Amsterdam: Drunken Revelers Dancing with Trams

Yes, I’m in Amsterdam, and the Netherlands scored a big win in the World Cup quarter-finals yesterday.  I was at Rembrandtplein, but I’m sure it looked like this all over the city.


In that second photo, the gentleman on the far right appears to be taking the posture of a matador, and given where he’s standing, the only dangerous beast that he could be tempting would be an oncoming tram.

Yes, there’s a transit angle on the festivities.  As soon as they broke out, I headed over to Leidsestraat, a narrow pedestrian+tram street lined with tourist-oriented shopping.  I have to say things were pretty much as usual, plus some noise and funny hats.



If you think you can imagine how slow this would be for the tram, it’s a little slower than that.  Leidsestraat has heavy tram volumes — every 3 minutes at peak times — and yet it’s built with a series of single-track segments.  There’s double-track at the designated passenger stops, but between these there are short bits of single track.  Trams have to wait at the passenger stop until the single-track segment ahead of them is clear, before they can proceed.  So some of what looks like trams stuck behind peds is really trams waiting for the clearance to enter the single track segment.


But in either case, this segment is seriously slow, I’m guessing an average of no more than 6 km/h (4 mph).  (UPDATE: Commenter Pete(UK) keeps me honest: it’s scheduled at about 9 km/h, still pretty slow.)  This matters, because these are tram lines that extend well out into the south and west of the city.  Since these trams enter/leave the urban core via this Leidsestraat segment, this is probably their peak load point — the point on the line where they are at their fullest.  A lot of people making fairly long trips have to ride through this segment, where the tram runs so slowly that it looks like it’s trying to entertain the tourists (and World Cup revellers) rather than get anywhere.

But it’s not all that unreliable.  Trams ring their bells a lot, pedestrians get out of the way, and nobody gets hurt.  The big trams also move with a certain confidence.  They’re not inching their way forward, as though asking for permission at every moment.  They glide slowly but firmly from one stop to another.  I’m sure accidents do happen, and they’re probably pretty grim when they do, but the tram drivers manage not to seem intimidated by the high risk of hitting someone.  Even at their slow speed, the pedestrians are packed so closely around the tram that there would be no chance for reaction time if someone fell in front of one.

The only time it really falls apart is when a vehicle is present, in this case a police car.


There are also problems when a car is crossing the mall on an intersecting street, needs to yield to peds on the far side, and thus gets stuck crossing the tram tracks.  The many cyclists, most using common sense but not observing traffic laws, add a further frisson.

Leidsestraat is the sort of place urbanists have in mind when they go on about how easily trams mix with pedestrians once you get the cars and buses out of the way.  And I have to say that it works on that score.  But it’s really slow.


19 Responses to Amsterdam: Drunken Revelers Dancing with Trams

  1. smh July 3, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Amsterdam is such a great city. I wish Kansas City looked more like this. Maybe someday (after a lot more infill development)!

  2. Stephen Smith July 3, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    If this is only a problem when the Netherlands does well in the World Cup I don’t really see it as an issue. If it’s a problem more often, then perhaps retractable fences around the track, placed in areas of highest ped. traffic, would do the trick. You could put them up at rush hour on weekdays, and the rest of the time have some sort of color/light scheme to remind pedestrians that they are on the track and to watch out, but which doesn’t actually prevent them from crossing when they deem appropriate.

  3. J July 3, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    Yes it’s slow, but life isn’t always about speed. I’m sure the people in the tram enjoyed seeing the crowds outside.
    However, if speed is decided to be more important….thats where the magic bus comes in. Being able to detour to a less crowded street would make peoples trips faster. Obviously, a Subway would be even better (and I believe Amsterdam has a small subway?)

  4. Christopher July 3, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    I think the point that this wasn’t an everyday occurance is a good one. Presumably the street was a lot busier, and the people a lot less focused on getting to their destination than usual. If you want to see how it really works, look at it on any day other than that day. Also – single track segment! Surely urbanists would generally advocate for a better tram system than that? How much of the poor speed was down to pedestrians and how much simply poor design?
    In my city (Manchester) the tram runs through the city’s central square between the main shopping district, a (ridiculously) busy bus station, a popular public garden and one of the main bar districts; and with the English dedication to buying crap and then going drinking Saturdays in Picadilly Gardens are approaching being as busy as Leiderstraase looks in those photos. The system has many issues but speed through the central section isn’t one of them. The crowds just get out of the way.

  5. mezzanine July 3, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    Keep in mind that this is the old city of amsterdam that these are photos of – aside from tourism, residential and city hall (and IIRC, the municipal hall/opera house and a university area are served by underground metro), what are the purposes of people travelling there? would they need the fastest and largest-capacity system in those areas?
    I was there on New Year’s and surprisingly the trams shut down at 8pm. still love AMS though….

