Made the Law, Made a Loophole

I expected to be cheated in Argentina. Transparency International ranks the land of Menem and Maradona even lower on its 2014 Corruptions Perceptions Index than such exemplars of civic virtue as Mexico and Bolivia. Travel guides warned me that porteños applaud successful tricksters, celebrate a cynical, every-man-for-himself philosophy of viveza criolla. (“Made the law, made a loophole” is in Wikipedia’s entry for viveza criolla.) I resolved to study receipts, count pesos proffered in change.

That’s how I felt going in.

But I was tired and bewildered after I cleared customs at Ezeiza Airport, and didn’t understand the desk agent’s explanation of fares for the airport express bus. ‘Quinientos pesos; was that what he’d just said?  Seems like a lot; well, it’s an express bus; just pay him, get it over with.’

I counted off five 100 peso notes, slid them to his side of the counter.

Freeway in Buenos Aires

Freeway in Buenos Aires

Everything in my manner indicated that I thought this was the price of a ticket, and expected nothing in return.

He shook his head.

“This is too much,” he said, firmly and politely, and returned three of the notes. The fare was 130 pesos. He only needed the first two notes to make change.

That exchange served as a promising — and accurate, at least for me; maybe I was lucky — harbinger of this tourist’s dealings with retail in BA. I was a victim of the squirt crime described here, but found no more reason to distrust proprietors and cashiers than I find in the states.

And yet Buenos Aires is utterly corrupt. Porteños assured me that it is. I left no less opposed to such corruption, but aware that I had to revise my impressions of life in a corrupt society. The corruption may be specific, exist in some transactions, and not in others.

* * * * *

The first easily digested example was provided by an Argentine attorney. I’ll paraphrase:

“Let’s say I need a permit from a government agency to do something,” she said. “I visit the agency. ‘Oh, you need to fill out this form, and that form, and this other form, and this stack of forms, too, and wait a year. Then you might get your permit, if you’ve done everything right. Or you might not.’

“Well, maybe I don’t want to fill out all those forms and wait a year. So I find someone else who knows a faster way. He’ll charge me. It’ll cost more money, but at least I get the permit, and can get on with my work. That’s how things are done here.”

She said she didn’t think it was fair to single out the infamous military dictators of the Argentine dirty war as corrupt. They certainly were corrupt, she said, but all other Argentine administrations have been corrupt, too.

Havanna Building at Caminito

Havanna building in La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires

A Northern European businessman who has lived in Buenos Aires for a decade sounded weary and contemptuous while providing another example. I’ll paraphrase again:

“You go to the office of so-and-so because you need an approval for something. He tells you it will take six months.

“’Oh, that seems like such a long time,’ you say. ‘Isn’t there some way of getting the paperwork done a bit faster? Might you happen — just happen — to know a consultant who can help speed things up a bit? Perhaps an associate of yours, someone you trust. It would be worth my while to cover consultant costs. I’ll ring him up right away if you can provide a number.’”

* * * * *

I thought this interesting enough to warrant a post, but know I’m not a worldly guy, despite my recent travels, and don’t feel qualified to draw hard-and-fast conclusions. I suspect, as an international newbie, that pandemic corruption draws a dense canopy over the doings of a place, makes them opaque to outsiders. Argentina defaults on its debt, doesn’t have any money, not one peso … but, whatdoyouknow, some pesos are there after all, if you know how to shake the mattress, and where to grab it. In Greece, said to associate taxation with centuries in thrall to the Ottoman Empire, Google’s Satellite View turned up 16,974 swimming pools in Athenian back yards … or, 16,650 more pools than the 324 declared by Athenians on their tax returns. Business people and diplomats must exchange a vast, hand-me-down lore of people to see and strings to pull to get anything accomplished.

Of course, the United States is no stranger to such antics. Transparency International gives us a middling 74, tied for the seventeenth spot among 174 surveyed nations. That’s light years ahead of worst-in-the-Americas Venezuela but six points behind Canada, the Western Hemisphere leader.

Clean government is, on one hand, an immensely important issue to me — I am strongly attracted to the aboveboard places, marvel that Denmark hasn’t plastered their #1-on-the-planet TI score all over their home page — but also an issue that reminds me of my naiveté. Do I really expect investors not to try to influence the fate of billion dollar projects, or politicians to take no heed of who can help or harm their careers? Really?

Tomb of Rufina Cambaceres at Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires

Tomb of Rufina Cambaceres at Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires

Perhaps this is true: that the pressure to make a shady arrangement is strong, constant, and inevitable, but that the society that most successfully resists that daily pressure earns a lasting advantage. Look at TI’s top ten, in order: Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Singapore, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada. I believe that the world envies these countries. The world might understand why strings get pulled and skids greased in Venezuela, but I doubt many want to set up shop in Caracas and try their hand at skid greasing, too. I left feeling much more optimistic about Chile than about Argentina, largely because Chilean government is so much cleaner.

* * * * *

Photos from my trip to the Southern Cone are online in albums for Buenos Aires, Valparaiso and Santiago. If you visit BA, I heartily recommend a half day at the Cementerio de la Recoleta. The dead interred therein aren’t corrupt, or are corrupt no longer.

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Better Marks for Muni

I log my Muni rides. Or have. In June I launched ‘muni log’ in a humble subdirectory of its own, and resolved that this imaginatively-titled file would collect my experiences aboard the city fleet in the months that followed. No longer would I gripe ignorantly about hordes of fare cheats slipping onto jammed buses. I would be an enlightened griper. I would keep a record!

This I have done. The strange and terrible saga of 140 Muni trips has been gathered in muni log — summarized in this spreadsheet, for you data fiends — and I’ve grown thoroughly sick of typing in new entries. A new year has arrived; I want to wrap it up.

Muni 9 bus on Market Street

Muni 9 bus on Market Street

I claim no statistical significance for my record. I’m an unusually dapper old geezer who rides Muni a lot, and took notes for six months. That’s all. The log is heavily slanted toward the city’s south side, where I live. Fully forty percent of the trips are aboard one transit route, the 29 (admittedly the longest daytime route in the city, at 17.4 miles). I’m retired, don’t have to hang from many straps in rush hour, when transit services are busiest.

That said: I’m intimately acquainted with the record keeper, and trust him (until I pull a Sybil, and announce that I’m channeling Henry Ford in a second personality). I know what I saw.

Muni did better than I’d expected. I saw graffiti’d buses, but didn’t see many, and the graffiti wasn’t horrific. I fought for air on crowded buses, too, but less often than I’d thought I would.

Fare evasion at some stops was comically bad. Epidemic. Read on.

The details:

Vehicle Appearance

The shot below shows graffiti in the back of a 14 bus in 2013. I’m delighted to write that I might not be able to take this photo today: I noted tags in only eight of the one hundred forty vehicles, and the graffiti was much, much less substantial than that shown.

Two caveats:

  • I didn’t note vehicle appearance on twenty-two of the rides, either because I forgot or because the vehicle was too crowded to let me see into the back.
Graffiti in 14 bus in 2013

Graffiti in 14 bus in 2013

  • I clocked only seven trips on the 14 and 14L, and three on the 8X. None looked remotely as gruesome as the bus shown, but I did spot a few tags on three of the 14/14Ls and two of the 8Xs. I’d likely be writing a less cheery report if I did most of my shlepping on those lines, and both are transit arteries here. I can’t imagine the Mission district without the 14, might rank the 14 ahead of the 38 as the quintessential San Francisco bus line.

Crowding

Nearly seventy-one percent of my rides were in vehicles with room for all riders. Some of these rides transported what I regarded as ‘standees of choice;’ I still categorized the ride in the ‘room for all’ group if these standees-of-choice could have sat, but chose not to. (E.g., the guy in the three piece who’d rather hang onto the pole than crinkle his seersucker on the Muni bucket).

Sixteen percent of my rides were on all-seats-taken buses with what I regarded as a ‘moderate’ number of standees. I didn’t use a hard and fast head count to call the split between ‘moderate’ and ‘jammed.’ Me thinks fifteen standees can make for an overcrowded bus, but not if the fifteen are only on board for a few blocks, and fewer standees are transported before and afterward. Most — emphasize, most — of the ‘moderate’ rides carted ten standees, or fewer.

And now, for you Muni haters: eleven percent of the rides were on buses I’d describe as jammed. Packed. Cattle cars. These usually toted more than twenty standees. I think some staggered along with more than thirty, although my own smushed spot in these rolling sardine cans made it tough to count heads. I had to ride one of these wheezers enroute to SFO with a suitcase, and would have offered scant praise for SFMTA while doing so, but, just the same: that 11% mark was better than I’d expected.

More caveats:

  • I’ll say it again: I’m retired. No weekday gig to get to and from during rush hour.
  • I decided not to count loads on eastbound buses on Geneva between the Balboa Park station bus pad and Mission Street. Patrons of this stop will understand why: hordes of riders transferring from BART want to get to Mission Street by any means necessary, and will pile onto whatever eastbound bus rolls up first. If a bus hasn’t come for awhile, then the 8X or 29 or 54 or 43 that does finally pull up is going to be swamped for the half mile to Popeyes.

Service delays

On four dates, wait times promised by Nextbus were bad enough to persuade me to walk. I also sometimes had to board a less attractive Route B because Route A wasn’t coming.

