Traffic light programming is why your CBD tram trip is start, stop, start

It’s not uncommon to see trams stopped at traffic lights along Bourke Street, sometimes in queues, at locations where there is no stop.

If you’ve wondered why your tram journey is start-stop, it won’t surprise you to learn that the lights are all over the place.

Tram westbound on Bourke Street, waiting at Queen Street

With the handy-dandy stopwatch function on my mobile phone, I timed the lights along the central and western section of Bourke Street.

Bourke 30 / Swanston 30 = 60 second cycle

Bourke 35 / Elizabeth 35 = 70

Bourke 47 / Pedestrian crossing near Hardware Lane 23 = 70

Bourke 40 / Queen 50 = 90

Bourke 30 / William 60 = 90

Bourke 30 / King 70 = 100

No wonder trams have to stop continually at lights!

Trams on Bourke Street

Along Bourke Street, and other CBD tram streets, there are numerous improvements that could be made…

Shorter cycles — There are obviously competing demands on the various streets. Because of large numbers of pedestrians, you can’t necessarily have pre-emptive traffic lights that detect trams coming and switch instantly to give them the green. But you could certainly reduce the cycle times. Judging from existing timings, even with our wide streets, it could be as little as 30 seconds each way, or a cycle every 60 seconds. This would greatly cut down waiting times for trams and walkers and everybody else for that matter — but you’d need to check the 15ish seconds Green Man time is enough to get waiting pedestrians off the kerb.

The King Street intersection is particularly bad, giving most of its time to cars — despite Vicroads data showing traffic on all segments of King Street between Flinders and Latrobe Street dropping between 2001 and 2011, and despite that policy should not be to prioritise cars in and through the CBD.

But William Street is almost as bad, despite having much fewer trams than Bourke Street (typically 5 per hour on route 55 vs about 15 per hour on routes 86 and 96 combined).

To help tram drivers know when to depart, for the spots where traffic lights are distant from the tram stops, they should get these lights working — they’re meant to indicate when the best time is to take off. It doesn’t necessarily result in a quicker trip for the tram, but it may allow the driver to wait for passengers who might otherwise miss the tram, while knowing the tram isn’t about to miss a green light.

That’s the theory, but they never seem to actually operate.

Tram stop, Bourke Street at Spencer Street

Co-ordinated cycles — For where there are multiple intersections which are between tram stops, whether or not they are short cycles or long, they should at least be co-ordinated. In this section the important ones are the intersections at Elizabeth and Queen Streets, as well as the pedestrian light in the middle. A tram leaving the Elizabeth Street stop westbound, and not delayed by anything else, should never get a red light before the next stop — and vice versa.

Obviously you’d need to work out the best cycles for the intersecting streets as well — for trams on Elizabeth Street and buses on Queen Street. But how hard could it be?

With the recent movement of tram stops, there are now similar blocks of traffic lights between stops along Swanston Street and Elizabeth Street.

Traffic light programming isn’t the only cause of tram delays of course.

But if moving people quickly and efficiently around the CBD is a priority — and it should be — these issues need to be addressed.

  • A PTUA study found up to 30% of tram travel time is spent wasted waiting at red lights

You shall not pass

I know it’s been around for a while, but I was quite struck the other day by these traffic lights on the corner of La Trobe and Swanston Streets, facing southbound traffic coming down Swanston.

The left and right arrows are for motor vehicles (which can go left or right, but not straight ahead). The middle two are for cyclists (which have their own “Copenhagen”-style lanes) and trams. They go when all vehicles are stopped (which is also when pedestrians cross La Trobe Street north-to-south).

Traffic lights, corner Latrobe and Swanston Streets, Melbourne

I wonder if these are a little bewildering to novice drivers, having all the lights in a bunch like this? Finding and obeying the individual light(s) that apply to you would be a good challenge for learner drivers (and you’d hope the rest of us can get it).

Any good examples of other complex sets of lights, including in other cities?

How long did it take to get into central Melbourne from your suburb… circa 1925

This is very cool. Similar to tools Jarrett Walker often talks about that show how far you can get in X minutes on public transport, here’s a map prepared around 1925 or so (I’m guessing) by the Melbourne Town Planning Commission showing how long it takes to get into central Melbourne from various suburbs by tram and train (and walking).

How long to the city? Metropolitan Town Planning Commission map circa 1925: Legend

Here’s the area around St Kilda and Caulfield:

How long to the city? Metropolitan Town Planning Commission map circa 1925: Caulfield area

As you can see, the areas around railway stations have the quickest access into the city. Trams don’t reach as far in the same number of minutes.

