20: Back to the future – Bradford trams

This is the twentieth blog in this weekly series and after this there will be a summer break – a restart in October all being well!

Trams have a long history in British cities and are now being re-invented for a contemporary context. Electric trams started in Bradford in 1892 and ran until 1951. I was brought up in Bradford in the 1940s and so the trams were an early experience for me. There weren’t many cars at that time either. My paternal grandfather was a tram conductor – another reinvention as conductors are now re-introduced on some London buses – and this has led to me being sent a link of some Mitchell and Kenyon film of, and from, a Bradford tram in 1902. The link is:


Like many Mitchell and Kenyon films, they represent fantastic social history and as I try to think hard about future scenarios for UK cities – of which a no-car scenario might be one – the street scenes in the film as the tram leaves Forster Square and climbs out of central Bradford, running for two or three miles, this certainly generates ‘back to the future’ thoughts. Lots of people are walking and cycling. Apart from the tram, the ‘vehicles’ on the street are all horse drawn. (Even in the 1940s, I remember mild and coal being delivered by horse and cart – the milk being ladled from large churns into a jug.) There were lots of kids on the street, many following the tram and, no doubt, the film crew – so ‘playing out’ was very much part of life. Perhaps most striking of all, as we worry about social disparities in cities, was social mix on the street: plenty of workers with cloth caps, but lots of bowler hats too, and a sprinkling of top hats – recalling Eliot’s ‘…the silk top hat on a Bradford millionaire’. All apparently at ease.

‘Back to the future’? A colleague recently reminded me that if we had a no-car scenario, then the road would be otherwise available and electrically-driven public transport ranging from trams to driverless cars become possible – replacing the horse and cart. Can we also re-evolve to kids playing out and a better social mix? In this case, old film can be a route to stimulating ideas about scenario development but it’s worth recalling how this process fits ‘the science of cities’. Recall the Britton Harris maxim that there are three kinds of thinking in planning: policy design and analysis (see Systems thinking). The ‘policy’ is about what you are trying to achieve – not that difficult give or take budget constraints. The ‘analysis’ is the science and its application. The ‘design is the invention of plans to be explored and tested and this can rarely be seen as pure science. So as we approach the challenge of thinking about urban development in the long term, we need to remember that we need to apply our imagination and develop capabilities of invention.

Alan Wilson

July 2015

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