K line at West Portal station

K line at West Portal station

Most of the time, though, delays were negligible. I remember Los Angeles’ MTA as better run than SFMTA, but doomed to serve a sprawling, car-centric service area. Some LACMTA lines run only once an hour. SFMTA runs a few lines with infrequent service — the 17, which I’ve yet to board, the 36 Teresita, the 52 — but most headways are much shorter.

Browsing my six month record reminded me of how good I’ve got it. San Francisco is a far cry from transit valhallas like Zuerich, Copenhagen, and Stockholm, but I could still assume that I’d rarely have to wait more than ten minutes for a bus.

Fare Evasion

I think I can write frankly about this problem in little attended-to transitophile. I might hesitate elsewhere.

San Francisco permits “all door boarding.” Riders are asked to board in the front only to pay a cash fare. Riders who can “tap in” with Clipper IC cards — or who have fare media that doesn’t require tapping, like paper transfers or Muni passports — can board in the back.

Rear door boarding is a boon and a half for distributing passenger loads. I now board through the back door at least half the time, and can’t believe it doesn’t cut bus dawdle times at stops.

Rear door boarding is also a boon and a half for fare cheats.

Now, I can’t prove that. When an outbound 29 pulls up at the Balboa Park bus pad and I watch five of seven new riders slip in the back without brandishing Clipper cards, I may slander my fellow San Franciscans by so cynically assuming that most of them are ducking the fare. (Although I’ll admit that the quick, furtive glance that so many of these folks take at the driver encourages me in my cynicism.) Maybe they just look like locals. Maybe they’re all tourists with Muni passports!

(In fact, there’s even an online report that claims that fare evasion has dropped since all door boarding was inaugurated. I struggle to recognize the city this report is about, and wonder if the authors might have confused San Francisco with Lisbon, which has a bridge that looks like ours … but, still, it’s online, and you can read it yourself, draw your own conclusions.)

I notice the Clipper Card-less rider phenomenon more on the south side than elsewhere in the city, and especially at the eastbound Balboa Park bus pad and at various stops on Mission Street. On the last day chronicled by my log, December 30, I was delighted to be joined on a northbound 14L by two fare inspectors, and to proffer my Clipper card to one.

That was the third time in nearly three and a half years that my Clipper card has been checked while riding SFMTA. Three fare checks, in three and a half years of regular rides.

Why do I care? Partly because it grates to be joined on a jammed bus by freeloaders, but mostly because it’s so absurd, dysfunctional, indicative of either helpless or incompetent leadership. A transit agency may be a public sector enterprise dependent on public support, but it’s still a business, like a laundromat or a hardware store, and is supposed to justify its balance sheet to taxpayers. Letting potential clients steal heaps and heaps of what you sell makes for an unusual business model.

Overall

I saw examples of the downside of transit riding. Passengers on one outbound 29 were serenaded with bellowed obscenities for several miles by a mentally unstable passenger. On July 17, a teenager lost a cell phone at knife point to two crooks on the 54. I didn’t see the robbery, but did see how bravely the youth fought for composure while reporting the crime to the driver. (Who quietly assured him that she has a teenage son of her own at home, and cares; she called SFPD.)

The boom box seems to have come back in style, unfortunately. I had to listen to a few on Muni buses. I didn’t deal with many transit delays, but wouldn’t have wanted to explain them to an employer. And I’ll note once more that I’d sing a different tune in this post if I rode a rush hour 14 or 8X every day.

With all that said: I will stop sneering at SFMTA so lustily, and will use a new word in describing transit services here:

They’re okay.

Not good. Certainly not excellent. But not horrible, either. They’re okay. Ridiculous fare evasion on the south side, but still: okay.

There may be hope. I shall edit my Flickr posts of the graffiti’d 14s.

For the superstitious among you: I understand that I have likely outraged some primordial force in the city’s psychic substratum by writing anything nice about Muni, and will likely pay for it by boarding a ride from hell in the days ahead. I am still done with my record keeping, and won’t re-open my log unless I notice a significant change for the worse. I hope I don’t have to.

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Still More European Odds and Ends

… but ends and odds about different cities. This time the frequent-flying Bald One got to flash his now thoroughly broken in passport in London, Paris, Madrid, Amsterdam and Oslo.  In order:

London

()  I regarded London as about the least hospitable city for cycling I’ve ever seen, but still saw some martyrs-on-wheels there anyway.

If you know a London cyclist and think you might be a beneficiary of his estate, make sure he sends you a signed copy of the will before his next bike ride. That bad.

()  I didn’t plan it this way, but have now wandered aboard four of the world’s better known driverless metros: the Skytrain in Vancouver, the Yurikamome Line in Tokyo, the Metro in Copenhagen, and now the Docklands Light Railway in London. One of the London DLRs even posed for a picture:

Docklands Light Railway car in London

Docklands Light Railway in London

The DLR worked as faultlessly as the other systems. Bay Area fliers get carted around on AirTrain at SFO, and soon on the Oakland Connector at OAK, but all-auto systems still don’t seem to get much press attention in the U.S..

()  The ‘board a less crowded car on the subway’ strategy I described last September didn’t work on the Underground. My fellow riders fanned purposefully to all ends of the platform at every station. I guess a visiting Yankee isn’t going to teach Londoners how to get a seat on the Tube.

()  A tour guide caught my ear with the offhand observation that Londoners may regard their subway with greater endearment than do straphangers elsewhere. Why? Brits knew they could retreat to that Underground for a fitful night’s sleep while Nazi bombs rained overhead in World War II.  Here’s a story.

()  If it’s sunny and clear, please remember my opinion that the Emirates cable car is an underrated tourist attraction.

Emirates Air Line cable cars

Emirates Air Line cable cars

If it’s foggy, forget you read this.

()  We have American accents. We can’t hear them and don’t think we have them, but we do.

Paris

()  Some accuse Parisians of rudeness. I thought they were plenty nice, but should add that I remembered my own Emily Post Ps and Qs, and didn’t start conversations with strangers in English. Even a faltering Excusez-moi de vous déranger goes a long way.

()  Paris boasts an excellent transit system. Wikipedia hails the Paris Metro as one of the most densely built in the world, with 245 stations within Paris’ 34 square miles — or 7 per square mile, according to my calculator. There’s also a tram and bus grid, and a RER rail network serving both airports.

Paris Metro

Paris Metro

()  The excellent transit system is grungier than London’s. Graffiti, ripped seat cushions, and the like.

()  Another Wikipedia entry details some of the public works efforts expended in ages past that make the city as spectacularly beautiful as it is today, spots of grunginess notwithstanding.

Consider the sculpture below, in Place de la Nation square. Jules Dalou finished it in 1899. I think it’s safe to assume that Paris has paid the artist’s tab, unless a scheming bureaucrat suckered Monsieur Dalou into accepting a century-long IOU.

Few modern sculptors are capable of anything remotely as good. (Frankly.) For that century-old investment, Paris gets a municipal heirloom, for now and evermore; all they have to do is keep jealous visitors from carting off the umpteen ton statue to, say, the Barstow Skate Park. It just has to be allowed to stand still, look beautiful, and add to Paris’ reputation.

The Triumph of the Republic by Aimé-Jules Dalou

The Triumph of the Republic, by Aimé-Jules Dalou

Works like that are all over the city.

()  I will refer you to this source for counsel on obtaining a Navigo Decouverte IC card for your transit travels, with two additional suggestions:

  • Consider presenting a visual at the ticket window that says what you want in French, along the lines of: Je voudrais Navigo Découverte, semaine expiration DD/MM/YY, 34,40€ – 5 zone. Merci!
  • Consider bringing along your own photo, sized to the 3 cm x 2.5 cm desired for the Navigo Decouverte, rather than paying for an improperly sized photo at a photo booth. The Metro ticket agent ignored my fresh photo booth shot and seized on the properly-sized shot I’d toted abroad, even though the Tim shown in this vintage shot had yet to sprout a gray hair.

Madrid

()  Madrid is also very attractive. Not as stunning as Paris, I don’t think, but up there.

()  Madrid is a lousy place for vegetarians. Meat in the tapas, meat in the entrees, meat dangling from hooks at the Museo del Jamon. This is Spain you’re in: they fight bulls here.

Madrid Metro at Principe de Vergara station

Madrid Metro at Principe de Vergara station

(Bullfighting is not legal in Catalonia, however, which I may visit another time, if only to ride the Barcelona subway and score a veggie burger without a long hike.  Or so I hope.)

()  The Madrid subway is clean, efficient, on the sterile side — the seats are molded plastic — and can be as jam-packed with commuters at rush hour as anything I rode in Asia.

()  Madrid will sell you an IC card, but only if you make an appointment and load the card with a one month pass, minimum. I bought a five day Abono Transporte Turístico instead.

()  You’ll find many charming car-free pedestrian streets in the city center, and many of the street performers thereon — like the golden guy below, on Calle Arenal — prepare more thoroughly and are more imaginative than counterparts seen in California.

Performer on Calle Arenal in Madrid

Performer on Calle Arenal in Madrid

()  I’m not a fine art buff and maybe oughta keep my know-nothing trap shut, but here goes: I was simply awestruck by the caliber of the masterpieces at the Prado Museum. Ribera, Tiziano, Murillo, Velazquez, Zurbaran: I staggered around the museum with parted lips and wide, wondering eyes.

