Best Break Ever Part 2: Don’t get run over by a car…or a bike…or a tram…

My story of Melbourne starts with the trams, because the trams are EVERYWHERE. Melbourne apparently has the oldest tram system in the world, and it’s still a very vibrant part of the city.

Most of the trams are modern, like this one.

But a few routes, particularly the free "city circle" route that caters to tourists, still use the old-fashioned cars.

On one hand, the trams are a good way to get around. They combine the convenience of buses (you can catch them right on the street) and the efficiency of trains (they run on tracks and follow fairly predictable routes).  No matter where you want to go in Melbourne, you can probably catch a tram and get there easily.

On the other hand, though, they’re kind of annoying. Because the trams run down the middle of the road, a basic two-lane street is automatically converted into at least a four-lane. Four lanes become six, etc. As a result, it takes seemingly forever just to walk across the road.

Conveniently for pedestrians, trams follow the same laws as regular vehicles. Well, except when they don’t. So even when the “walk” sign is lit, you still have to watch out to make sure a tram isn’t barrelling down the middle of the road towards you.

A typical Melbourne street: parallel parking along the curb, eight lanes of traffic, two tram tracks, some bike lanes, and a few grassy medians thrown in for good measure.

Riding the tram itself is an interesting experience. Most of the stops are in the middle of the street, and usually (I have no idea why) in the middle of the block. Thus, you have to cross a lane or two of traffic to get to the stop. No big deal, because most of the city stops have nice raised platforms with sidewalks and shelters and benches, like a bus stop. But some stops aren’t so accomodating–they basically just dump you in the middle of the road, with only a fence seperating you from vehicular traffic and nothing but your common sense keeping you out of the path of another oncoming tram.

The ticketing system for the trams is also interesting. Each tram has a ticket machine, and the cars are theoretically patrolled by transit officers, but there is absolutely nothing preventing a passenger from travelling without a ticket. Passengers don’t board in plain sight of the driver like on a bus. There’s no physical barrier that requires a ticket to cross like on a train. So unless and until you get caught by a transit officer, it seems like it would be pretty easy to take a free ride. I didn’t see a single transit officer the entire time I was there, but of course I bought a ticket every day anyway. (It’s called Catholic guilt. And when a pass for 24 hours of unlimited travel is only $7, why not just fork over the money?)

The trams, however, aren’t the only environmentally friendly transit option in Melbourne. Biking seems to be quite popular there, providing one more moving vehicle for hapless pedestrians to watch out for. The city even has bike rental kiosks that allow passengers to borrow bikes for short trips. They’re stationed every few blocks, charge an hourly fee, and I even saw a few people actually using them.

Are you listening, Columbia, Mo.?

Once I got used to all the trams and bikes, I noticed something else about Melbourne streets: they don’t have a lot of cars. There is traffic, obviously. But the streets aren’t nearly as crowded with standard vehicles as a normal city’s are. I guess with so many other options, having a car just isn’t practical.

Just for fun, here's a photo of the mess of train tracks coming out of Southern Cross Station. Trains run to the outer suburbs of Melbourne, but people rely on trams to get around the city itself.

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