Chicago Sun-Times

Wide World of Transit

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The Monday streetcar story brought in a lot of reader mail and comments about streetcar and transit options in other cities. I heard praise for the light rail and streetcar options in Toronto, San Francisco, and Denver. Rick Harnish from the Midwest High Speed Rail Association also talked about light rail in European cities like Nice and Barcelona....

So the question to our Ride readers is: What have you seen out there in the wide world in terms of public transit? What do you like and what do you think would work here?

To get the ball rolling, here are some thoughts on other transit systems:

Toronto: The new light rail cars are uglier than the old streetcars -- they look like long grey mailboxes. But they're very quiet and efficient.

London: Crowded, claustrophobic, but effective. Mind the gap.

Amsterdam: Trains from the downtown station go all over the country and are as easy to catch as the L. As for traveling in the city, bikes work great.

Washington D.C. Very, very quiet.

New York: Most like ours -- noisy and old, but it gets you around.

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Even though the jump-off point is streetcars, this discussion reminded me of the Supertrain that Steve Dunne (Campbell Scott) in Cameron Crowe's 1992 movie "Singles" was trying to pitch. The character was convinced that people would park and ride if they were given a comfy way -- complete with java -- to get to work. But I'm one of those people who love their cars.

The mass transit system in Chicago seems vast and accessible, but I've never learned to use it. If I did, I suspect that I'd probably enjoy getting from place to place without having to deal with traffic jams, parking issues, etc. Then again, I don't mind being in my car, even when the drive sometimes crunches along. Perhaps that's because I'm always equipped with good tunes that distract me from any delay I might be having. Or perhaps -- knock wood -- I'm lucky that I'm never really on the highway at a time when it's wall-to-wall vehicles and no speed-up in sight.

The mention of the streetcars in Toronto reminded me of how I thought the streetcar tracks gave the "European version of Chicago," as I've heard some call it, some Old World character. Streetcars strike me as something fun to ride when you're seeing sights but not necessarily the best form of transportation for a regular commuter.

Also, although I've never been in Europe (although I definitely hope to make it there some day), the continent strikes me as having a great public transit system. But perhaps I'm thinking of EuRail and people using trains (as in "Before Sunrise," one of my favorite movies) to travel from major city to major city.

The Los Angeles rail system is too small, and is only useful if you live in certain areas like downtown.

If you live in LA, it is still better to have a car.

Los Angeles: There is a subway (the Red Line and Purple Line) but it only goes through downtown and Hollywood. The Blue Line and Green Line are pretty good. But the Blue Line is the dirtiest and it also has a lot of homeless getting on and begging for money. The Green Line connects to the Blue Line and LAX. There's also the Gold Line, which is the nicest. The city also is expanding the Gold Line into East LA and they're building the Expo Line, which is supposed extend the system into West LA. Overall, it's a decent system. I just wish the trains ran more frequently and ran later into the night, especially the Green and Blue Lines.

I'm a big fan of trains and try to ride as many as I can to see the sights, get around, and soak up the local flavor. I generally don't like streetcars as they have to go slow when they are among the street traffic. A dedicated tracks makes the whole experience much better. I'd say if gas gets more expensive, which I'm pretty sure it will, and there is no biofuel substitute or hydrogen system, there will be a lot less people who can afford to drive. That means that streetcars, which are normally a bad deal as they have to go slow on the streets and slow down traffic, will have an easier time getting around. They can also run on electric and that is a huge advantage. I think that streetcars will be great in the suburbs. The roads are already really wide. It won't be hard to take some lanes from the middle and run the trains that way.
New Jersey: In '04 I went on the light rail in Hoboken and Jersey City. It was brand new and ran really quiet on what looked like brand new tracks. It was a good way to get around and was the train cars seemed more roomy than the New York Subway and PATH trains.
Dresden: An excellent system of 13 streetcar lines in addition to the national German rail system. For a city of 500,000 it was amazing. The system covered the city into its outskirts. In many areas the streetcars had their own right-of-way next to roads where the ground near and between the tracks was covered in grass which made the whole set up really attractive and helped muffle the 'woosh' noise of the already quiet electric trains.
Berlin: I've never been on their streetcars, but the subway/elevated network is excellent. On the most heavily travelled section through the middle of the city they use double-decker passenger trains making the system like a super "L" with a huge passenger capacity, which has trains running every few minutes.
Munich: It has a system which is efficient and has really wide benches on some of the cars with an aisle and lots of room to sit down next to good friends, I guess. It doesn't seem so good to be stuck behind two people to get off the train.
Freiburg: A pretty extensive streetcar system which connected well to the buses. That can get a person to the trailheads or to the cable cars for hiking up in the hills and mountains. The streetcars seemed to get along well with the car traffic.
London: Has an extensive subway that seems to have rather small cars. I think that it is suffering from running in tunnels and infrastructure that are really old. Everything in London is old and slow, so it fits in perfectly.
Paris: Like Berlin in that it has an extensive subway and as well as an above ground system running big double-decker trains very frequently.
Bordeaux: Extremely cool streetcar network which uses powered patches under the train in much of the central city so it needs no third rail or an overhead wire. It seems really new and well-designed. The streets are really wide, so the streetcars can go down a park-like median in some parts.
Oslo: An excellent system of below and above ground trains. The best is the train to the airport, Flytoget, which is really plush with wood and aluminum trim and great glass door enclosed racks for your baggage.
Toronto: I rode on a streetcar back in '97 to go to a Blue Jays game. A car made a left turn in front of the streetcar going the other way and got T-boned. This is the big problem with the system generally. The streetcars can't go very fast because they have to get along with traffic. Accidents are inevitable and will slow the system down. Trains should be separated as much as possible from the cars so that the trains can go faster.

