Public Transit, A Love Affair

After living in London, England for the past 2 years, I have become enamored with public transportation, so much so that some might even consider me to be somewhat of a public transit “snob”.  This love affair with public transit began very early on when I first rode Boston’s Subway (or as it is most famously known, the “T”) when I was about 10 or 11 years old.

The T in Boston

Growing up in a very small city in Maine, I was not exposed to this type of transportation and it was love at first ride.  I even have a picture of me hanging from the support rails with a wide grin on my face.  When I moved to Connecticut at age 13, I learned that there was a train that ran from New Haven all the way to NYC.

Union Station, New Haven

My first trip to NYC was unforgettable mostly because it was my first time on an above ground passenger train. I made sure to take the window seat for that hour and 45 minute ride.  From that point on I knew I needed it in my life.  Unfortunately, public transportation and I couldn’t maintain a long distance relationship and we were on and off throughout high school and college.  During this time I would occasionally take the train down to NYC, or I would take the commuter train to New Haven for work.  I won’t forget my first encounters with European public transit when I visited the Netherlands and Barcelona when I was 17 and again when I studied abroad for 5 months in a little city located in the French Alps known as Grenoble, France.

My feelings for public transportation grew and I was even able to experience it in the Nordic country of Norway.  But it wasn’t until I moved to London just over 2 years ago when I fell head over heels for London’s underground system, or the “tube”.  What drew me most to the tube wasn’t its convenience, or its cost efficiency, or the fact that the tube is also supplemented with a more cost effective and extensive bus system, but it was actually the fact that it contributes to limiting the number of cars on the road.

(from left to right) Bus, bus, bus, bus, tube.

London has one of the most extensive underground train systems in the world, and is the world’s oldest underground dating back to 1863.  Despite its antiquity, vast amounts of fiscal resources, time and man power have been directed to maintaining London’s underground so it can continue to serve the public as it has been for almost 150 years.  I actually had the good fortune of wandering inside one of London’s older stations which has been closed since 1993 and was in operation for 86 long years, Aldwych station.  Transport for London (TFL) held an exhibit inside the station which exposed the long history of every tube line, almost every station, along with some interesting yet useless facts about the tube and future improvements and developments that are currently underway.  You can imagine that I was in heaven.

Aldwych Station

I learned that Aldwych station was originally opened as Strand station (as it falls on the Strand) and was used to commute passengers to the theater district at Piccadilly Circus.  It also featured in such cinematic adventures as V for Vendetta, among others.

It’s clear that my love for public transit runs deep, and during my time in London, I was able to travel around Europe and in every country I visited that had public transit, you better believe you’d find me on a train, tram or bus.  But alas, my 2 year relationship with the tube ended in early August of this year when I returned back to the states.  I recently moved to Arlington, VA and have been pleasantly surprised by its connectivity to our nation’s capital, DC, with its bus and metro systems.  DC’s metro is the second largest after NYC in the United States, but it hardly compares with the tube.  Why is that?  Why is public transportation in the states so inefficient when we have the technology and man power to make it just as good as London’s?

Vintage Rail Poster

Well back in the early 1900s, public transportation was actually widely publicized as a popular and convenient mode of transport in the U.S.  I recently visited an antiques market in Arlington and found a plethora of old posters dating back to the 1920s which depicted images of happy couples and families traveling on trains.  The posters promoted train lines that ran between cities like Chicago and St. Louis, trains in Pennsylvania and along the Eastern Coast all the way to Florida. Today, the pleasant images of people traveling that we see advertised revolve around luxury automobiles or first class flights.  Passenger trains are rarely used in the United States anymore and it is rare to see any type of advertisement for them at all these days.  So what happened??

The cause of this drastic decrease in passenger trains occurred in 1956 when our President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, approved the Interstate Highway System.  From that point on it became more convenient to drive yourself everywhere than to take public transportation. Passenger trains decreased and a consequent lack of funding to maintain them resulted in their ultimate closure.  Now, tax payers’ money is spent on maintaining our roads and highways instead of on investing in research and development to reintroduce public transportation to the nation again.

