Sunday, 23 January 2011

Public transport across the continents

This might not strike you as the most interesting of topics and you might think shall I continue to read on after this sentence. To web log about transport may on first glimpse read like a big fat complaint. But I assure you this blog is going to be an equal analysis of both complaint and compliment.

I address you, whomever has started reading this and put it to you that this vital part of most people’s lives, this thing that happens to us and what we put upon ourselves and use and re-use frequently, affects everyone. We all use it at some point every day and even if you claim to be an avid pedestrian I am sure that transport has affected you in one way or another every other day. Surely everyone has an opinion on transport? I know people who know people who work in the transport industry so to you, forgive me for attempting to talk about a subject I know relatively nothing about except my own experiences.

I have lived in Sydney for the last eight weeks and getting to know how the transport system works here has often left me feeling like I need to punch someone, or cry. Complaint. Having also lived in London for six years with a break in the middle to the midlands, I feel its time to make some comment.

Sydney’s transport system is defunct; it seems to me to be a decade old. It is slow, expensive and old. It costs almost $4 for single from the CBD (Central Business District aka city centre) to Bondi. It took us weeks to find out what ‘zone’ we are in because no one really uses the zones except the ticketing system but no body can tell you what zone you are in at any time? There are no maps with zone indications or parameters, no one says you need a zone 1-3 ticket nor does anyone make it clear about price guidelines or information on which bus ticket to purchase. It is guesswork and interpretation of which news agency has told you what because you cant buy a bus ticket on the bus for a prepay bus to Bondi, no, you have to find a news agency that sells bus tickets. Not all do mind you most run out of bus tickets or just do not offer the service of selling them.

Elizabeth Street in the CBD is where we have to go to get a bus to Bondi, except for about 300m there is no indication where which bus will stop where? Sometimes they stop at the top of Hyde Park, and sometimes they stop at the bottom if there is a queue of different buses. On many occasion after work I have run to get it from one end of the bus stands to the other and missed it. I was there, at the bus stop. The 300m long bus stop. I have asked bus drivers huffing and puffing having made it on on occasion and one once said that he didn’t know where to stop so he tries to stop in the middle ‘hahaha’ as I approached the door sweating and gasping for air. Not impressed. It does not seem to matter if you arrive early or late, you stand there and it is sheer luck if you get to the bus before they swerve off lifting their arms at you in mock ‘sorry’. The monorail just goes round in circles and is hugely expensive. It looks great though, a futuristic gliding car swerving around corners above your head through the city. Cars can come in and out of the centre of town easily and this creates huge congestion for pedestrians and buses. Not to mention you can’t take a breath for all the pollution in the CBD. The train is better but not direct, so it would mean spending at least $25 a day each. I simply cannot congratulate the transport system here at all. We have hired cars and the e-toll system for getting across Harbour Bridge or under it is ludicrous. All the signage says is go online there are no cash takers as you go through or under, but here’s the catch; you never know when you are being charged. So you go online, to check, and it only points you to where you buy seasonal tickets for habitual crossings, but as a hire car it was for that day or two, so you ring and are on hold and they tell you to go online and pay it but please friends, look at the website, can you find where it tells you to pay for that day? They don’t tell you how many times you went over, it took so long for me to understand; they take your bank account details and then at the end of the day they take away how many times you crossed. But if you don’t give your bank details; you get penalised!

Now I know many of you complain about TFL, on a daily basis, I find myself laughing (now that I am away) at Twitter and Facebook at all the funny comments, to quote but a few

been stuck on a bus for 25 mins, no heating, condensation turning to ice, WTF is wrong with you TFL!!!!!!

stand still traffic....great…

Now TFL in comparison to the Sydney transport system is amazing. Congestion charging, however much expensive and begrudgingly we pay it, does work, does it not? Trains run until a decent time, bus only cost £1 wherever you are going, be it from north to south or east to west. Buses are plentiful and regular all day and most of the night, albeit full at all times.

Not to say England has it right; remember that time there was a heat wave and the train lines started melting or some such ridiculous thing, and remember the salt for roads ran out when it snowed that year? Not to mention the complete gridlock and statistics of accidents when there is bad weather. Lets face it Great Britain has bad weather, and always has had and quite regularly in a year, how come we still get it so wrong when it comes to the odd abstract day for weather?