Amsterdam

()  I wrote about all the bikes a few weeks ago. That was the real takeaway-of-note on this trip abroad, at least for me.

()  On paper, the infrastructure of trams, buses, Metro and nationwide NS rail services looks as impressive as Zurich’s or Copenhagen’s. In practice, I thought it a notch below. Expect graffiti, scarred-up seats, other little point deducters. An L.A. bus rider might imagine she’d wandered into paradise, but a Dane or a Swiss might sniff.

()  If you type ‘Amsterdam’ into Google, autocomplete will offer ‘Amsterdam red light district’ right after ‘Amsterdam weather.’ Amsterdam does indeed have this district, called De Wallen, centered in the blocks around the hapless Oude Church. I can’t imagine how many puppies some long ago Oude Church minister must have kicked to rate having his place of worship banished here.

Amsterdam's De Oude Kerk

Amsterdam’s De Oude Kerk and an abandoned couch

De Wallen passers-through will find the narrow streets, canals, and stately architecture seen elsewhere in Amsterdam, as well as brightly-lit storefronts full of tasteful dildos, butt plugs, plastic vaginas, cock rings and other highbrow fare. I mean it. These dumps would be déclassé for a Bakersfield strip mall, and there they are, right in the middle of beautiful Amsterdam.

There are also tall window displays in which prostitutes in bikinis display themselves. I only saw a few; I strolled through De Wallen in the late afternoon, and presume that more emerge at night. I can’t shake the memory of one: about thirty, black, with a mother’s abdomen, gamely presenting an entirely mortal physique, perhaps reduced to window prostitution to support a child.

()  Amsterdam can offer up a tasty espresso in a koffiehuis, but is better known among some travelers for its ‘coffee shops,’ which sell marijuana. A green and white license sticker in the window distinguishes the two. Coffee shops also often have drawn shades, and display businesslike ‘No photography’ signs. I spotted more in Central Amsterdam, but believe the ‘coffee shops’ are all over town.

De Wallen window display in Amsterdam

De Wallen window display

Your scribe is unenthusiastic about marijuana. I understand that the unprivileged kids I worked with in L.A. have been volunteered by birth into an often brutal struggle to get a toehold in life, without trust funds or Ivy League family connections to fall back on, that they have no choice about participating in this struggle and are likely to fare a whole lot better if they can face it sober.   I also detect an hypocrisy among some marijuana champions, who want freedom to smoke blunts and bump into things, but don’t want to be attended to by cannabis-medicated surgeons, paramedics, cops, and electricians, or cruise alongside cannabis-medicated truckers in eighteen wheelers on the 101. There’s also a lot of low brow, low tech money in the weed trade, and those monied interests won’t go away gracefully if the public has second thoughts about the door it opened to them.

(I suggest a look at this affidavit related to the prosecution of State Senator Leland Yee. The reported $50,000 a week marijuana trade engaged in by the son of former Board of Education president Keith Jackson is described on page 52. That kind of jack can buy pols and publicity.)

With all that said, I will admit that I noted no unsobriety among the Amsterdam public, and few signs away from the ‘coffee shops’ or De Wallen that such places exist. The phrase “like working in Vegas” occurred to me often, although no Amsterdammer used it. That stuff is there, you see it, but it’s also easy to avoid.

()  Amsterdam is a beautiful, beautiful place, with the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House and much more to offer the clean-living tourist. I’m a little surprised that they tarnish the city’s brand by permitting a stick-it-out-in-the-swamp-by-the-airport sector like De Wallen, ethical considerations aside.

Oslo

()  Oslo is in Norway, and Norway is rich. That should be borne in mind in any contemplation of the city.

Norway has become the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter since Phillips Petroleum struck paydirt in the North Sea in 1969. The nation’s sovereign wealth fund controls one percent of the world’s stocks and bonds, and beats out the Abu Dhabi fund as the world’s largest. On paper, every Norwegian is a Krone millionaire. (Former about.com investment guru Joshua Kennon writes wistfully of the sovereign wealth fund the United States might have established if it hadn’t put two wars on the credit card.)

Interior of Oslo Flytoget airport express train

Interior of Oslo Flytoget airport express train

()  I found nothing online to confirm my suspicion, but suspect that the plump columns of black ink on the national ledger have influenced area transit services. The spotless ‘Flytoget’ I rode in from Oslo S looked like it had just cleared QA at the factory. I never had to sit next to anyone on the metro; I never even had to sit facing anyone. (Please bear in mind, though, that I rode the metro only on the weekend.) Trams were busier, but I always had a seat.

()  As for fare enforcement, I can describe the city’s apparent philosophy in three words: Oslo trusts you. I bought a Ruter IC card at the airport, loaded it with a one week pass, was asked to validate the card before I boarded my first car, and never had to produce it again.

Do you tap the card on a card reader on your way in or out? No. Do you show it to a fare inspector? No. You, inherently upright and truthful dweller in Norway that you are, simply know that a valid electronic one week pass exists on the IC card that you’re never asked or expected to take out of your wallet or purse: that’s good enough for Oslo!

Norway ranks fifth in the world in Transparency International’s corruptions perceptions index, which suggests that Ruter has grounds for trusting riders as it does, but with that said: I’ll bet they’d pull in the leash quickly if the coffers weren’t so full.

Johan's Gate pedestrian street in Oslo

Johans Gate pedestrian street in Oslo

()  The architecture is centuries older and the weather is a lot more challenging, but Oslo still reminded me of what Northern California’s Marin County might be like with a real transit system. It’s clean, pretty, and feels wholesome (or at least did in contrast with Amsterdam). I loved the car free pedestrian street Johans Gate, and wish I’d stayed in the city longer.

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Biking in Amsterdam

Amsterdammers are likelier to ride bikes to work than they are to drive, walk or take public transport. The city possesses more than three bikes for every car. More than half of traffic movement in the central city is by bicycle.

I was vaguely aware of these impressive stats when I touched down at Schiphol airport last month, but still unprepared for what I beheld in Central Amsterdam in the afternoon rush hour. Cars rolled past, true enough, but what impressed were the Critical Mass-ready throngs streaming past on bicycles: rumpled collegiate types; up and comers in suits; parents with infants in tow; cyclists with groceries, books, briefcases in handlebar racks; kids old enough to travel on their own and plenty of elders like me (although none quite as handsome). They traveled alone, traveled in packs, pedaled in protected bike lanes when they had them and in traffic when they didn’t. Sometimes, they skipped onto sidewalks.

Amsterdam cycle track

Cycle track in Amsterdam

I nagged myself to unlimber my dSLR, but can offer only this meek photo of cyclists’ anonymous backs on a protected bike track near the Heemstedestraat Metro station, relatively far from the city center. Fortunately, other photographers have done the job for me. Plug ‘Amsterdam bicycles‘ in Google Images or Flickr; see what comes up.

I left Amsterdam persuaded that some cities can do much more of their getting around by bicycle than I had supposed beforehand. In sprawling Los Angeles, probably not; in compact San Francisco, certainly, despite the city’s hills. I know Americans who still regard cyclists as a kind of hangnail on the transit grid: nuisances, pursuers of a fad, well-intentioned things-in-the-way-of-the-car, and so forth. I doubt they could or would feel that way after visiting Amsterdam.

* * * * *

Now, with that said: how eager would I be to leap onto the seat and join the pedaling Dutch?

Not very eager. I don’t think Amsterdam accommodates cyclists as well as Copenhagen. For several reasons:

  • Someone had the bad, bad idea of letting motorized scooters share protected bike lanes with cyclists. Scooters account for three percent of traffic, and sixteen percent of accidents.
  • Amsterdam cyclists often pedal in their own lanes, but get to risk their necks with cars when they don’t. I saw one impatient driver tailgating inches from an unsuspecting cyclist’s rear wheel.

The combination of serious bike traffic and car traffic also offers up a real zoo for the pedestrian. I am used to checking for cars before I cross a street, and regarding myself as safe if I see none. In Amsterdam, the pedestrian must check as zealously for approaching bicycles, and trams, too. I am loathe to risk my Grecian good looks in a collision, and that loathing kept my noggin moving like a bobblehead doll as I checked left, right, up, down and sideways during any foray off the sidewalk. And I wasn’t entirely safe on the sidewalk, either, as some outlaw pedal pushers steer their bikes onto them.

For an inkling of what a pedestrian is in for, try pasting ‘Muntplein, Amsterdam, the Netherlands‘ into Google Maps, firing up Streetview, and imagining the scene shown with a commute hour crowd.

* * * * *

Other observations:

  • Amsterdammers pedal beaters, perhaps because they don’t expect to keep them.
  • I’m afraid I saw no bicycle helmets.
  • It’s odd to see adults and kids together in a commute stream. I spotted many of late elementary school or middle school age pedaling solo.

For more photos, please click on the Amsterdam album on my Flickr page.

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European Odds and Ends

(♦)  Expect occasional squinting through a haze of Other Guy’s cigarette smoke while waiting for rides in both Zurich and Copenhagen.  (And perhaps in Stockholm and Moscow, too.  Your scribe took inadequate notes.)

‘Smoking europe’ in the omnibox pulled up this.

