourist attraction in many cities across the world. With the added improvements & modern comfort, trams are running for more than 100 years on the same track in more than 150 cities of the world. Passing through historical monuments and architecturally beautiful buildings, a tourist can have wonderful sightseeing without breaking a sweat.

Here is a video to take you through some of the Oldest Tram networks in the world.

Trams are beneficial for the environment:

With technological improvements and changes, most trams in the world still use the electrical power fed by a pantograph sliding on an overhead line or operate on battery power. Both these methods do not produce any pollution at the point of use.

As per a study, after walking and cycling, trams are the most efficient in energy efficiency as there are no tail-pipe emissions. They consume 0.91 megajoules per passenger-kilometer traveled, closely followed by the bus, which consumes 0.92 megajoules.

Trams are Energy Efficient I Source: The Conversation

Sooner or later, when coal-powered electricity gives way to 100% renewable energy, the environmental relevance of electric-powered Trams will even get stronger.

In addition, unlike buses, most of the tram system in the world does not run on rubber tires. As per a study by Emissions Analytics, pollution caused by tires can be 1,000 times worse than what comes out of a car’s exhaust. This is because in the case of cars and buses, every time a tire rotates, it loses particulate matter of rubber, which then blows into the air as dust, which further aggravates the air quality.

Wrapping up

In the last few years, many different variants of trams have evolved. One of the popular is the light rail system where the tram does not mix with the other modes of transport instead have their dedicated lines.

The future of our transport system is undoubtedly electric, and if trams can be explored as sustainable means of transport, they offer the commuters a viable alternative.

If used optimally, trams are beneficial for the environment, help to reduce the burden on city roads, and moreover, provide an affordable means of public transport.

The increase in ridership and switch to renewable energy will only increase the sustainability factor.

As of 2020, the tram system is present in around 450 cities in the world. In the last five years, 50 new locations have added trams to their transport system, mainly in China and the US.

Trams are beneficial for the environment, and wherever they are present, trams have become a vital part of the landscape.

Originally published at on June 17, 2021.




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Varun P

Varun P

Working towards a sustainable future. Product Manager. Interests in — Environment I Nature I Digital Technologies I Consulting I ClimateTech I Sports I Travel.

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