I never thought I would miss the London Underground. I take back all the salty words I showered upon it during all those years I slaved and sweated through it like a sardine in a tin (or should I say, a sardine in a tube).
But these days I find myself reminiscing for the “tube” as I go through my morning commute on the DC metro system, also known by the awkward acronym WMATA (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority).
The District of Columbia, an urban center and the nation’s capital, has pretty good public transport as far as American standards are concerned. But I’ve come to realize just how much lower American standards are than European standards when it comes to public transport, be it trains, subways, or buses.
It really hit home for me when, shortly after I returned to the US in January of this year, I was taking the Caltrain between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Mind you, this is one of the wealthiest, most technology advanced regions of the country, not to mention one of the top five most densely populated metropolitan areas in the US. So really, an ideal place to be making an investment in mass transportation.
Instead, you find yourself in the ghetto-fabulous, retro-tastic cattle car that is the Caltrain. One time when I was getting off the Caltrain, I noticed a plaque on the wall near the door. Now first of all, let me tell you, getting off the Caltrain is an awkward affair, requiring you to descend a set of large metal steps and breach a not insignificant gap onto the platform below. Every time I got in and out, I was reminded of trains I had taken in India and Romania. Well, as I was clambering out one day, I spotted this plaque, which read:
Caltrain: Assembled in 1985, Refurbished in 2002.
So let’s get this straight. It’s 2014. This train is nearly 30 years old. And it was lasted updated 12 years ago. Clearly, we Americans are not investing much in public transport.
One European friend, when taking the train from New York City to Connecticut, was shocked by the state of the Metro North Commuter Railroad carriages (anyone who has taken the ultra-modern, smooth-sailing trains in Holland and visited the US after would probably have the same reaction). And the same story seems to apply not only to the trains/subways/buses themselves, which are usually much older and more rudimentary than their counterparts in Europe, but also to all the infrastructure (or lack thereof) surrounding the public transport.
Take, for example, the ill-designed, user-unfriendly machines that patient passengers must use to make payment for the BART in San Francisco. They look like they were designed by an amateur engineer in the 1990s. Or the entry/exit gates at subway stations. Every time I tap in and tap out of the DC metro – waiting for the clunky gates to slowly open and close, waiting for the card reader to process the last transaction and turn from red to green, and waiting for the next half dozen people resignedly shuffling in front to do complete the same pattern – I think back to exiting the London Underground at King’s Cross station at rush hour, being one of hundreds of passengers swiftly flicking through the modern Oyster card-reading barriers in split seconds. It’s only now that I’m realizing what a well oiled system it was.