(♦)  Also expect to see much more graffiti in both Zurich and Copenhagen than in most American cities. In Moscow, I spotted a couple of desecrated metro car interiors, but little beyond that.

Stockholm may again benefit from my inattentiveness. I don’t remember the graffiti there. As a visiting savant, I felt obligated to conduct occasional scholarly surveys of Sweden’s famously beautiful womenfolk, purely (of course) in the hope of more learnedly describing Nordic anthropological traits upon my return to the states. This distracted me a bit. I’m sure other great thinkers will understand.

Oresundtrain at Ørestad station

Oresundtrain at Ørestad station

Back to the graffiti:

Expect it on trains, buses, signs, walls, but only rarely in transit vehicle interiors. You might have to look at it as the train pulls up, but probably won’t once aboard.

In Zurich (and nowhere else) I saw a handful of creations that I might compliment as ‘graffiti art.’ Such work deserves space and a legal permit; after all, Keith Haring got his start on walls in New York City. But the vast, vast majority was of the sort a middle school teacher would roll eyes over in a twelve year old’s notebook: endless, repetitive, gradient shaded letters, with edge effects and day glo backgrounds. Over and over and over. Maybe such monotonous graffiti represents youth’s revenge for cuts in art funding.

(♦)  Stockholm’s T-Bana packs in the standees at rush hour. Most metros do, I guess. They’re expected to. Why raid the vault for a conventional metro if you don’t expect peak hour crowds?

Still, those brief and easily suffered stints in Swedish cattle cars were enough to pull Stockholm from the heady heights of the transitophile top tier. The stints didn’t bother me, but would bother middle class Americans accustomed to their own seats and airspace in car commutes. I’m being very fussy. I admit it.

 Cyclist and #2 Sofia bus on Södermalm island in Stockholm

Cyclists and #2 Sofia bus on Södermalm island in Stockholm

The Zurich and Copenhagen systems are so phenomenal that I think some of my untraveled transit geek pals in California would really and truly wonder if they had died and gone to heaven, if pumped full of anaesthetic, FedEx’d to Europe in crates-with-airholes and awakened on an S Train. I mean it. Even the atheist geeks would wonder.

‘Where … where are we, Tim? Why is everything so nice and clean? You mean there’s … there’s another train like this in a few minutes?! And look … look at those bicyclists on cycle tracks! The cars can’t hit them there! And those clean buses with free seats! I must be dead. The Christians must have been right. We’re in heaven! Heaven!”

(♦)  The New York Times informs me of a fare dodging underground in Stockholm. I won’t argue, but saw nothing suggestive of this behavior, and would wager plenty wampum that Stockholm serves up nothing as dysfunctional as the epidemic fare dodging I regularly see on San Francisco’s south side. S.F.’s all-door boarding speeds boarding times, but courts a problem I never saw in Los Angeles.

Sweden doesn’t need me to defend its honor, but news of this fare dodging group really soured my morning tea. Maybe nation states should reconsider prohibitions against deporting the native born. If you let me cherry pick, I could furnish honest, hard-working, law-abiding Central American immigrants worth the whole membership roster of Planka.nu.

Trade! Swap! Pay Guatemala to take them off your hands. Why should they get to behave so destructively in one of the world’s most enlightened democracies? Let them duck the fare on this. Or try to.

(♦)  I now collect transit IC cards. My mother collected refrigerator magnets. I’ll bet the same gene can be blamed. I still have an L.A. TAP, of course, and my well-used Clipper, and a misplaced MARTA Breeze hiding in one of my desk drawers, and on the living room mantle — yes, the mantle, where everyone can see them; I’m that weird — IC cards from Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, Moscow and Stockholm.

But nothing from Zurich. The ticket options are listed here; maybe you’ll see the IC card that might have been mine. I feel like I missed something obvious.

Copenhagen does offer an IC card, the Rejsekort, but isn’t sure if it wants you to have one. The ‘Rejsekort Personal’ card is free, but can’t be had online without a Danish ID. The ‘Rejsekort Anonymous’ can be had for cash on the barrelhead, like IC cards elsewhere, but goes for a whopping $12 for the card alone, and may not be available where tourists would be most likely to seek them out: at the airport, or Copenhagen’s central train station.

Check out posts for Rejsekort IC card

Check out posts for Rejsekort IC card

(I write ‘may not’ because rejsekort.dk now claims otherwise, although the map shows no Rejsekort Anonymous outlets at either the airport or Central station.)

I shrugged, and bought the souvenir IC card I craved at an out-of-the-way retailer. I didn’t especially mind the bother, but will gently chide the Vikings for having crashed the ol’ longship in their Rejsekort marketing.

If you get a Rejsekort, please remember to tap the card on the appropriate blue circle on the way into the train, and also on the way out.  The ‘check in’ circles are on the other side of the posts above.

(♦)  I didn’t provide an URL for the huge .pdf of Copenhagen’s cycling map in my ‘Zurich and Copenhagen’ post, and will remedy that omission now.

I worry that scrutiny of this map may provoke unproductively rageful foaming-at-the-mouth among some California pedal-pushers. It’s one thing to look at a fuzzy impressionistic sketch of a faraway bicycling heaven, and another to stare wild-eyed at the excruciating details of Heaven’s street grid, and count the blocks of protected cycling track that aren’t available where U.S. cyclists must daily risk life and limb.

I will defend municipal government by pointing out that only so much can be done at one time, and that not all California voters share my interest in catering to cyclists.

Pay toilet in Zürich HauptbahnhofPay toilet in Zürich Hauptbahnhof

Pay toilet in Zürich Hauptbahnhof

(♦)  ‘WC’ seem to be the two letters to be looked for when hunting a public toilet in Europe. (Although not in the shot above.) Expect said toilet to be clean — sometimes spotlessly clean, in Zurich — and to cost some change to be gotten into. I guess that’s how they deal with locos who hole up in bathroom stalls. The small fee may encourage locos to hole up elsewhere.

(♦)  The carfree can get around in the Swiss boonies aboard PostBus, a subsidiary company of Switzerland’s postal service, just as the name suggests. This I learned from two fellow Unitarians on an IC train back to Zurich, following the Easter Sunday service briefly described here. Both hail from the states, and have lived in Switzerland about a year.

They also told me:

  • It took nearly a month to get used to the high prices.
  • Switzerland can feel like a fantasyland, an untroubled utopia. One meditated on the potential downside of raising children away from the everyday crudities found in the rest of the world.
  • The efficient Swiss may be intolerant of disorganizations taken in stride elsewhere. If you approach a retail counter gushing that you ‘almost have the paperwork sorted out,’ the Swiss agent probably won’t let others wait behind you while you figure out what paper goes where. Off to one side you’ll be sent, politely, firmly and quickly.

(My companions didn’t say so, but I’ll appraise Switzerland as one of the world’s worst vacation destinations for the habitually tardy. A Never-On-Time on holiday in Switzerland is like a Porterhouse buff frowning at the vegan offerings at Herbivore. You’re in the wrong place, pal.)

Tram approaching Stadelhofen station in Zurich

Tram approaching Stadelhofen station in Zurich

(♦)   Several Danes met on the flight home seemed eager to revel in America just as it is. One spoke with relish of his plans to rent a five liter Mustang V8 in L.A.. He had researched this carefully, and obviously anticipated his stint in the ‘Stang as an American holiday highlight. Denmark’s auto-related taxes would have made such a romp prohibitively expensive on his own turf.

He asked me where he might go to wring the ‘Stang out. I suggested Las Vegas.

Many years ago, a Los Angeles cop told me that some loadies — even well-to-do loadies — were fond of camping out in skid row hotel rooms for what might be termed stoner holidays. They stuffed themselves with readily available narcotics, slouched goggle-eyed on walls and parking meters, soiled their britches, did whatever such inebriates like to do, then sobered up, scraped off the skid row filth and returned to their own better-managed neighborhoods, where such debaucheries aren’t permitted.

I’m afraid that the Dane’s plans for a likely 100 mph freeway rocket ride on the 15 reminded me of that old anecdote. Maybe I’m not being fair.

* * * * *

(♦)  I’ll allow myself one not-in-Europe aside, because I won’t work it in anywhere else: Tokyo subways do get very crowded, but the would-be critic should remember where those subways exist. Japan is a little smaller than Montana, and inconveniently covered with mountains. Not much space to work with.

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How I Get Around

I didn’t pull a flat EKG after the last post after all, and will celebrate with an overdue account of my own travel habits.  A next-to-nobody like me could bump along on a Chalmers Rotobaler, for all anyone cares, but I think that those who vote or sound off on transit issues should be forthcoming about how they get around.

I bought a car after moving to San Francisco, as noted in my older-and-wiser-look-back post. I bitterly told myself to burn my Clipper card in effigy and drive full time after the big Federal money for the Central Subway came through, but that was over a year and a half ago, and … well, what can I say? I still depend on my monthly Muni A pass, and still take almost all my inside-the-city trips by transit or on foot.

In 2011, I described myself as a once or twice a week driver. It’s now closer to once a week. I have given up on myself as a gardener, and no longer need a car to lug mulch, soil and the hopeful young potted things that invariably withered beneath my brutish and insensitive fingers. (Do plants have after-lives? Have they forgiven me, if they do?)

