When Exeter got rid of its trams

In September 1929, the newspaper for Exeter reported that there was "Pandemonium in the High Street" of the city.  The problem was that there was too much traffic trying to get through the narrow medieval streets.  According to the chief constable, who took a census of traffic every five years, the daily flows of different types of vehicles were:
  • 1920: 1386 horse-drawn vehicles, 1314 motor vehicles and 2340 bicycles
  • 1925: 1296 horse-drawn vehicles, 3403 motor vehicles and 3252 bicycles
The High Street was also used by the city's public transport, electric trams, which ran up to eight times per hour in each direction on each of three routes.  Deliveries to the shops in the High Street were made through the shops' front doors, adding to the congestion.  By 1929, the number of motor vehicles had risen further.  Holiday through traffic had to go through the city, because there was no by-pass.  The city council faced a decision, and identified four types of action:
  1. Take some of the traffic away from the High Street by building new roads.
  2. Launch some drastic traffic control measures - traffic lights were not in widespread use.
  3. Make some streets one-way
  4. Get cooperation from the High Street shop owners about deliveries.
However, many people saw that the trams were the problem.  The city council was proud of its tram system, which was profitable (partly because there had not been much investment in maintenance!).  In April 1929, it was reported that the working expenses were 16.35(old) pence per passenger mile, and earnings were 19.08 pence.  The trams ran at a profit, but for how long?  Eventually, the council agreed to add a fifth action to the list of possibles,
  • Replace trams by buses or trolley buses
Other cities were doing that - it was seen to be the fashionable thing to do; would the city be left behind?   So the council commissioned a study, which would be called a cost-benefit study these days.  It was a kind of Operational Research, asking the question "What happens if ...?"
One scenario was to modernise the system, and it was costed.
The alternative was to replace the trams by buses
The report was discussed, and the council procrastinated, voting to put off a decision for five years.  However, the chief constable (who seems to have liked statistics) presented an analysis of traffic delays in the High Street.  At one stop, in one hour (12 noon to 1pm) 27 trams stopped, and traffic was held up for over 29 minutes.  The figures frightened the council, but there was still procrastination.  However, there were council elections in late 1929, and after these, there was more decisive action.  By August 1930, the decision to scrap the trams had been taken.  By then, the survey of traffic in the High Street showed that:
  • 1930: 522 horse-drawn vehicles, 5901 motor vehicles and 3000 bicycles (the last is suspiciously like an estimate)
Not long afterwards, a by-pass was built, which took the Plymouth and Torquay through traffic away from the city centre, but it was many years before the Okehampton through traffic was able to avoid the city centre.
Today, there is one surviving tram from Exeter, running on the holiday attraction of Seaton Tramways.   For thirty years, Exeter had been well served by electric trams, which had opened up the city for expansion, and stimulated the economy of the city.
And the lessons for O.R today?
  • Should the council have collected more traffic statistics?  (More than every 5 years)
  • Should they have been more decisive, and not procrastinated?
  • What were the limits of the system being studied?  The High Street, the city's street network, the region, the local economy?

Thanks to Julia Neville's book (2010) "Exeter and the Trams 1992-1931" [ISBN 978-0-9544343-1-1] for the facts.  The interpretation is mine


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