  6. Jarrett at July 4, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    In response to several comments I think I should clarify that what struck me about Leidsestraat on World Cup day was how like any other busy summer day it was. Leidsestraat is always full of pedestrians, many but not all tourists, some but not all drunk. The issues that I observed during the World Cup revels were just not all that different from the issues that the street presents on any summer day.
    So the issues, such as they are, are there all the time.
    And let me caution readers against assuming that because it’s a tourist street, the passengers on the trams are tourists — a very common mistake. No, those trams are the main radial lines from the urban core (including Central rail station) to a large area of the city’s south and west. So many of the riders are locals who are just trying to get where they’re going. Leidsestraat is a destination, but it’s also an obstacle.
    I’m puzzled by the single-tracking too. It appears to serve no purpose except to expand the pedestrian realm by a meter or two. The distance between the building faces is pretty constant along the street, and is matched by the widths of the three canal bridges. You might expect single-tracking on a bridge, but actually those are the double-track segments with stops, while the single track segments are in between.
    All easily explored on Google Earth.

  7. Joel Haasnoot July 4, 2010 at 11:55 pm #

    The actual average speed of the trams in Amsterdam is about 16 km/h, but at times like you experienced they are indeed a little slower.
    Amsterdam does have a bit of subway: there are 3 “metro” lines, which is partly underground, namely between Central Station and Wibautstraat. Currently there’s a massive project going on called the “Noord-Zuid lijn” / North-South line. It will run from northern Amsterdam (across the water) straight through the city to “Amsterdam Zuid”, in the south of the city. Part of it is a drilled tunnel, the stations are dug but have caused several collapses of nearby houses. The project is now scheduled for completion in 2018 I believe, originally was 2010 🙂
    I’m a moderator on a discussion board about public transport and transit, and we also have a wiki. It’s Dutch, but Google translates it into understandable English.

  8. Joel Haasnoot July 5, 2010 at 12:00 am #

    Oh, and tram line 5 continues out of the city on a dedicated track into Amstelveen, a suburb/city south of Amsterdam where it is then known as a “fast tram” and has a bit higher average speed, but has stops about every 700m…

  9. EngineerScotty July 5, 2010 at 12:19 am #

    Are the trams in Amsterdam still dilapidated rustbuckets? The ones in the pictures look a lot nicer than what I remember from my visit there in 1997.

  10. Jarrett at July 5, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    All trams now on the street in Ams look  and feel newer than 1997.  Cheers, Jarrett

  11. Eric July 5, 2010 at 7:44 am #

    I haven’t seen Amsterdam, but this reminds me of Beyoglu district pedestrian streets in Istanbul. There trams do look like they are entertaining the pedestrians. If I remember correctly they were also all single track lines, running more appropriate super-narrow streetcars. If they were any wider or took up more of the street section, they would slow the pedestrians down, rather than the other way around. I have to think that Istanbul must have arrived a long time ago at this design strategy by trial and error. It is also important to note that Istanbul’s streetcars serve as “interior” complements to the faster Metro lines traveling by.

  12. Pete (UK) July 5, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    Jarrett, I think you are being a little harsh about Leidesstraat. My experience via the excellent films by PMP Transport Videos, and using the trams in that street is that they aren’t that slow, considering it is a pedestrianised street. The tram lines using Leidesstraat are the 1, 2, and 5. The GVB timetables ( these lines show a running time of 4 minutes between Koningsplein and Leidseplein with two intermediate stops, so 1 minute per single track section. Trams heading towards Centraal Station have priority. The single track is there because the street is not wide enough for double tracks and allow sufficient room for pavements (sidewalks). It also allows for vans making deliveries to the shops to avoid obstructing the trams.
    I was very impressed with the Amsterdam trams on my visit, especially their ability to travel unimpeded between stops and the relatively high speeds. The following clip shows tram operation on Leidesstraat in both directions. Jarrett’s point about conflicting traffic on cross streets is dramatically illustrated at 4.59!
    (love the sound effects of these trams (built by BN in the 1980s).
    Regarding travel time from the outer ends of these lines. The GVB timetables show a running time to Centraal Station of 38 mins (line 1), 38 mins (line 2), and 42 mins (line 5), so the 4 mins on Leidesstraat is of little significance really.
    The following clip shows the outer end of Line 5 with much faster speeds.
    This section is interesting as the line 5 trams share the tracks of the Light Rail line 51. The stations have low platforms for the trams and high platforms for the light rail cars. Due to some stations having island platforms between the tracks, and because the line 5 terminal at Amstelveen is a stub-end, the line 5 cars are double ended with doors on both sides. All other Amsterdam tram routes have turning loops at termini and therefore use single ended cars with doors on the nearside only.
    My final clip shows a Siemens Combino tram (the latest cars making up the bulk of the fleet) making swift progress. This clip is interesting also as it shows an innovative way to protect tram stops from intrsion by motor vehicles in a street without segregated running.