I can’t offer a good excuse for driving so little. Years ago in college, a friend used to go off on black philosophic riffs on the larger meaning he found in entropy: that life tends inexorably toward disorder, that what is ordered and good and right can only deteriorate if left alone. That isn’t quite how the lab coat types see it, as I’m sure he knows now, but I am still reminded of Charlie’s bleak words whenever I drive in San Francisco.

The city is compact, finite, ideal for transit. Left-leaning voters must be as likely to favor transit measures as any in the country. San Francisco is rich. But nothing works, it’s San Francisco, after all — the mayor showers in the nude with disc jockeys in San Francisco — and the fare dodgers slip with impunity onto the beat up, crowded buses, the farebox recovery ratio is under 25%, they can’t even hire the drivers they’re supposed to have — here, here, here. The voters seethe with disgust, hold onto money they might wish they could spend¹, and now here I am in my global warmer, too, becoming part of the problem, driving on the same routes that the buses plod upon, on roads with no space for me, hunting for a parking space I can grab before someone else gets it, amidst the exhaust fumes and squealing-of-brakes and tireless honking.

Entropy! That’s what the word should mean. Let the scientists find another term for their pesky thermodynamic law. I feel absurd, and defeated, and so remain as gloomily faithful as a cuckolded Catholic to the Muni that cheats on me; I turn from its transgressions with the Central Subway, as a grim Hillary must have turned with clenched lips from every new stink of perfume on Bill’s collar. I endure the 29 ride to the Richmond to walk with a friend, and opt for transit-centric restaurants when dining out.

* * * * *

No, there’s more to it than that. I’m not being candid enough. I am selfish, too; I don’t enjoy city driving anymore. When I began my motoring career in the ‘burbs, I assumed that personal travel simply required the assumption of little worries. Would my car break down, be ticketed, stolen, vandalized? Would I be rammed into by a drunk, or, likelier, infuriated by a passive-aggressive tailgater, or a horn honker? Would I have to cringe, swerve, slam on the brakes if a child darted out from between parked cars?

Maybe it was eccentric and hair-shirted to live without a car in spread-out L.A., but just the same: those years taught me that I could travel without worrying about any of that stuff. There wasn’t a car that had to be fetched out of a Pershing Square or Beverly Center or Santa Monica Promenade garage. I didn’t have to worry about time on the meter or a crook with a shaved key. I was free!

* * * * *

My travels to the suburbs are another matter. I usually climb behind the wheel if headed to any spot on the Peninsula distant from BART or Caltrain, or anywhere at all in Marin or Sonoma. I’m also fond of occasional long-distance treks on the 580 or 5 or other faraway stretches. I have driven my car to L.A. three times, and was behind the wheel while exploring the Pacific Northwest. I enjoyed these trips nearly as much as I detest city driving. I’m sorry, fellow transit geeks, but it’s so.

I may drive much more frequently if Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project hacks into my home-to-BART-and-back travel times. I have no complaint about TEP. Service revisions simply have to take casualties. I might be one; I’ll see.

I bought the car three years ago, and have run up a bit less than 12,000 miles, including the L.A. and Northwest trips. (I rented a car in the South, and while researching my novel in Indianapolis.)  You can run the numbers and furnish statistics for yourself, if curious.

Now you know.

Update, 6/14/14:  Clipper cards are burned in effigy in San Francisco; not Southern California TAP cards.  Sorry.  I also added ‘might’ to the sentence indicated by the footnote.  I can’t cite a survey indicating San Francisco’s eagerness to fund high dollar transit projects if convinced that dollars would be well used. 

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Zurich and Copenhagen

Copenhagen and Zurich have to be two of the world’s best cities for life without a car.  I write ‘have to be’ because my visit to each was brief; I acknowledge that a longer look-around might dilute my enthusiasm.  But I can’t believe I’d see anything to dilute it very much.

I hope I sound impressed.  I was.

S5 travels north to Zurich

S5 traveling north

If I pull a flat EKG tomorrow or live to see President Ed Snowden swing a putter on the White House green, I’ll die knowing that I visited two cities that fulfill the environmentalist’s dream.  Tokyo’s transit infrastructure is far larger, but Tokyo sentences straphangers to hours of sore-footed, cheek-to-jowl squirming in cattle car rush hour trains.  I’m sure Copenhagen and Zurich see their share of standees, but riders usually get a seat, and the seat is in a clean, attractive train or bus that runs frequently.  The carfree have and eat their cake.

I would support strong measures to restrict the personal car in these transit-meccas-that-actually-work, short of bashing in garage doors and heaving confiscated SUVs into rolling metal crushers.  (Hmmmmm … )  I wouldn’t fear robbing the middle class of significant amenities still enjoyed by the rich.  I think many or even most Americans would be plenty content with their getting around options in Copenhagen and Zurich, although I doubt they’d like the graffiti in these cities any better than I did.

Zurich

I read about Zurich in I-just-plugged-it-in-my-last-post Transit Metropolis, on several transit geek web sites and on the many helpful web pages crafted by one Andy Nash, a former director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

31 bus in Zurich

31 bus in Zurich

(Mr. Nash seems like a gentleman, but gets the blame for an online essay I can hardly stand to look at, subtitled What if Southwest Airlines ran the Muni?  Please, sir!  Congress should consider banning such dismal hypotheticals.  How about What if the U.S. had never invaded Iraq?, if you’re so determined to depress me.)

Atlantic Cities also has an online timelapse showing how much Zurich getting around is accomplished by tram.  All the transit geeks seemed to want to marry the place.  I bought a ticket.

* * * * *

The Zurich Transport Network hosts several fat .pdfs showing off their system, and I’m going to dare you to download and ogle these as you savor my immortal prose.  The first big .pdf shows the grid of the S-Bahn, open since 1990 and now the regional transit backbone.  S-Bahn trains are big, electric, Wrestlemania-ready CalTrain/Metrolink type bruisers, with lotsa seats and ritzy interiors fit for a Swiss banker.

S-Bahn train at Stadelhofen station

S-Bahn train at Stadelhofen station

S-Bahn trains run as infrequently as commuter trains in the Zurich ‘burbs and more like a metro at central city stations served by multiple S lines.  When I rode into town from the airport, I chose between trains running every three to eight minutes.  (Including the inter-city service I’ll describe a few paragraphs hence.)

And this, mind you, is only the backbone. Download the second fat .pdf, and behold the Zurich city system map in all its glory.  Plenty of bus routes, as you’ll see, and plenty of trams.

S-Bahn train interior

S-Bahn train interior

Zurichers have been getting around on trams for over a century.  That’s one reason they killed a 1973 referendum to battle congestion and pollution problems with a big buck ‘U-bahn’ metro.  Liberals feared it would poison the city’s character.  Conservatives liked the idea of stretching a franc by building on an already-excellent tram system.  Zurich also phased in a high tech traffic signal prioritization program, and inflicted the hurt on drivers with a squeeze on parking.

Much of the country is transit friendly.  I chose between twice-an-hour inter-city trains for my trip to Geneva, even more frequent service to visit Basel, and found full-fledged urban transit networks awaiting in both cities.  Riders can take in some jaw-dropping scenery on those long trips, and Switzerland isn’t shy about promoting the views to tourists.  But those inter-city trains serve locals, too.  About half of the available rides from Flughafen Zurich were on inter-city rigs.

Trams on the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse

Trams on the Zurich Bahnhofstrasse

Zurich’s fare structure favors frequent riders.  A yearly 1-2 zone pass for the city proper goes for around $815 USD, or $68 a month.  That’s not bad for a pricey country; my seat mate on the plane told me that Europeans jump on temporary gigs in Switzerland for the high salaries.  ZVV’s farebox recovery ratio is 48%.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen does have a metro, a zippy driverless system similar to what I gushed over in Vancouver.  Breathtakingly short headways are a selling point for these pilotless UTO rigs; most hours, Copenhageners cool their heels only two to six minutes between trains.  The Metro serves the airport, and will add 15 kilometers to its current 20 when the Circle Line opens in 2018.

Copenhagen Metro arrives at DR Byen station

Copenhagen Metro arrives at DR Byen station

Nice, but not the Copenhagen transit lead actor.  That honor must fall to the seven lines and 170 kilometers of the S-train network.  S-trains are electric, resemble single-decker American commuter trains inside and out, and offer service frequency beyond the giddiest imaginings of a Metrolinker in smoggy San Berdoo: no worse than every ten minutes most hours at every S-train station in the system.

Like Stockholm, Copenhagen planned decades ago to shepherd growth around transit-centric ‘new towns.’  Danish planning tsars conjured up something called the Finger Plan in 1947, and pretty much laid out the S-train network on top of it.  The Finger Plan suffered some bruised knuckles in the early 1970s, thanks to auto-oriented sprawl, but survived the challenge and endures to this day.

Copenhagen S train and riders

Copenhagen S train and riders

Copenhagen is also served by a yet another glitzy rail network:  Oresundtrain, linking Denmark’s eastern coast to southern Sweden across the fourteen year old Øresund Bridge.  These brawny trains touch down at only four stops inside Copenhagen city limits, and thus may elicit a big ‘meh’ from those not served by them.  That didn’t include me: I pretty much ditched the Metro after I discovered my proximity to Oresundtrain, and rode the line to and from Copenhagen Central Station, and to the airport.

