Getting Edinburgh’s Trams on Track
4 Jun 2008
THE TRAM: Which is it... A large transport engineering project or a placemaking regenerator?
There is no doubt that the tram and its integration into modern Edinburgh is going to be of the most challenging urban design and planning projects in the city for 100 years or more. Its difficulties are similar to that of bringing the railway into Edinburgh in the nineteenth century, but with the added complication that it is actually on the street as it weaves its way through the city. During the four years of the Design Champion term the tram has gone from being an idea to a real project. Now granted full consent via the Scottish Parliament, it is due to go ahead.
Here in the West, all transport problems, are by definition, transport led. This is very different to experiences in the Far East, where development masterplanning and transport projects go hand in hand. For transport projects such as the new Chep Lap Kok airport and all the railways connecting to it, Farrells were both architects and masterplanners for the largest of these rail connections at West Kowloon. Though complicated, such projects still exhibit joined-up thinking, but in Britain due to the long established nature of our cities, railways and tram systems are simply added on to what is there, layered on to the complexities of urban form. Invariably, the big issue is transport and how to get transport projects funded and engineered. As a result the public realm (and particularly the pedestrian realm) becomes a side issue to be addressed ‘at a later date’.
The tiles themselves (see elsewhere) are substantially based on the tram route as it is a potent place maker and regenerator. All transport problems have tensions and the sheer enormity of engineering endeavour can swamp all before it. But although it tends to dominate, ultimately, without an integrated approach to pedestrian movement, it does not solve the core problems of how transport relates to the urban realm.
In response, we have focused intensely on developing a more holistic design approach. This concentrates on the urban centre (rather than the outer parts of the tram route), on the nodal points and on the great streets. From the airport eastwards there are four key nodal points - the Haymarket, Rutland Place, Picardy Place and the foot of Leith Walk. Then there are the great streets and squares (Princes Street, St Andrews Square and Leith Walk) which form the majestic urban backdrop for the tram route.
Inevitably, basic early assumptions dictate much of what the project then becomes in urban planning terms. For instance, the business plan assumes a certain traffic load and speed – the Edinburgh tram will travel at 30-50mph, it will be 43m long in two carriages - and this has a considerable impact not only on the tram’s physical presence but consequently on how it will integrate into such a fine city. The choice of tram based on a predetermined loading capacity is a critical decision, the dimensions of the rolling stock will dictate the nature and size of the platform, and the differential level of it and the surrounding pavements. The decision to have a ‘no wheel squeal’ radius for turning means that each time the tram turns a corner, the radius needs to be much larger than for a conventional vehicle. This in turn will affect the geometry of all the intersections.
Another early assumption is that the current level of bus availability will continue, necessitating wider, shared roads where bus and tram stops will co-exist. It is also assumed that there will not be any substantial limitation on car movement - the congestion charge was rejected a few years ago - and so the roads will have to cope with full car, bus and other movements, as well as the tram. All this adds up to a considerable amount of extra traffic necessitating modification of street geometries and road widening, as previously referred to in the Picardy Place and Haymarket sections.
The Design Champion initiative firstly appraised these key nodal points and great street elements and, with the help of some volunteer urbanists and transportation experts, then attempted to explore what the tram project meant for the building lines, pedestrian pavements, movement and overall sense of placemaking. All these events took place during spring to summer 2006, in three tram Charrettes. Firstly a general one which looked at the whole of the system from Coates Crescent to Ocean Terminal, with the others focusing on the Haymarket and the tram structures.
We also assisted in the RIAS Tramspotting Conference, to try and raise awareness and the debate about what the tram could and should be. The current situation is that many of the original decisions could not be altered due to the way the Parliamentary procedures had fixed many parameters and, sadly, to the degree of engineering momentum which is found in many major infrastructure projects. We have been tenacious and managed to effect some changes in the tram alignment with various tram stops having been adjusted, and is now going ahead. The secondary level of study is to look at the pedestrian movement and to encourage positive usage of the spaces created. What we are trying to stop happening is the creation of dysfunctional spaces as a result of tram/ traffic management issues. St Andrews Square is where we managed to ensure that the tram crossed this critical space in the city on one side limiting its negative impact; we advocated that the stops and their associated paraphernalia should be limited and be of an outstanding quality to reflect the nature of this fine square. Due to traffic management issues the stop is at this stage designed to sit in a half island platform; not an ideal situation as it will be an alien element in the fine streetscape, but an improvement on what had been originally proposed. At Haymarket the solution that was evolved from a two roundabout approach was a simple traditional cross situation, a Saltire. What is needed here as we have mentioned is the overall masterplan to evolve to make sure that the Haymarket can function as a positive place. Picardy is the prize here; we are trying to ensure that we turn the existing transport planning nightmare into a place or better, a series of places with the possibility of a fabulous piece of architecture to inform and activate this gateway to the city centre.