On public transportation

30 08 2008

Sander:Streetcar, Boston 1909

As a first thing, I must admit I own a car – and therefore use public transport rarely, usually when going to city center, so I don’t have to worry about the parking.

However, I will probably start going to work with streetcar in the winter. I live about four minutes car drive from my workplace – or less then ten minutes with a streetcar. And there is really no point to heat up the car for a four-minute ride to work, when I can take two-minute walk to streetcar stop and six or eight minutes ride to work – where the stop is about 25 meters from the entry.

It is hard to say, how good is the public transport in Estonia. Compared to Sweden, Finland or Norway, it is not good. On the other hand, it is better then in USA, which has always bet mostly on cars.

Tallinn and other bigger cities have a reasonably good public transport. As in all over Europe, public transportation is heavily subsidized.

Intercity rail transport was in a pretty bad condition when we got the railroads back from Soviet Union – where government-owned railroad company was “nation within nation”. Tracks in bad repair, old uncomfortable trains and stations that hadn’t seen repairs for decades.

Things did not improve quickly. Government didn’t have money for repairs – so they decided to privatize the railroads, a process that took several years to complete. Highest/preferred bidder for Eesti Raudtee was US holding company Railroad Development Corporation. They got the railroad in 2001 and were supposed to invest very heavily – but as it came out, they mostly pumped the money out (and there were rumors about money laundering). So, government bought railroad back from them – and since Estonia had better times economically, railroads have been improving. But, again, we are very far from German or Japanese superfast trains – hopefully we will have them running on at least couple of main routes eventually.

Locally on the countryside, big ugly Soviet-built buses have been replaced with smaller, more economically feasible small buses and the frequency of buses has been improving a lot in recent years.

The popularity of mass transportation had surprisingly little increase during the recent oil price peak. Seems that most of Estonians prefer the privacy and comfort of their own cars, no matter what the cost. Of course, if you have four in the car, it is actually cheaper then trains or buses.

Unfortunately, I also don’t see a big jump in popularity of public transport happening in near future. Probably there will be a slow increase, as the mass transport will continue improving – and municipal authorities continue creating special tracks for buses and streetcars. We’ll see… less cars in would be really nice.


Well.. as he did, I’ll admit that I own and drive a car.  However, I’m an American – we must have our cars ;)

Seriously though…. What stops me from making public transportation?  Well, it’s a 60 mile round trip to work, for starters.  Taking a bus is roughly 2.5 hours, each way.  Biking is not an option, nor is commuting with others, as the area I am traveling into is where people are traveling out of.

I would love to take the train.. but I’m on the MTA Hudson River line, and my job is on the MTA Harlem line — and no way to switch over without going into New York City, to 125th Street, or Grand Central Station, and switching trains, which would not save time, and not save any money, and in point of fact, cost me more money.

In the New York Metro area public transportation is available via bus, train or subway, depending upon where you live.  New York metro area (including the 5 boroughs, Suffolk, Rockland & Westchester Counties, parts of New Jersey, and Connecticut) all share rail lines, and busing systems.

54.24% of the over 3.5 million workers in New York City, (Not including the metro area) utilize pubic transportation.  I’m positive that a great many — I’d estimate at least an additional 35% walk to work, with the remaining cabbing or driving.

The problem in the metro area, unless you live in New York City, (which I do not), is timing.  It can literally take 2+ hours on a bus to go 35 miles, with so many stops, and changes along the route.  It only pays to use mass transit when going into or out of the city, or perhaps going up the line on the Metro North train system.

The top cites in the US that use a transit system are

  • New York City – 54.24% — 7.7 Million people ride the subway system daily (this number includes commuters)
  • Washington, DC – 38.97% – 950,000 people ride the subway system daily
  • Boston – 31.6% — 493,000 ride the ‘T’
  • San Francisco – 30.29% — 366,000 use BART
  • Philadelphia – 26.43% — 308,000 use SEPTA
  • Chicago – 25.38% – 595,000 people ride the ‘L’
  • Baltimore – 19.55%  — 54,000 people rude the subway system daily
  • Seattle – 17.79% — 39,000 people use pt daily

After these cities, the numbers fall drastically, from 10.97% down to less than 1%. There are light rail systems that are increasing – especially over the last few months with the high rise in fuel prices. There are, approximately, 30 commuter rail lines in use now, with an estimated 40 in the early stages of development, in planning, or almost ready to connect to the main lines.