Oresundtrain at Orestad station

Oresundtrain at Orestad station

Interior shot below.  Makes you want to haul out the lounge jacket and bedroom slippers, doesn’t it?  You might have to endure a full twenty minute wait for an Oresundtrain if you’re headed to Sweden.  If you wish only a lift to the airport or to Copenhagen’s central train station, you’ll wait only ten.

I kid you not: ten minute headways to the airport for this speedy, rajah-ready ride.  I wheeled my rollaboard out of the hotel lobby at around 10:00 a.m. and was pulling it up the airport escalator a half hour later.

Oresundtrain interior

Oresundtrain interior

Trafikselskabet Movia is the tongue-twisting name of the agency that coordinates Copenhagen’s subcontracted bus lines.  I sampled seats on a 9A and a 2A, but was inhibited by a tourist’s predictable bewilderment with the spaghetti-like bus network, and was quite irritated to only discover this excellent map after returning to S.F.  I suggest printing a copy to bring with you, if you journey Copenhagen-ward.  I found no hand out as good in Copenhagen.

* * * * *

The real star of the city’s travel network, though, may be the one I’m least qualified to judge: the bicycling infrastructure.  I left Europe ranking Copenhagen slightly ahead of Zurich as a carfree paradise.  The biking grid is the reason why.

Cyclist and bus in Copenhagen

Cyclist and bus in Copenhagen

See the rider in the shot above?  She’s got a track to herself, doesn’t she?  Inebriates and texters-behind-the-wheel might veer from their right of way and permanently maim an innocent cyclist pedaling at road right, but they hop curbs far less often, and that’s what protects the cyclist here.

Cycle tracks, these protected lanes are called.  Old news to two wheelers, I guess, but new news to me.  Copenhagen claims 223 miles of cycle tracks.  I don’t know if all or most are grade separated, but I do know that I spotted dedicated-to-the-bicycle, protected-from-cars bicycle thoroughfares all over the city.

The city’s official web site sez that over half — over half! — of Copenhagers cycle to their place of work or education every day.  Four out of five Copenhagers have access to a bike; bikes outnumber Copenhagen cars five to one.

I have applauded U.S. cyclists at every turn, while happily acknowledging that they’d need a heavy game load in a twelve gauge to get me to pedal much in an American big city.  Too dangerous.  “You’ll know you’ve won the war,” I’ve said, “when you see me on a bike here.”

If I moved to Copenhagen, I’d be a happy cog in the bike packs there within a week.

Back to the States

In spite of the lives and trillions lost in several wars, maintenance of the world’s largest military budget — more than three times larger than second place China — and a lousy-and-getting-lousier rank for income inequality, the United States has still provided well for its citizens on some quality of life measures.  Work-life balance may be among the OECD’s worst, and U.S. scores for education and life satisfaction are middle of the pack, but America still ranks top of the heap for income

It also gets good marks for housing.  We quiche-eating new urbanism types may sneer at sprawl, but those American Dream ranch houses and lawns must look pretty mouthwatering to some Tokyo salarymen.  Even if you need a car to get to them.

The OECD offers no ranking for public transit services.  I’ll fall back on the official transitophile web site metric, scientifically determined with your scribe’s eyeballs and pants seat: United States transit offerings compare very, very badly to what I rode in western Europe.  And putting it as ‘very, very badly’ may be very, very nice.

I didn’t appreciate how much my daily rides aboard Very, Very Badly had skewed my perspective.

Sure, I could read about great transit systems thousands of miles away, and ooh and aah over pictures.

That isn’t what I was riding every day.

In L.A. I was limping along on a transit grid gelded years before my birth by the General Motors-backed consortium that destroyed the Pacific Electric infrastructure.  Transit TV ads tried to hustle me into get-out-of-debt schemes.  That was what private sector advertisers wanted to spend their own money on for Transit TV ads, at least back then: debt reduction pitches, so the sorry bus-bound SOBs could get their pink slips back and realize mobility liberation on the 405.

San Francisco let me get around more comfortably without a car, but on frequently jammed, delapidated buses.  And the longer I did, the easier it was deep, deep down inside to impute wisdom to the champions of the private car, and to cock an ever-more-interested ear to their almost pitying conclusion:  Tim, it doesn’t work.  The transit pitch is just a rigged carnival ring toss for cram-em-in infill.  Look at where the pols live.  Look at where Al Gore lives.  You’ve been had.  When are you going to realize it?

I won’t think that again.

Near Stadelhofen station in Zurich

Near Stadelhofen station in Zurich

I’m not a knee jerk supporter of maybe-they’ll-fall-for-this ballot spending measures.  (Have a look at this analysis of gross misuse of San Francisco bond funds, if you think me too skeptical.)  I feel ashamed as an American to admit it, but the U.S. scores much lower than Denmark, Sweden or Switzerland on Transparency International’s index of corruption in government.  And California ranks as only middling for honesty among the states.  The less trustworthy the elected officials, the more sense it makes to pull up the taxation drawbridge and holler for Ron Paul.

I still won’t forget what I rode in and saw in Zurich and Copenhagen.  And Stockholm came close.

Norwegian Air will put you on a non-stop from L.A. to Copenhagen for four or five hundred bucks.  (But not in the summer; you’ll have to wait a few months.)  The air hop to Zurich adds another $150.

Virtually everyone in Zurich speaks English.  In Copenhagen, English is so common that I could start conversations in my native tongue without any fear of seeming rude.   Neither country requires a visa of short-term American tourists.

Research the cities and get the transit apps for your smartphone, so you can offer a fair trial.  Go if you’re a NASCAR dad or a dittohead and have read most of this post with a sneer.

With respect, I offer the challenge.  Go, if you doubt me, and see for yourself.

Update, 6/14/14:  ¹ But have a look at the discouraging take on America’s median wealth in this CNN article.

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About those transit gulags

Stockholm’s new towns — no longer very new, and referred to as gulags only playfully — are the clusters of housing and commercial development herded about the outlying stations of the T-bana metro system.  Transit guru Robert Cervero beamed about them in Transit Metropolis, and here I was jetting off to Europe anyway.  I figured I’d have a look.

Housing near the Akalla station in Stockholm, Sweden

Housing near the Akalla station

A quick new town timeline:

1902:  With inspiration from the once widely read utopian novel Looking Backward, and perhaps while fingering the tufts of that knockout walrus ‘stache, the grumpus shown below wrote Garden Cities of To-morrow and spawned the ‘garden city’ movement.  It would not do, opined this sage, for cities to metastasize chaotically across the countryside; you wanted to plan how they’d appear, and corral them within greenbelts.

(Ebenezer Howard was the sage’s name.  In fact, Sir Ebenezer Howard, to be formal about it; that should tell you something.  I don’t know why he looks so cranky here.  Perhaps he’d just gazed through a soothsayer’s crystal ball at the future San Fernando Valley.)

1904: The Stockholm city council started buying up land.  Maybe they were forward looking.  Maybe they just had a thing for snow and dirt.  Either way: by 1980 Stockholm owned seventy percent of the one hundred eighty-eight square kilometers within city boundaries, and six hundred square kilometers beyond.

(Six hundred square kilometers = about five San Franciscos, give or take a couple of Bi-Rites.  A lot of land.)

Ebenezer Howard

Ebenezer Howard

1945: Architect Sven Markelius rolled up his Nordic sleeves and commenced work on Stockholm’s general plan, which ordained that much future housing and commercial development would be artfully funneled around stations in the region’s growing rail network.  Mr. Markelius was aware of surveys indicating Swedish preference for lower density development, but pushed ahead with his general plan anyway.  If the friends of Wendell Cox seek an historical figure to burn in effigy, well, Sven might be their man.

1954:  The first of the new towns appeared at the Vällingby station.

2014: Sweden rejoiced silently as I stepped off a jet at Arlanda, gracing lucky Stockholm with a first-ever visit.  Dagbladet somehow missed my press conference, but I felt the city’s quiet gratitude while hustling my rollaboard to the nearest airport urinal.

I devoted my first Stockholm day to more conventional touristing, but commenced my informal look-a-see of the new towns the day after.  I visited Skarpnäck first, at the end of the T17 T-bana line, then Fruängen on the T14, Hägerstensåsen, and, after more touristy wandering about, Rinkeby and Tensta.  The next day I continued to the T19’s Vällingby, and Akalla and Kista on the T11.

High rises near the Vällingby station

High rises near the Vällingby station

Impressions:

(♦)  Tensta, Rinkeby and the unseen-by-me Husby need to be brooded about separately, for reasons to be explained shortly. Everything else looked as good or better than expected. I might have irritated one local by asking twice if nearby high rises were tenanted by the well-to-do: the first time because I wanted to know, the second time because I couldn’t believe his answer that they were ‘only’ middle class.

(♦)  All the high rises shown are within a businesslike five minute walk of a T-bana station.  (The station entrance is across a courtyard and to the right of the white buildings immediately above.)  The metro runs every ten to fifteen minutes most hours, and the rail ride to downtown Stockholm takes twenty to thirty minutes, at least from the new towns I visited.  Forty-three percent of Stockholmers ride transit to work.

(♦)  Retail and community offerings vary from station to station.  Kista got a whole shopping center, whether it wanted one or not.  I spotted a church, community center and Direkten convenience store at Skarpnäck.  Rinkeby had a courtyard produce market, and the market was busy while I was there.