We travelled through South America on public transport on the road for a few months at the start of our world trip. We took no internal flights and managed to cover Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. We were in complete awe at how unbelievably sound the transport system was. We do not speak Spanish but managed it fine. Clear instructions, clear signage, clear ticketing. We went across the countries; through desert and hostile landscape, through mountains and valleys in severe climates and altitudes. This continent knows transport. Brazil and Argentina had to be my all time favourite. Driving for days does not faze these people. Locals and travellers all use it. All the countries had official coach drivers, but the Brazilian’s were like police officers in uniform, stern like the military. Always two of them to take turns in driving the hours and hours it would take to get to the next destination. Counting you on and off the coach every time we stopped, and not just counting heads, but checking names and places, once a couple swapped places with a friend opposite and it created quite a stir with the drivers. I loved it.

No issue of safety, these people had me at ‘passport?’ Our backpacks went into the bottom of the coach or bus and they give you a ticket and once the trip was complete we would collect our baggage, knowing it was there. Unlike in Italy where a boyfriend who will remain nameless picked up someone else’s bag from beneath the coach which led to tears and days of phonecalls and organising. We would board these semi-cama buses in South America and smell the freshness of a newly cleaned bus, not like a cinema clean where they simply pick up the popcorn buckets not the bits of popcorn everywhere, these buses had no crisps or stains crushed into the seats, no waft of odour other cleaning solution.

Bolivia is a poorer country and buses were older yes, but still in tact. Even when there was the odd lamb, goat or smelly woman on board, they still went across fine. We travelled right the way through this massive land and these modes of transports did the job surely and sufficiently, it may have been rocky going across the Chako (desert) but we still made it. The semi-cama reclined and was comfortable enough to sleep in for a day or two. Plenty of space, cushioning on both sides of the seat to move around in, cushioned foot and leg rests that extend the length of the leg in most circumstances. We would stop at the roadside in towns and villages and women with baskets on their hips or heads would come onto the bus, walk up and down selling fresh hot empanadas, once we even had a full on roast dinner, meat she cut there on the bus with hot roast potatoes served in a bag! You didn’t even have to leave your seat. We looked back and everyone on board were licking their fingers with meat and potatoes. Delicious!

For only a few pounds more, we travelled on a first class superior cama bus through Argentina as a treat. We could lie down flat, we had a hot 3 course meal, with snacks, we had champagne, wine and beer. We read and watched our own television, in a language choice of our own. We curled up with a blanket. Simply wonderful. The gentle rocking motion of the coach would send me off into a sound sleep, it was luxury.

South American transport I salute you. You do not get fazed by extreme weather, you are (mostly) reliable, clean and safe. You go such lengths and seem to never tire. You are nearest perfection I have experienced. Thank you!


Jigna said...

I love this blog post, Roopa! Maybe the title should be "Public Transport Across the continents"? But then you also talk about toll roads, so maybe Traffic/Transportation is the best title?!

Anyway, Dallas has a way to go when we talk about public transport, the city built around the car, is slowly getting there, we have noticed vast improvements over the last 4 years. But there still is a way to go, when you compare it to New York, Chicago, Boston never mind Europe and London!

I agree, once you leave London you realize how wonderful trains and public transport is in London and the UK generally; despite the leaves on the track and the wrong type of snow?!

Also inter city travel by train (or anything other than a car or plane) is really just a luxury here in the US, both in time and money. Most of the time it is not a practical alternative at all, except if you are on the East coast. Friends of ours, found it cheaper to fly then to travel by bus from Dallas out to West Texas.

Here in Dallas some friends are studying for a Masters in Urban Planning, with subjects including, Public Transportation. But they can not use any form of public transport to get to school to study, "Public Transportation". Irony.

Dhara said...

a guy in melbourne misses TFL so much he write it a love letter - reminded me of this post you wrote Roops...

Jigna said...

That was lovely Dhara, thanks for posting it, I am so homesick now. Think I will console myself with my scones and tea.