Monday, October 15, 2007

Europe vs. the US...

Transportation has always been an interest in my life. When I was young, all I wanted to do was be an engineer on a train. Though I have now moved on to being an actual engineer, my interest in trains stays. This past summer, I was fortunate to have saved up enough money to afford to travel around in Europe for a month. This had always been a desire of mine and I’m extremely glad I got the chance to do so. As I have been reading through these chapters, a number of the topics the authors bring up are very evident in European cities and I remember seeing them and thinking about them during the trip.

My first gripe, which goes back to my youthful love of trains, is how pitiful the train system in the US looks compared to nearly every public transportation system in Europe. We did nearly all of our traveling by train, many of which were high speed trains. These trains were easy to get to with hubs in or around the centers of every city. They were also very comfortable and enjoyable and offered private cars and pristine views of the countryside which would have been missed by air travel. I happen to prefer this kind of travel as it allows for more relaxed travel and walking around is far easier than on a plane. Seeing the countryside roll by also makes the trip far more interesting and a true taste for a country can be formed. Europe also offers a system where a rail pass can be bought for a single day up to several months making train travel flexible to any schedule. A big issue in the states is being able to travel between cities. Transportation systems often only span out from a single city and serve the surrounding areas. There is little emphasis on traveling by train between cities. Amtrak serves the eastern coast, and I try to take it whenever I can, but is unfortunately horribly inefficient and I often feel that I could walk faster. The biggest hurdle they have to overcome is the lack of attention they get for travel and privately owned rail lines often result in lengthy delays as the Amtrak train must wait for the commuter trains to pass. These delays cause people to fly more and the result is the extreme congestion that is seen at our nation’s airports.

My second gripe, though still on trains, is with city transportation. I grew up on Boston’s subway lines and have since moved to the subway lines of New York City. Until this past summer when I was forced to learn the 4-5-6 lines to get to work, I was baffled by the NYC subway system. There seems to be few or no maps and likewise with people to help you out. This is not the case in Europe. Even in countries where I didn’t even speak a single word, I could usually find my way around. Every major area was accessible by subway and the stations were clearly marked making them easy to find and navigate with. The subways were also linked together and nearly every station had a board displaying which train would be coming when and gave up to the minute estimates on when they would arriving. This system is in place in Washington DC and would greatly benefit New York City’s subway system.

My third and final rant is on bicycle transportation. I would be terrified to ride a bike anywhere in New York City, even on their “dedicated bike paths.” Roads are extremely crowded with cars and taxis and no one seems to even see pedestrians. The bike paths are also few and far between and only allow travel up and downtown, but offer little in cross town travel. In contrast, many cities in Europe have highly dedicated lanes and paths for bikes, and I often felt like I had to be more aware of walking on a bike path and getting hit by a bike than being in the road and getting hit by a car. With cities that had these major bike systems, I saw a substantial decrease in the number of cars. I also saw a number of cities such as Barcelona, Munich, and Amsterdam where bikes could be easily rented and deposited around the city at different locations. We took advantage of this in Amsterdam and I had one of the most pleasant trips through a city that I’ll probably ever have. Being on the bike got me away from the pollution and noise of cars and allowed me to slow down a little and enjoy the city. I think New York City could easily adopt a bike share system or at least a more substantial bike path system by taking away one of the lanes from the wide avenues. These lanes could also be used for rapid bus transit. Essentially what it comes down to is keeping the cars away from bus and bike lanes.

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