There are several issues when it comes to the usage of PT in the US:

  1. We are a car nation.  It’s pretty much as simple as that.  People in the U.S. generally see public transportation as something for the poor, or the urbanites, not for themselves.
  2. Population density.  Public Transportation works in urban areas, and can be a fantastic.  But it hasn’t worked in small rural areas, and even in urban areas, it isn’t always effective.
  3. Cost – It can cost millions and, in larger areas, into the billions to start a public transportation system.

There are other options — including such services as van-pool, car-pool-share, as well as buses that will (home to destination, and back), pick up the elderly, infirm or disabled and take them around to various places.  My mother works for one of these companies —  State mandated and funded, and county operated, the facility she works at does just what I said.  In a small, rural town in western Nebraska, with a population of about 12,000, with a couple of mini-vans, and a wheelchair lift van, they pick up and deliver people to the doctor, the market, the hairdresser, etc.  Fee is small – less than $2.00 per trip.  But there is a caveat — you must be over a certain age, and/or disabled (and on disability).  They won’t pick up just anyone.

But what if they did?  What if they took their mini-vans, and did scheduled stops at certain times of the day.  The town is small enough that creating a route would not be that difficult.  The fee could remain small, with the advantages being great.  Environmentally, it would cut down on emissions & fossil fuel usage — why go to the mall, in a car by yourself, when you can step out your door, walk a block, catch the mini-van at 10:00am to the Mall, which will then bring you back at 12:00?

There is, of course, for long distance trips, Amtrak Train, and Greyhound Bus — but again, Amtrak can cost more than a plane ticket, takes too much time, and the cars are filthy.  Taking a Greyhound Bus cross country can take 2-6 days.

I really wish that another solution could be thought up…something to make it easier for everyone in the US. to use public transit, or mass transit.  More rail lines, connecting cities together — Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, or to Baltimore.  New York City to Boston, or Baltimore, or Washington DC.  I’d love to see commuter lines begin to criss-cross the US — and be able to jump on a train, go to Washington DC for the day, and be able to come back — and not cost me an arm and a leg for fuel for my car, or even higher fee for Amtrak.

In the area I live in — Westchester County, New York (Just north of New York City) — there is talk  of creating more commuter lines, to cross the Hudson River, and to cross the Long Island Sound.  I’ve been here 20 years, and have been hearing the same thing over and over — it’s in discussions.  We do have a good busing system (see above for how long it takes to ride to work, though), and we have Metro-North Trains (MTA), three lines which go from Grand Central Station in New York City, to points north and north-east.  They just never connect together, making it impossible to change lines.

My grandfather worked for Union Pacific from the end of WWII, until he passed away.  He worked originally on passenger trains that crisscrossed the US, and of course, through Nebraska.  In May, 1971, I was one of the last passengers ever to ride on the Overland Route.  I really do not remember it all that well, except I got to “drive” the train for a while.  I recall, though, very clearly, hearing fond stories my mother told of traveling on that train to see her grandparents, and how sad she was that it no longer existed.

I would have loved to travel on those trains as a kid.  How easy it would have been to go see family on the other side of the state.  And how easy it would have helped to calm that that craving, that need, I had (and still have), to see other places, experience new things, and still be able to get on a train anywhere, and come back home.

I’ve thought a lot about the possibility of the coming recession we will end up being in.  We’ll need to build the economy, and create and use commodities.  Maybe one solution might be to get an Interstate Commuter Rail system designed and built.  There are empty rail lines all across the country that could be fixed and utilized.

Whatever the solution is, or will be, I hope it will happen soon.  The US is growing by leaps and bounds, with the projected population of the US reaching 450 million by 2050 — I really don’t think we can afford not to wait on this.  The sooner we begin to build, the better.