The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Public transport systems I have known

Over on Brain Stab Morthos wrote (ages ago) about some of the public transport systems he has used, in the UK and Italy. It got me thinking.

I live in Auckland. Not exactly an area renowned for its fabulous public transport system, particularly if you want to go somewhere other than the CBD, especially somewhere in another city (eg North Shore to Manukau). I remember having to catch three buses to get home from the airport once. Which is fine if you have a lot of time (and less luggage), but not so good for the majority of people.

Things have changed a lot here since I got a car and now I only use public transport sporadically. Auckland still has a long way to go, but there seem to be Plans, and there's some evidence of their implementation - double-tracking on some of the Western line, more bus lanes popping up. The recent announcement that the Onehunga line will not be re-opened is a bit of a blow, but I suspect the fight will continue there and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it becomes a hot local issue in the elections later in 2007.

Anyway, the point of this post was actually not to write about Auckland but to write about some of the systems I had the luck to use while I was overseas last year. Only in the UK did we have a car, which of course we got rid of as soon as we got to London. But in all the other countries we visited we were reliant on public transport. For the most part it was grand. (This exception can't really be blamed on the Tube as a system).

Everywhere we went, with the possible exception of Moscow*, the public transport system was easy to navigate, despite our English-only limitations (ok, Nickname Pending had some German too**). Mostly the staff were friendly and knowledgeable, often anticipating our needs. Usually the prices were reasonable or cheap - a luxury born in some places from possessing a population large enough to sustain the system without subsidy. Clearly the public transport system was used not only by tourists but also by commuters, families, people going about their everyday lives, because it was comprehensive and went to the places people not only worked and slept, but also where they did their living.

In other words, quite different to Auckland.

Many cities had underground train systems, something NZ lacks. Moscow's Metro was certainly the biggest, and had these escalators that went down and down and down until you were certain that you must be coming back up again. For anyone who has had vertigo at the top of HSB1, multiply that tenfold. The trains were rickety and noisy, and seemed to be going at great speed. The announcements were all in Russian and you could go anywhere you wanted on one token as long as you didn't surface. Some of the stations had chandeliers and mosaics left over from the Soviet era, but I was only brave enough to take a snap of the outside of our local station (didn't want to end up a Kiwi version of Zaoui in a Russian jail).

St Petersburg also has a Metro, but we hardly used it, so I can't really comment on that, and Istanbul's we didn't quite understand. We got on at one end of the line and the next stop, just up the hill, appeared to be the other end. Obviously an oops by us somewhere in that experience. I'm sure it's very nice.

Athens was pretty good, which you would expect as it was built for a recent Olympics, and we trained everywhere from Italy onwards - within cities, between cities. Have Eurail pass, will train. Often the Italian trains were grubby, but they were always (roughly) on time, and safe. Procuring tickets and tokens was a breeze, although you have to validate your ticket in a little yellow box thing before getting on. Once you got used to doing that it became automatic and no hassle at all.

Lljubjana wasn't so big on a train based public transport system, so instead they had amazing bus coverage. At around a quarter of the size of Auckland, it puts us to shame. Although we did encounter more weirdos on those Slovenian buses than anywhere else in Europe.

The German systems put everyone else to shame. S-bahns and U-bahns, it was just a marvel of public transport in both Munich and Berlin. Paris's Metro was also useful, although more difficult to navigate, while Bordeaux had a handy combination of trams and buses that got us around. The trams were particularly great to get to and from the train station, plenty of room for luggage.*** Madrid had another comprehensive subway system, easy to get around and a welcome relief from the extreme heat outside.

And then there was London's Tube. I adored it. If it had been up to me we quite possibly would not have seen any of the sights as I would have been happy to set myself little challenges to get through the system all day long. All of my experience in Moscow, Germany, Paris and Madrid just seemed to prepare me for an underground where the signs were in English, I was somewhat acquainted with the placenames, and there were little quirks to each station.

To return to living in Auckland, a place with barely a decent bus system, and no plans to build a metro, was a big crash down to earth.

What would I like to see in my hometown? Obviously a subway system, but I realise that's ambitious. However I'm sure we could achieve something using a combination of methods - bus, train, tram, ferry - that would mirror the comprehensive coverage of the wider city in a way that the Moscow and London systems in particular do. Spokes of a wheel and then rings connecting them. I'd also love a single ticket system (or even recyclable tokens, save the paper) and council or state ownership of the providers - different private providers have created many of the problems we have now.

We need to do something, and sooner or later someone's generation is going to have to bite the bullet. We do not want to be trying to put this in after Auckland has grown even larger - I have experienced the Bangkok system, which is slowly growing, and it was not pretty.

Although if someone invents the teleport I'm quite happy to shelve my public transport dreams in favour of a network of teleportation stations. Then I'm sure I'd get to the gym more often.

* It didn't take us too long to sort out the Metro, but getting a train ticket from Leningrad station to St Petersburg was a three hour nightmare.
** Which handily saved us from a 32 Euro fine in Naples.
*** Although the friend we were visiting got intercepted by an American evangelist recruiting for Jesus on one of the Bordeaux trams when on her way to meet us. She had to get off several stops early to escape.


Rich said...

The New York subway is the best in my book, basically because it runs 24 hour. (Plus they have express trains - the two are actually related - having a 4 track system means that not only can trains overtake, maintenance can be done with the system live).

The solution to Aucklands transport issues starts with two things, town planning and immigration. Currently it's uneconomical to operate public transport (and certainly any kind of railway) because insufficient people make a common journey to work.

Better town planning would stop suburbs and edge cities being driven further into the countryside and require development to be in places which can economically be connected to transport networks.

Encouraging more immigration to help the environment seems counter-intuitive, but Auckland could easily grow to 3-4 million people on its current footprint. Having a higher density city would enable economically viable public transport connections. (The alternative would be to shrink the footprint, but I can't see us managing to demolish Albany and Dannemora?)

Stephen said...

One thing I keep telling people is that London and New York started building their underground railroads when their populations were about the same size that Auckland is now. Poo-poohing light rail or undergrounds (or dedicated busways, or any special provision for public transport) because we're not big enough is bullshit, because Auckland will get bigger. One thing we really, really suffer from in this country is short-term thinking. We don't seem to build for more than a few years ahead. It's time for some major, major public works in my view - not dopey Think Big things, but basic infrastructure.

libertyscott said...

The key point is the density, Auckland has half the population density of the average UK city (less if you include London). It is no surprise that most low density cities struggle to get a majority of commuters on public transport, especially rail based public transport. You wont increase Auckland's density much either, most migrants don't want high density (which is what they left). People want to own a house on a section with a backyard for the kids to play in. None of the cities you mention has anything like the urban form of Auckland.

You might want to reflect that almost all of Auckland's public transport decline happened when it was in state/council ownership. The railways ran 1900 era rolling stock on Auckland trains until the 1970s, the old Auckland Regional Authority bought old secondhand buses in a ragtag way, introduced compulsory exact fares and did little to supply information to potential users. It grossly underinvested in new buses.

The work the government did on Auckland indicated that new public transport in itself would do little, since most people don't work in the CBD (12% do), so rail based public transport will do little for most commuters (remembering it doesn't exist for the North Shore and would be exhorbitant if it was introduced there - Auckland is NOT Sydney). Auckland needs motorways completed, enhanced bus services and to make the best use of the sunk investment in rail - and the only way to do that is to introduce congestion charging on busy roads at peak times so the roads are priced properly.