Saturday, January 21, 2012


This fascinating article in Slate disucsses two factors of public transit: "system", defined as the physical and operational infrastructure; and "empathy", meaning cultural "texture", although I tend to think of it as anything about public transit that doesn't refer to the infrastructure. It's safe to say that Dutch public transit is a high system and high empathy system (yes, I know I used "system" twice in one sentence): you have a thorough public transit system servicing a great range of neighborhoods, relatively frequent services, and the trains/buses/trams/subways are, for the most part, not terribly uncomfortable, and clean. Dutch readers of OLI who wish to take me to task for the last should go visit Philadelphia's public transit system. Our litter boxes after three days are pristine compared to some of the...ah, stuff, that you can see on the subways.

Why is public transit so wonderful in Europe and yet so...well, shoddy in the States? Even the best public transit systems that I've seen (the Metro systems in DC and New York) are bare-bones compared to the worst of the Dutch NS (the older cars they run between Utrecht and Weesp). The easy answer is that public transit is an afterthought in the minds of most people--they have cars. But most people in the Netherlands have cars, as well--in this respect, Karel and I are in the minority 10% of family units who do not own at least one car. The parking lot of the nearby Albert Heijn is consistently filled to the brim on Saturdays, falsifying the statement "All Dutch people ride bikes".

But the buses are simultaneously crowded on Saturdays, and the trains are packed with travelers at all hours of the day. This is, in part, because the files (traffic jams) can be long enough to make a short delay by the NS worthwhile, and parking can be a pain. Briefly, while the door-do-door time of a trip by train versus a trip by car is theoretically the same according to Google, it must be countered by the possibility of a long traffic jam and the cost of parking. Which is also not cheap, and can be quite a walk from where you need to get to.

European cities, in other words, have gamed the system to work against drivers. Timing traffic lights so that cars have to stop at every other block, eliminating streets available for parking, and marginalizing parking structures all serve one thing: to keep cars out of key areas of pedestrian traffic. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Dutch don't have cars, if you looked at Nijmegen's city center on a Saturday. Or Utrecht. Or Amsterdam's tourist hot spots. I don't know if the Dutch have gone out of their way to time traffic lights, but I am fairly certain that the buses that service Nijmegen communicate with some of the traffic lights, so that they don't have to be like all of the other chumps cars and wait their turn.

But more importantly, the public transportation system in Europe tends to make more sense than it does in the US. Trains go to where people are--where there are fewer people, there is less service. This bit of intuition seems to have escaped the powers-that-be at SEPTA, who have plunked train stations at places as odd as Rosslyn, which is literally in the middle of nowhere. The scheduling systems are quick to load and easy to follow--why anybody should even bother loading a timetable to their website these days baffles me (SEPTA)--and all of the information, fares, times, stops, are available at one glance. The Dutch are not exceptional at public transit, although after having suffered SEPTA for three years, it certainly feels that way. They've just done a better job of adapting to how people actually use transit, rather than expecting people to adapt to them.

People in the US, on the other hand, don't use transit. It startled me to learn, for instance, that for the majority of Disneyworld visitors, their encounter with Disney's trams and buses were their first with "public" transit. A public that doesn't use public transportation can't provide information for how to make service better; a service that can't make service better can't attract the public to use it. The public, not having seen any benefits for having a good public transit system in place, therefore refuses to pay taxes to ensure its survival. And things only get worse.

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