Saturday, July 31, 2010

Public Transit I - here and there

I found myself saying it, for  the umpteenth time: I used the public transit resources in several European countries & cities and  nowhere was the public transit system worse than it is here.
the reply I usually get : oh, but that is in Europe. Here public transit is not manageable. Distances are too big. People are too attached to their cars. Yada, Yada...
And, as if  the repetitive : we cannot improve it, it does not work here was not bad enough, the most recent route changes in Pittsburgh made it even worse. And not  because it eliminated more routes and resulted in more delays and detours than before, we were already used to that. This time they had to say it:

the route changes were actually meant to improve the traffic flow by offering better service in areas with high demand and eliminating only the routes where demand was negligible.(They don't ).

Before I even start discussing the local system, I would like to give the local reader an idea about places where public transit actually works. This are all places where I stayed as a student or tourist for more than a week(1).

Bucharest , Romania:

Country GDP @purchasing power parity : $256.3 billion (2009 est.) / per capita: $11,500(

City area:110 sq. miles Population: about 2 millions ( )

Public transit RATB: Bus, Subway, Light Rail Fares (2 trips magnetic cards):$.80 or $2.14 for the Airport Express. It offers 161 routes and 2835 stops , it covers 1946 km (1209 miles) , it serves 2.6 million riders per day and , as of may 2010, the incomes are: lowest salary (PT cleaner) $29/month, highest : $3279/month (CFO) , median driver salary: $1065/month ( )

Cons: There is no service between  midnight and 5 am. Buses were often off schedule and riders had to wait for a bus for 20 minutes or more in the summer heat or the winter's freezing cold, though I was told that the situation improved in the last years. Buses can easily get overcrowded during peek hours. If one needs to change the bus or light rail route during the trip, one cannot purchase a transfer but has to pay for each trip individually. However:
Pros: The public transit system has a large number of routes well organized into a complex network which covers all city areas. In order to avoid downtown congestion, the backbone of the public transit system is the underground subway connecting several focus points towards which the rest of the traffic converges (2).  There is separate service for the airport and railway station as well as neighborhood to neighborhood routes. Many vehicles are relatively new, well kept  and comfortable. There is supposed to be a specially designed space in order to accommodate wheelchair bound riders and strollers.
    The access to each  vehicle  is through all doors. Riders are able  to purchase one trip tickets, magnetic cards or monthly passes through different vendors. The fare is paid by composting a ticket or swiping a magnetic card through a ticket reader (or at the entrance of subway station). Controllers may check riders on a random basis and riders that are found  traveling without paying are fined a hefty fee.

Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Country GDP @ purchasing power parity 2.812 trillion (2009 est.) /per capita $34,200 (
City Area: 59.10 sq. miles Population: about 219, 665 (

Public Transit RVF: Bus, Incline, Light Rail, Regional Train  RVF covers an 1864 miles area around the city and outsources transit services to several regional providers as well as the Deutche Ban     Fare: single ticket zone 1 $2.74 zone 2 $4.07zone 3 $6.65 ( )
VAG (main provider for the city area) offers 31 routes and serves about 200,000 riders per day and according to the website ( the four light rail routes are the backbone of the network are coordinated with the bus routes in order to  effectively cover the whole city.
Pros: During peek hours trams run every 7 and a half minutes (it used to be every five minutes) , buses run every quarter an hour on average. Service is available 24/7. Tickets can be bought from automatic vendors as well as through the RVF office. The fare is paid by swiping magnetic tickets through a ticket reader. Controllers may check randomly if riders paid their fare, but with the exception of train rides I had not seen a controller. There is accommodation for wheel chair bound riders and stroller. Buses are more comfortable then trams, some long distance ones even featured resting support for your head and window curtains.
There is no downtown congestion, because the city center is closed to all vehicles but public transit ones and bikes.
Cons:Drivers are always on schedule and if you miss a bus or tram do not expect them to wait even if they see you running after it. Since the buses and trams are always on time, you are also expected to make it on time...

Tübingen , Germany
City Area 41.75 sq.miles  Population 85,344 (
Public Transit: Bus, Regional Train SVT offers 35 routes and 370 stops. Fare:  one ticket is $2.61and is good for 60 minutes.(
Comments: Because the  student dormitory was nearby the University Building, Mensa, Penny Markt, Farmers Market, Library and the  town center I had barely used the public transit services. But buses are always on schedule. There are trains running to Stuttgart every hour. There is 24/7 service.

