Just Thinking Outloud: Public Transportation

With record snowfall in Boston, we expect to have public transit bail us out when driving and parking in the city gets challenging, but the MBTA's performance got me thinking about other transit systems around the world and why some of them do it better.

We've recently had record snowfall in Boston, over 8 feet have fallen in January and February. It appears we've absconded with all of the snow meant for Alaska and the Northwest this winter. And our public transit system has ground to a halt at times. 

Sure record snowfall creates sown unique challenges for any public transit system, but Switzerland gets snow and yet their public transit system runs like a fine Swiss watch (that is a hackneyed cliche, and yet, somehow, it works there)  I do not pretend to know the first thing about public transportation systems, but this got me thinking about all the places I've been, and wondering why some in places the public transit works beautifully, while in others, it works so poorly? 

In greater Boston, people love to complain about the MBTA (Mass Bay Transit Authority). They complain about rude behavior on the trains, the condition of the stations and the trains, as well as the schedules and on time performance.  And I have experienced all of these things using the MBTA. But my experience in other places is often quite different. 

The MBTA recently ran an ad campaign to encourage less boorish behavior of passengers. While traveling in Paris once when I was 6 months pregnant during the busy commuter times, not only was a seat made available on the Metro when I boarded, but the sea of humanity literally parted, and I was passed along hand to hand by the other mothers to it.  The only thing missing was the heavenly choir sound and down light shining on the seat.  I had never been treated so respectfully, pregnant or otherwise since.  

In Boston trains and stations are not particularly well maintained or clean, and I always attributed this to the fact the our system is one of the oldest in the world. But then I spent a weekend riding a system built 5 years earlier than the MBTA - in Budapest. The Budapest Metro was scrupulously clean, efficient, easy to use, even in a country where the language is notoriously hard to master. 

 The Budapest Metro was built in 1896, more than 125 years later, it's still beautifully maintained, clean and easy to use.

The Budapest Metro was built in 1896, more than 125 years later, it's still beautifully maintained, clean and easy to use.

We took a trip to Washington DC with 2 small children, and were able to safely and easily hop off the plane with our roller bags, and surface at our hotel a 1/2 hour later. I wouldn't dare try to take the train to Logan airport from my own neighborhood, where the local newspaper recently named the line closest to my home the worst performer in the system. I'd be panicked I'd miss the flight!

 After growing up in Boston where the stations are hard to find and navigate, it was a big surprise to arrive in our nations's capital and get around so easily on the Washington Metro.

After growing up in Boston where the stations are hard to find and navigate, it was a big surprise to arrive in our nations's capital and get around so easily on the Washington Metro.

Maybe the system in each place takes on the character of its location; in Paris the Metro is elegantly designed,  in Budapest it's clean and efficient, in Washington DC, a city filled with International guests and ambassadors, it's simple to use. Maybe in Boston our transit system has taken on the characteristics of Bostonians, we love to have something to complain about! For a long time, the Red Sox filled that need, (and still do every other year it seems) and the weather often does (especially this year!) so maybe we need a creaky, outdated, inefficient transit system to give us something to complain about!  
 

Boston has recently thrown its hat into the ring as a contender for the 2024 Olympics and the transit system is one of the areas that would have to improve. Many Bostonians are skeptical about running a a successful Olympics here and if you dig, even a little, it turns out most of the concern is about traffic and public transit woes. This winter only reinforced that! 
 

 A ride on the Green Line in Boston.

A ride on the Green Line in Boston.

So with all the recent news about our transit woes in Boston I've been thinking hard about what makes some public transit systems great and why some fail to meet standards. And I've concluded (without any actual research, mind you) that public transit generally works well in places where everyone, from all walks of life, uses it. Maybe as the system gets worse, people of means decide to drive their own cars and pay for parking, and without those folks using the system, the public transit systems become the domain of the poorest, most powerless  people in a community, and they have no voice to make it better. As they say the "squeaky wheel get the grease" and clearly if you've ridden the MBTA, you know they have lots of real squeaky wheels, (it's ear splitting at times standing near the tracks!) but maybe not enough people invested in agitating about better service and proper investment. When people from every walk of life use a public transit system there are stake holders in every corner, some very powerful people, and they make their voices heard, so that pressure helps direct attention to the system and demands it be more efficient.  

Understandably, it's much easier to make an efficient national public transit system in a country the size of Hungary than a country the size of the US, but the city systems are pretty equitably sized and populated.  Also, I will grant that some totalitarian regimes have an advantage of unilaterally deciding where to invest resources, but it seems that most places where the trains run on time, everyone uses them, and where they don't, they are largely utilized by the people with few other choices. I can't even say which comes first, the system is poorly run, so people flee it, or it's inefficient so only people who have no choice, use it, it's probably some combination of both. All I know for sure is that I notice when traveling to other places where I can easily use the transit system, even as a guest who doesn't speak the language,  I find myself marveling "wow, I wish we had something like this in Boston!"