As you get farther away from tram lines/railway stations, the city becomes less accessible.

Here’s the thing: in many ways the timings on this map haven’t changed much, because in terms of fixed-rail infrastructure, there’s not that much extra in 2014.

On the trains, the Glen Waverley line (a late addition, sketched onto this map) and the City Loop are the obvious new lines, the latter providing better access to more parts of the CBD, but not making much difference in terms of travel time, which remain roughly the same as they were. Bentleigh to the City still takes about half-an-hour.

That travel time hasn’t deteriorated is important: as the city’s road traffic has increased markedly over those 90ish years, the train system has isolated those who use it (and the city at large) from growing traffic congestion.

Meanwhile some areas such as Kew have lost their trains, though areas further out such as Pakenham and Cranbourne, which once had only infrequent country trains, are now part of the metropolitan network.

Trams aren’t shown very clearly on this map, but extensions since the 1920s include the 75 out to Vermont South. But some areas such as Footscray have lost some of their trams, as has Elwood/Brighton, and Black Rock/Beaumaris. Travel times for the trams that remain also seem similar to today, though in peak hours they’re likely to be longer on routes sharing space with cars.

If you have a look at the whole map, many of the obvious gaps in the network are still there… only these days they’re filled with houses, not empty as they were when this map was prepared. As I’ve noted before, if a suburb got its public transport back in the 1930s when PT was still being expanded, it probably still has it now.

Some areas have Smartbuses, which help fill those gaps and get to the station with frequent (at least on weekdays) fast (well, faster than walking) services. But many suburbs miss out on frequent PT.

How long to the city? Metropolitan Town Planning Commission map circa 1925.

Not that accessibility to the CBD is necessarily what everyone needs nowadays — work places, education and other opportunities are now more widely dispersed throughout the metropolitan area.

But allowing people to get to those places, particularly without a car (eg being able to move independent of traffic congestion, and whether or not they are able to drive) is an ongoing challenge.

See the map nice and big, on Flickr (opens in a new window)

Source: State Library of Victoria — map 4. Other maps there include variations on this theme. I haven’t looked at everything yet — no doubt there are some other gems. Map 2 is similar to map 4, but is in black and white, but shows tram lines more clearly.

Photos from March 2004

Continuing my series of ten year old photos

The serene setting of Caulfield South Primary School, where my kids went. Like many schools of that era, the original main building is lovely, and conceals the portable classrooms out the back.
Caulfield South Primary School (March 2004)

The old Elizabeth Street tram stop on Collins Street, westbound. It’s not hard to see why they’ve rebuilt these stops into platform stops, for safety and to speed up loading, as well as providing accessible stops — though some of the old safety zones still exist, particularly on William Street and Latrobe Street.
Collins Street at Elizabeth Street, tram stop (March 2004)

Still one of my best photos of Punt Road traffic, taken from Richmond Station above. Also a reminder that they often call for road expansion to help freight move more efficiently, but the bulk of traffic on the road is single-person cars.
Punt Road traffic (March 2004)

Trams queued at the Swanston Street superstop outside Flinders Street Station. Despite it being almost five years since privatisation, there were still quite a few trams in The Met green livery, though at the front of the queue is one in the M>Tram colours… M>Tram by this point had actually pulled out, and in April would be taken over by Yarra Trams.
Trams queued in Swanston Street at Flinders Street (March 2004)

A monolith of art deco in the foreground, while in the background is Michael Schumacher on the big Bourke/Swanston billboard, advertising the Grand Prix or mobile phones or something. Further back a building is under construction — it might be the BHP Billiton headquarters on Lonsdale Street? I think this photo was taken out the back of a Collins Street building where I worked at the time.
Melbourne city skyline (March 2004)

My old “bathtub on wheels” Magna in the driveway in Carnegie, the day the out-of-control bush at the front of my house decided to pull down the telephone cable. At least, I think it was the telephone… hopefully not the power.
Cable pulled down by bush (March 2004)

Melbourne city skyline, this time seen from the river. A few buildings going up in the background.
Melbourne city skyline from the river (March 2004)

I posted about this at the time, but down at Southbank for a while was this chalk art of Doctor Who, including portraits of the first eight Doctors. The new series had just been announced, and I think a few weeks later they added Christropher Eccleston to the work.
Doctor Who pavement art, Southbank (March 2004)