Germans, in general, are quite conscious about the environment, therefore riding the bus to work or a bike is very well regarded in the community in spite of the fact that the average German family can afford to purchase and maintain cars.

Budapest, Hungary

Country GDP @ purchasing power parity $185.7 billion (2009 est.) /per capita $18,700 (2009 est.) (
City Area: 345 sq.miles Population 2,055,000-2,100,000 (

Public Transit BKV:Bus, Light Rail, Subway, Regional Train it offers 4990 stops , it has over 2800 vehicles in its fleet,  it covers 825 million sq miles in an year, it serves 3.58 riders per day(3). Fares: a ticket is $1.61, if bought on board $1.85 and a transfer ticket $2.26.

Cons: I never got how the transfer fare works and from what I heard neither did other visitors. Not all vehicles seem to offer access for wheelchair bound riders and strollers.
Pros: There is timely comprehensive service available to all areas, no matter how peripheral they are located, even though the area serviced is almost three times bigger than Bucharest and almost six and half times bigger than Freiburg. 24/7 service is available for riders in several areas of the city. 

Ferry transit on the Danube, run by private contractors, offers regular service for commuters living on the nearby localities and working in the city.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Country GDP @purchasing power parity $90.44 billion (2009 est.) /per capita $12,600 (2009 est.)
( )
City Area 80 sq.miles Population $1,050,000 ( )

Public Transit(SKGT): Bus, Light Rail it offers 121 routes  (4 served by private contractors) and it covers 1114.4 miles of road and single track (4)Fare -1 trip single ticket -$ 0.68. Tickets can be purchased on the board of the vehicle as well. (

Cons: Compared to Bucharest and Budapest the vehicles are older and there is no subway. Controllers were extremely rude. There is no night service.
Pros: Even though the University's building and the hostel where we stayed were on the outskirts of the city I never had any trouble getting downtown or to the Vitosha mountain by bus or T.

New York, USA

GDP @purchasing power parity $14.26 trillion (2009 est.)/ per capita $46,400 (2009 est.) ( )
City Area 4349 sq.miles Population about 20 million ( )

Public Transit:PANYNJ  PATH rail ,bus , ferry and MTA subway, bus, light rail.
PANYNJ serves about 389041 riders per day and the price for a single ticket is $1.75 (not including ferry service)  (
MTA serves 8,476,693 riders each weekday, offers 422 routes , 734 subway and railway stations and it covers 5971 miles. The fare for a subway or local bus ride is $2.25. The fare for an express bus ride is $5.50 (

I only used the subway in Manhattan or from Manhattan and back.
Cons:  The boot workers were not among the most helpful employees. I had to stop another rider and ask for directions.
Pros:Once I figured out how to use the map and schedule I did not have any issues finding my way around. There was no place I wanted to visit that was not accessible by subway. Underground transfer tunnels allow changing routes without paying even if the lines are not connected. There are directions signs all over the place and maps so one can avoid the not so helpful boot employees. We got lost one time even after asking for directions a few times, but we were told that it was the most complex transfer path and it does happen even to  regular riders.

Caveat: Because I can only read in  English and Romanian ( some basic German too), the information provided is not always the most accurate or the most recent one as I was unable to verify it against the original for Sofia and Budapest. For Freiburg and Tubingen I had to guess sometimes. In all cases when I used figures such as the average number of riders per day were used or the median salary for... , these were all approximations. I rounded the results after converting units and currency.

Only the cities in which I spent enough time to form an opinion about public transportation were discussed. These might not be the most relevant or the best examples for public transit but these are the networks I can remember well. I do recall of course the design of light rail cars  and ferry boats in Strasbourg ( ten years ago and they already looked 22nd  century) but in the  one day  spent there I did not make much use of them.


(1) Unless otherwise specified, the information is based on my experience using public transit in each of the cities mentioned above.
(2) for local readers, imagine underground subway connecting 4 hubs (Downtown, Pitt, Chatham and E Liberty) on the 5th.
(3) 2008 data/
(4) Some data as old as 2006.

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