My experiences have been as follows:

Chicago L - pathetically broken down since 1960's. Much slower now, takes forever to get anywhere thanks to endless track problems. Equipment and most stations are much nicer now, however.

New York Subway - hot and smelly, dark compared to newer systems. Cars are really nice, but average speed is slowest of all US systems. Rush hour crowding, expecially on East Side and Queens lines, is approaching unbearable levels.

Los Angeles - Blue Line is almost direct replacement for Pacific Electric route closed down in early 60's. Biggest problem seems to be with fare machines, which have high failure rates and are hard to use. Metrolink commuter service is really great, again reflecting old Pacific Electric routes closed down in 1950's.

Denver - INCREDIBLE development around outlying stations.

San Diego - must have serious fare avoidance problems - fare insectors come around SEVERAL times a trip!

Las Vegas - North Las Vegas BRT route is a toy. Runs much of way thru open desert. Boulder Highway would have been a much better choice, but apparently political pressure triumphed. The Monorail is not a viable transit operation. It is (and was actually marketed as) a "thrill ride" of the theme park variety. No interchange with city transit system, due to 30 years of political bickering is a nowhere toi nowhere operation that has very little practical purpose except as something for tourists to "do".

Washington - Amazing what money can do. This is probably most "European" heavy rail in the US, everything is clean, quiet, subdued. However, rush hour overcrowding periodically gets bad as ever-increasing ridership exceeds capacity until more new cars are put in service.

Hey Mary,
Streetcars would be great here. If they started adding them in places where they can now, it could be part of every urban renewal project in the future. Not just Chicago, the suburbs too. Traffic is a mess everywhere you turn now. At over 4 bucks a gallon, people who never considered public transit are considering it now. My dad used to muse about catching 3 streetcars to see my mother when they were dating. If it wasn't for streetcars, I might not be here!

Barcelona: Clean, fast, efficient and everywhere you want to be
Mexico City: Cheap, relatively clean, extensive, fast, overcrowded
Atlanta: Two lines, not many options, more or less clean
Baltimore: Abysmally slow and inefficient, light-rail in hard-to-reach industrial corridor, dirty, only 2 lines that don't connect
Washington, DC: Clean, fast, crowded, better for commuters than for city residents since there is little crosstown service
Charlotte: One new light-rail line, clean, fast, efficient and very popular, entire 5-line system to take years to complete
Leon, Mexico: COnfusing city buses, one good but crowded BRT line

I personally enjoy the public transit in San Francisco.

Between the BART (rail) and the bus system you can be anywhere in the city in no more than an hour at the most.

Plus, they use a bunch of hubs where the various train lines and bus lines converge to make it easy to "get there from here."

I live in Bangkok, and the subway and Skytrain systems here are great, particularly given this city's notorious traffic jams. There are plans for considerable expansion of both, most immediately a surface link to the international airport outside Bangkok, a light rail system that will connect to both the Skytrain and subway.

Hongkong has an excellent subway system, at the airport light rail is world class.

In China, a new light rail system will soon be open between Beijing and Tianjin, the latter being where I lived 1985-86. Back then, the train ride between the two ran anywhere between about 2-12 to 3+ hours; on the new system, the 130-140 kilometers will take only about 30 minutes. Shanghai has an excellent one, too, and eventually one will run all the way from there to Beijing.

And there are the well-known instances of Singapore and all of Japan, as well as South Korea and Taiwan.

I just wish there was more such transportation in the US, my home country.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Wisniewski published on June 25, 2008 10:56 AM.

Can you love traffic? High gas prices? was the previous entry in this blog.

Mass Transit Manners is the next entry in this blog.

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