This week in Brussels, they’ve been having a party for trams. Edinburgh residents – particularly those in Leith – might find that hard to believe.
But it’s 150 years since the first horse-drawn trams rattled down the cobbled streets of Belgium’s capital (they’re nearly as old as the country itself) and les Bruxellois turned out in their hundreds to watch a parade of streetcars, from the modern to the museum pieces.
Belgium’s national chansonnier, Jacques Brel, wrote that “at night, the sparks from the trams can be seen from far away, like the field hands see lightning in the distance while bringing in the hay”. The relationship is altogether close and more romantic than in Auld Reekie.
Brussels is one of those few western cities where none of the 19th century tram network was ripped up, and it’s instructive that its residents feel like their trams are something to celebrate. It is only twice the size of Edinburgh by population, but Brussels now has the multi-layered public transport network of a much bigger metropolis, and a century and a half of civic heritage to look back on.
Edinburgh, by contrast, fell victim to the municipal megalomania of the 50s and 60s that determined life would be much better if every adult owned a car. Rails were pulled up and entire tenements were knocked down, condemned as slums. The poor of the city centre were decanted to new suburbs, where some got better housing but all were exiled to the edge of a new urban sprawl.
Thankfully, Edinburgh escaped the worst of the Abercrombie plan, but Glasgow had a motorway ploughed through it. The same played out locally and nationally across the west, with the UK’s railways the most notable casualty. We’re paying for it now in damaged health, wellbeing and environment – and in the cost of putting back a fraction of what was taken away.
There’s an unsettling echo in the people who tell us confidently today how we’ll be living our lives in 50 years’ time: driverless cars, Hyperloops and social lives limited to the internet. How much of that do we need? And how much will we wish we hadn’t lost?