Courtyard near Rinkeby T-bana station in Stockholm, Sweden

Courtyard at the Rinkeby station

(♦)  I didn’t go to Europe to research a PhD thesis and spoke to only a few folk, but those few spoke well of their transit-centric Stockholm communities.  For that matter, so had a proud condo owner near Zurich’s Waltikon stop, and so would a young dad near the DR Byen Metro station in Copenhagen.  I met no transit oriented development naysayers in Europe.  Maybe I should have tried harder to find one.

(♦)  My photos don’t do the greenery justice.  I took the top-of-the-post Akalla shot with my back to the entrance of a goodly-sized park, and strolled several woodsy paths near the Fruängen station.  On the way to Kista, my T11 T-bana passed through a huge and apparently nameless nature preserve between the E18, E4 and 279 road routes.  Zoom in with Bing Maps’ birds eye view, and you’ll see the T-bana train tracks between the trees.

Housing near the Hägerstensåsen T-Bana station in Stockholm, Sweden

Housing near the Hägerstensåsen station

(♦)  The new towns are similar, but not cookie cutter clones of one another.  Skarpnäck struck me as the most family-oriented, Kista as the most commercial.

(♦)  Tensta, Rinkeby and Husby are described charitably as hubs of Stockholm immigrant life, and less charitably as ghettoes. They might be about the nicest ghettoes you’ve ever seen, in a utilitarian, generic-box-of-laundry-detergent-at-the-mall kind of way, but I was still happy to leave behind the small police action I walked into at Tensta, and would hesitate to back a moving van up to an apartment there.

* * * * *

Consider the differences between the Stockholm new towns and what is often labeled ‘transit oriented development’ in the U.S. (For an especially shameful bad example, look at this 2007 story about shoehorning condo towers into an already built up Los Angeles area inadequately served by bus lines.) Stockholm’s blueprint and infrastructure came first. Stockholm bought up the land equivalent of five San Franciscos to build the new towns.

An Akalla local told me that ‘new town’ life differs from new town to new town, and from housing complex to complex. I well recall her sly, satisfied smile as she recounted happy years in one development that carefully vetted residents. Presumably, this vetting insured that hosters of midnight keggers, cranker-uppers of stereo volume controls, Airbnb subletters, inconsiderate pet owners and other unappealing neighbors all got to live somewhere wonderfully far, far, far away.

* * * * *

Would I rent or buy in one of these places?

Playground and high rise near the Hägerstensåsen T-bana station in Stockholm, Sweden

Playground and high rise near the Hägerstensåsen station

Eagerly and happily, I think, if I could afford it, but I have become an experienced apartment dweller in my senior years, and would have some questions first.  How thick are the walls?  Would I get to enjoy the gentle garden city breezes in my new digs, or have to hum along with my svensker neighbor’s oldie-but-goodie ABBA CDs?  How is management?  Would they attend to infestations, broken fixtures, stingy heaters?  Tell the ABBA fan to listen through headphones?  Or would they follow the American politician’s example of earnestly promising to do all that stuff, and then losing my emails and phone messages after the check cleared?

The great drawback to piling folks on top of each other in transit-centric high rises is that neighbors are now only a wall, floor and ceiling thickness away, rather than a couple of Suburban Sprawl back yards away.  If the high rise is well built and well run, the wall, floor and ceiling should be thick enough.

If.

 

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More about Moscow …

… although most of the ‘more’ will be about the Metro.  I must have spent half my visiting time underground.  You know me.

* * * * *

Skyscanner imagines Russia to be one of the world’s rudest countries, and my late April arrival at Sheremetyevo International coincided with much east-west mud slinging over unrest in the Ukraine.  I expected a long once over from airport security and at least an occasional stony look in Moscow when I had to show the giveaway navy blue of my USA passport.

Watching dancers on the Arbat

Watching dancers on the Arbat

Shows how much Skyscanner and I knew.  Airport security as much as yawned at my passport, and Muscovites were perfectly friendly.  A good Samaritan met on the Aeroexpress even walked me to the Belorusskaya terminal to help me buy a Тройка IC card for the Metro.  I encountered only one instance of what some call ‘Russian gruffness,’ when I followed a rail station Information sign to a cubbyhole peopled by three grouchy careerists who looked like someone had just made off with the office coffee maker.  They were somewhat less than ambassadorial.  I’ll leave it at that.

My fumble-lipped Vy govorite po-angliyski? often elicited self-conscious giggles from the young, as if I were a TV personality polling random passersby with Russian Trivial Pursuit questions.  Many of the young did know some English, but seemed embarrassed to have forgotten so much of a language they rarely used.

* * * * *

The Moscow Metro may be justly billed as an underground museum, but it is an extraordinarily busy museum, and about as frivolous and ornamental as a defibrillator.  One native dismissed winter drives in her often snowbound city as nearly impossible, and referred to the subway as a ‘lifeline.’  I didn’t stand on a bench and try to tally up riders-per-square-yard, but warn tourists to expect throngs only slightly less formidable than those found in some Asian cities, unless visiting early on a weekend morning.

Early morning in the Moscow Metro

Early morning in the Moscow Metro

The best shot I didn’t take was of colossal crowds queuing at the escalators.  I never rode a Moscow train as crowded as those I squeegeed into in Seoul and Shanghai, but the masses I saw milling before the escalators beat any glimpsed in Asia.  Some of those deep, deep stations doubled as bomb shelters in World War II; only a masochist would want to climb stairs.  Twice, I saw station agents chaperone women with small children to the head of the queue, so the little ones wouldn’t be smothered or stepped on in the crowd.

* * * * *

The underground museum is also sorely in need of a house call from Extreme Makeover.  Tourists can expect to train wondering eyes at the sleek stainless steel curves of the Mayakovskaya station and the baroque grandeur of Komsomolskaya, but also will see plenty of caked-in grime, stained and buckled wood grain plastic panels, discolored stone work and other signs of neglect.  The interiors of the crate-like older metro cars look like they’ve seen steady service since the Battle of Stalingrad (although I still might rate them a notch ahead of the worst of the Muni bus fleet in San Francisco).

Moscow Metro escalators

Moscow Metro escalators

Still: those old crates got the job done.  I didn’t bring a stopwatch, but would swear that some morning headways were under a minute.  “Brutally efficient” was the unoriginal phrase that occurred to me often while underground.

* * * * *

Old fashioned chivalry survives in Moscow; I saw several young men stand to offer seats to elderly passengers.  Alas, that chivalry does not extend to the escalator queue.  Leave a foot in front of you, and someone will step into it.  Nothing personal.

* * * * *

And now, on to some more subjective impressions.  A few minutes on DuckDuckGo will likely turn up blogs by polyglot Russian Studies PhDs who know Moscow inside and out.  I spent all of five days there, and still can’t say anything tougher than спасибо without choking.

That said, I’m entitled to a newcomer’s impressions.

Moscow felt like a frequently grim city striving for cheerfulness.  I boned up on my post-Gorbachev recent events before flying in, and winced when reading of how far the economy had sunk in the Yeltsin era.  It’s hard to think of a country that has endured more: in Lenin’s Red Terror, in Stalin’s gulags, in the deaths of tens of millions in the second World War, in the suffocating comatosity of Brezhnev’s tenure and then once more under the mercurial Yeltsin, when ordinary Muscovites hawked cigarettes at Metro stations to supplement paychecks decimated by 245% inflation, and some pensioners begged in the street so they wouldn’t starve.¹

Near a Moscow rail station

Near a Moscow rail station

I sensed the weary cynicism that must be felt by many in this country of They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.  One local told me that Russia can feel like a prison, if only because of the salaries.  The average is $800 to $900 a month USD; how merrily can a vacationing Russian cavort on that sum while abroad in, say, Sweden, where a typical worker earns as much in a little over a week?  The well-connected raked in a mint when the USSR imploded and can ride their limos in Monaco, but the average working stiff?  The internet liberates Russians to drink in all the sights of a world they’ll never visit, and read detailed accounts of how they’ve been cheated.

But: the sun still rises for all — a true Communist, that sun! — and the brutal winters end eventually, and life still spares an occasional free day, even if you’re working two jobs to get by.  You can stroll Red Square with your family, take your kids into the Ploschad Revolutsii metro to rub the nose of the dog for good luck, watch the artists and musicians on the Arbat.  Maybe, just maybe, your country’s ship will come in eventually, and someone besides the oligarchs will be able to get on board.

¹ Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia, pgs. 516-517.  Think I make this stuff up, do you?

 

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Moscow Metro guide for English speakers

The free, pdf’d, certified-as-official-and-requested-by-absolutely-no-one transitophile guide for English speakers navigating the Moscow Metro is online at:

http://transitophile.com/chango/files/moscowmetroguide.pdf

The 200+ mile Moscow Metro carries more yearly riders than any earthly subway system outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul.  The lion’s share of construction credit has to go to the maniacally paranoid Stalin, who masterminded a propaganda showcase for the dizziest fantasies of utopian Communism — the baroque grandeur of the Komsomolskaya station, the other worldly beauty of Mayakovskaya — even as millions rotted in his gulags.