  13. Pete (UK) July 5, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    Sorry, here’s the GVB website link again!

  14. EngineerScotty July 6, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    More drunken Dutch revelry (and associated transit disruptions) should start in about 5 minutes…

  15. James A July 7, 2010 at 12:46 am #

    For the record, the “single track” on this stretch is technically gauntlet track, meaning the tracks almost merge but the rails for each direction remain independent and immediately next to each other. The effect is having the vehicle body take up nearly the same space (actually shifted over one railhead-width) but without the need for switches. Rather, a frog allowing the inner rails of each direction to cross is the only piece of extra hardware required.
    The previous posters are correct in that the street is technically wide enough for double tracking. My presumption is that this solution was chosen so that the maximum surface area of the “danger zone” for pedestrians could be minimized. One major advantage to this solution is the avoidance of one critical and particularly unpleasant situation: that of a pedestrian waiting for a tram to pass and immediately darting across the street after it — right into the path of the tram in the opposing direction.
    I adore the trams in Amsterdam. There’s something about their white and blue paint scheme gliding through the streets that is reminiscent of the boats in the neighboring canals. And it is one of the few systems in this part of the world that still has a conductor’s booth for ticket sales in all vehicles — even the new Combinos. (Anyone know of others?)

  16. Jarrett at July 7, 2010 at 1:14 am #

    James.  The conductors for ticket sales are controversial, especially as they sit in a booth rather than roam the tram.  Roaming the tram is actually better for fare enforcement and also looks less authoritarian.  But of course most trams in Europe use ticket machines and random fare enforcement, not conductors.  The Amsterdam tram staffing appears to be unique in Europe and considered silly by many experts I talk to, because labor costs drive the cost of running the service, especially in high-wage, high-benefit Western Europe. 
    You're right about the ped danger zone.  I should add that the single-track segments are where you have solid walls of storefronts on the street, so there's pedestrian friction caused by people stopping to look at them.  The passing tracks and stations occur on the bridges over each canal, where there is presumably less of that friction.

  17. Rich Lenthall July 15, 2010 at 4:35 am #

    Leidsestraat is indeed an oddity when it comes to the trams but it’s not unique. Just off Rembrandtplein and on Utrechtsestraat there are also single tracking sections that prevent 2 trams passing and restrict frequency on those sections (although the council seem to be working on Utrechtsestraat not sure if this will remove the single sections).
    Stephen mentions how often it gets busy. I can tell you it gets very busy in Leidsestraat every Saturday and Sunday, each night from Thursday to Sunday and any other night that gives people a reason to congregate in Leidseplein which is a popular “leisure” destination. Whilst not being generally so packed as Jarrett’s pictures show, the gap between the buildings and the tram tracks do not need it to be so busy to ensure people remain alert!
    A popular topic here is stop-spacing and service intervals. Both are heavily compromised in Leidsestraat. There are 3 services using the route and there is a tram stop every 100m Koningsplein, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht and finally Leidseplein. It’s debatable if this serves as a realistic service provision or merely just to allow trams to pass. Either way it doesn’t take much for tram-congestion to start. Personally I usually get off at Koningsplein and walk to Leidseplein (400m), the tram i leave never beats me by more than 30s (if it does at all!). The scenario loses the GVB revenue but not much I imagine.
    Pete mentions 4 minutes transit through Leidsestraat, and the effect it would have on services over the entire journey. I don’t think 4 minutes to cover 400m would be ideal for any service planner and I can assure readers that 4 minutes is a minimum during peak hours or when a bunch of tourists board at Leidseplein and try to work out the OV-Chipkaart.
    When we add the new safety speed restriction of 10km/h at the Spui (next stop towards Centraal Station) this makes it about 6 minutes for 600m. Compare this to the newer tram 26 to IJburg, which is 17 minutes for 7.5 km (roughly 25km/h average).
    I wouldn’t miss it for the world and I am in favour of tram development. However it’s Amsterdam’s charms and unusual geography which allow this situation to exist. I don’t think such a bottleneck would survive in the plans of other cities.
    PS – Jarrett, glad you had a great time in Amsterdam, sorry to have missed you when you were over.

  18. Daniel Sparing August 2, 2010 at 1:19 am #

    Leidsestraat is beautiful.
    I have followed your previous arguments that in many cases buses can be more efficient than light rail but this street is a very good example for something where a tram is needed 🙂 It would be much less pleasant to have buses with less defined right-of-way, vehicle emissions and lower capacity on this shopping street.
    Cycling is not allowed on Leidsestraat but I agree that “cyclists […] using common sense but not observing traffic laws” and I think that is perfect.
    One last trivia about Leidsestraat (as someone already mentioned the interlaced track): These stops are the bottlenecks for tram length in Amsterdam, and this is why the Combinos have second and fourth sections of different length (and door number).

  19. Fireplaces August 24, 2010 at 3:43 am #

    In Amsterdam the water is the mistress and the land the vassal. Throughout the city there are as many canals and drawbridges as bracelets on a Gypsy’s tanned arms.