Mayakovskaya station in the Moscow Metro

Mayakovskaya station in the Moscow Metro

I know of no other transit system as magnificent, or any that sprang from such a brutal past.  The American press had little reason to publicize a Communist country subway at the height of the Cold War, no matter how spectacular; many Americans have never heard of it.

Anyone with a fleeting interest in twentieth century history would want a look.  For a transit geek, it’s close to a holy grail.

But there’s a problem.

The Moscow Metro’s signage is in Cyrillic.  Cyrillic, as in: ПЕРEХОД НА КОЛЬЦЕВУЮ ЛИНИЮ.  Or maybe ПЕРЕХОД ПРЕКРАЩАЕТСЯ В 1 ЧАС НОЧИ, if ПЕРEХОД НА КОЛЬЦЕВУЮ ЛИНИЮ didn’t quite skip off the tip of your tongue. I wanted to see it, but not if I had to learn to read Brothers Karamazov in the original just to get around.

Last month I visited Europe partly to see if any of the transit meccas I’d read about in years past lived up to their billing.  (Zurich and Copenhagen certainly did, and Stockholm came close, but that’s the stuff of another post.)  Moscow is only nine hundred miles southeast of Stockholm.  I wasn’t planning to return to that neck-of-the-world anytime soon.  It wasn’t necessarily ‘Moscow Metro now or never,’ but it was close.

I decided to take the chance.  Maybe I’d get hopelessly lost, wander the city for hours, fall into the hands of the KGB and be interrogated for fomenting unrest in the Ukraine.  So what?  Hadn’t I spent decades working with small children who think anyone over thirty is ready for the coffin anyway?  I’m retired.  I’d lived long enough to see the original episodes of Mr. Ed, hadn’t I? Who could ask more of life than that? Let the KGB do what they would!

I applied for my visa and dove into online research.  Many web sites were eager to tell me about Moscow Metro architecture, but I found only one — http://bridgetomoscow.com/moscow-by-metro — that tackled the challenge of Cyrillic signage. I pored over posts in travel forums, and made two judgment calls before I left that I became immensely grateful for once in Russia:

  • Tourist guides might emphasize English names for Moscow Metro stations, but I would not let those guides mislead me.  The Cyrillic names were what counted.  Maybe I couldn’t read or sound out Славянский бульвар, but Славянский бульвар was what I was going to see on signs down there, and not the English ‘Slavyansky bulvar.’  If anything, ‘Slavyansky bulvar’ was a potentially dangerous distraction.  I could regard Славянский бульвар s a word symbol, and be ready for it.
Komsomolskaya station of Moscow Metro

Komsomolskaya station of Moscow Metro

  • I would bring along easily-read, jumbo-sized copies of a first rate map.

I almost skipped this step.  Wasn’t I going to the city where the metro operated?  Wouldn’t I be certain, simply certain, of finding a selection of excellent maps there?  Or at the airport, perhaps.  Surely in Moscow!

Well, I never did.  Maybe you Muscovites know where I should have stopped.  I asked at two KACCA ticketing windows, and was politely directed to gaze at maps mounted on the wall.

The Art Lebedev Studio took Moscow’s prize for best metro map, and generously provides the map’s .eps file online.  Alas, said map is Cyrillic only, and I regard .eps as a file format for graphic pros.

If you visit the site of second place winner Ilya Birman, you’ll find a huge Cyrillic/English map as a .pdf.  That was what I wanted.  I have a photo printer, so could make my own 16 x 13 print at home.  If I hadn’t had that printer, I could have spent a few bucks to get jumbo copies done by Kinko’s or Staples.

I printed two copies, wound up giving one away to a grateful UK tourist, and spent half my metro riding time with the second map between my nervous fingers.  In-dis-pen-sable.

How about a computer app?  The Yandex Moscow Metro app will let you load a map, but in Cyrillic only or English only.  The Cyrillic map would be worlds better than no map at all, but I used the Ilya Birman map far more often, and had no use for the Yandex trick of figuring out the best route by tapping origin and destination stations.  I could do that with my eyeballs.

* * * * *

Travel from touchdown at Sheremetyevo International Airport (where Edward Snowden holed up) to the Aeroexpress train’s end-of-the-line at Moscow’s Белорусская terminal was easier than expected.  Russia seems willing to coddle Sheremetyevo travelers; I found an English information kiosk, and English signs showing the way to the Aeroexpress.  I also met a good Samaritan onboard, who generously chaperoned me to the KACCA ticket window to buy a Тройка IC card loaded with sixty rides.

But now my good Samaritan was gone, and I was through the fare gates, and on my own.

The next hour was nervous making.  (And might have been well nigh impossible, had it not been for that page at bridgetomoscow.com.)  I wanted to find the No. 5 Brown Line, but felt like I was hunting for it at the livestock auction at Ulan Bator, for all I could grok of the Cyrillic Дs and Иs and жs. Through corridor after corridor I tugged my rollaboard, ignoring the crush of riders that swarmed past on all sides, squinting hopefully at each new sign and suppressing anxiety as I found it as unhelpful as the last.  I meandered onto a platform, watched a train pull up.  Maybe I should just follow the herd onto it.  Maybe I was at an unusually confusing station.  Maybe the Metro would make more sense in that magical Somewhere Else!

Moscow Metro train at the Novoslobodskaya station

Moscow Metro train at the Novoslobodskaya station

Thankfully, I resisted that urge, and soon enough deciphered the first clue of the jigsaw puzzle: I kept seeing words like Динамо and Аэропорт because I was stumbling about near the Green Line, and not the Brown Line I sought.  The fog cleared a bit.  I found a Brown Line sign, found a Brown Line platform, almost got on a train going the wrong way, realized my mistake, and triumphantly boarded the train I wanted.  I continued to grope and fumble on the system for many hours more, but was a vastly more confident traveler by the following morning.  By late morning, I could navigate the Moscow Metro almost as easily as a subway in the U.S.

How much easier it could have been, thought I, with even a threadbare manual!  On my last day in Moscow, I spent an hour photographing subway signs, in the hope of crafting that manual after my return to the states.

* * * * *

A few notes:

  • I left Shanghai convinced that even off-the-cuff instructions could get most tourists from Pudong Airport to any subway station.  Shanghai’s English signage is that good.

I am much less bullish about Everytourist’s prospects in the Moscow Metro.  I harbor modest hopes that my tutorial will enable English speakers to navigate the maze more comfortably, but also can too easily imagine some getting in a nice mess down there, particularly if unaccustomed to subways and disposed to panic in crowds.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

  • Yes, the .pdf instructions are detailed, and then some!  I know all of you rolled out of bed and turned on the computer today by yourselves.  I’d still rather provide too much detail than too little.
  • My friend on the Aeroexpress told me that many young Muscovites spoke English.  That turned out to be a very good thing to know in sometimes-bewildering Moscow.  I had no luck with anyone over thirty, in or out of uniform, but would guesstimate that I drew English answers out of nearly forty percent of the young approached with my dazed tourist questions.

(When you pose questions of that young English speaker, please remember that fluency is not a thing possessed or not possessed, like an iPhone app or a tumor, but a matter of degree.  Speak slowly and clearly, avoid slang and try to restrict yourself to English 1A vocabulary.)

Arbatskaya station in the Moscow Metro

Arbatskaya station in the Moscow Metro

  • How about the Metro’s red/blue towers labeled SOS, with a button to press for Information?  I pressed it, and reached an operator in seconds.  She spoke no English.
  • Moscow Metro trains run as often as every ninety seconds.  If in any doubt about the ID of an arriving car, just let it come and go, and board the next one.  The only significant waiting I did was between 5:30 and 6:00 a.m., when the Metro is just waking up.
  • Maybe there are better ways to do it, but I learned to confine my study of signage to station names, route numbers and colors, and the ubiquitous выход в город for exit to the city.  I ignored everything else.  I wasn’t going to understand it, and figured I didn’t need it.
  • I didn’t try to figure out how to identify different station exits.  Maybe I should have, as I was often frustrated to emerge topside blocks from where I wanted to be.
  • Some Metro stops join three different subway lines; the Библиотека имени Ленина stop joins four.  Expect confusion in such places, less because of the Cyrillic signage than because you’re trying to find your way in a maze.

* * * * *

More information:  Amazon will accept $4.50 for a short propaganda pamphlet on the Moscow Metro penned by one Y. Abakumov, published in the thick of Stalin’s Great Purge in 1939.  This twenty-four page dollar shred will at least coax a smile from some readers with the paragraphs below:

The Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party called upon the entire country to take part in building the subway of the capital.

The country eagerly responded to the call.  Scores of thousands of people flocked to Moscow from all ends of the vast Soviet Union.

Abakumov would be gratified to know that Texas Republicans flock as eagerly to their post offices every April to pay taxes.

Wikipedia has a long post about the Moscow Metro, but my favorite articles were all locked up on JStor.  Thankfully, I could access these gratis through my San Francisco Public Library account, and expect that library card holders elsewhere can do the same.

If you have time for only one article, I suggest Andrew Jenks’ Metro on the Mount, at http://www.jstor.org/stable/25147594 .

* * * * *

The image files used in the guide are in a directory of their very own, at:  http://transitophile.com/chango/files/moscowmetro/

If you’d like to see other photos from my trip, please click the Moscow album on my Flickr page.

 

 

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