Streetcars @ Pennsylvania Ave


A trip down to old Georgetown can remind visitors of this as some of their oldest streets are still cobble stones, and the tracks that were laid for the streetcars which were in operation for almost 100 years remain untouched!  Even the lines that ran down Pennsylvania Ave can be found today.  You can imagine around what time these streetcars became out of commission…a mere 6 years after the Interstate Highway System was approved.  What a tragic loss.

Then again, I must admit that there has been some recent talk of “high speed trains lines” being developed between DC and Boston.  However plans for this (according to a CNN news report I watched about a month ago) will not start until 2015, and it will not be completed until 2025 and it will cost some billions of dollars to complete.  I’ve heard rumors that these “talks” are actually rumors themselves and that these plans aren’t actually set in stone.  About 2 years ago, right before I left for London, I heard a similar report on NPR discussing the possibility of introducing passenger trains again in the Midwest, connecting major cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, Kansas City and Minneapolis.  The report interviewed the public asking their opinion about these plans and if they would be likely to take a train as opposed to flying.  I was surprised that the general consensus was overwhelmingly supportive of taking the train.

Despite this support, there remains one little detail that my dear father, after my 20 minute rant to him about how such a high speed rail is necessary to end our addiction to oil, reminds me by asking:  “once the passengers reach the city, how would all of them get around without a car?”  He is right in asking such a fundamental question because these Midwestern cities don’t have the mass public transit system that would be needed to escort passengers from these trains to their destinations.  Chicago is an exception as its underground and bus system is pretty large, however there are only a handful of cities in the U.S. that have such systems.

What “Infrastructure” looks like to Europeans

So you’re probably thinking, what is she ranting about now?  Well, having spent time in London, while at the same time having the good fortune of exploring other countries in continental Europe, I have made note of how and why public transportation is used almost all over Europe, even in the smallest, most remote cities.  The magic word:  Infrastructure.  The infrastructure of most European cities lends itself well to public transit systems.  It makes sense since these cities had existed centuries before the thought of an automobile had been conceived.  Though the automobile and trains were being developed around the same time, the density of these cities had created an infrastructure which would eventually be ripe for public transit systems.  But it should not be ignored that after WWII, there was a dire need for reconstruction of the general infrastructure of the cities that were blitzed away during the war.  This provided an opportunity to possibly recreate these cities into urban hubs for public transportation.  Another factor, which is another major difference between our beloved country and Europe, is the generous public funding that is allocated to public transportation development.  However the older U.S. cities like Boston, NYC and DC were designed in a similar fashion to European cities, and all have relatively efficient (in American standards of public transportation) underground train and bus systems.

What “infrastructure” looks like to Americans

Nonetheless, that is only 3 of hundreds of metropolitan cities in the U.S.  The infrastructure of U.S. cities is less dense and better designed for cars (wider roads, further distances between main points in the city) and continues to be developed in this manner.  My new home, Arlington, although across the Virginia border, is considered to be a subdivision of DC.  The planning commission in Arlington was aware of its proximity to DC and capitalized on its ability to foster an urban yet also suburban and residential city for its inhabitants.  Plans for this began about 40 years ago when approval was granted to construct DCs rapid transit system, the Metro.  Careful planning was required to make this idea a reality and began with the placement of the metro lines.  The 7 main metro lines in Arlington (there are 11 but 3 of them exist on Federal land and cannot be considered in Arlington’s development plans, and one has different development plans) are placed along a continuous line from which the ‘redevelopment’ of the city would deviate.

Metro station areas (MSAs) were coined as the area of land a quarter of a mile (in every direction) from a given metro station.  These MSAs would be densely developed with commercial buildings closest to the stations, moving towards smaller residential buildings further out.  The further away from the station you went, the more residential the area would become.

Arlington MSAs

This is the basis for how Arlington was developed and they have been able to successfully reduce the number of cars on the road by providing a widespread bus system connecting Arlingtonians to their nearest metro.  Not to mention the buses are affordable and reliable with a “real time arrival” feature which allows passengers to see exactly when the next bus is coming (provided you have a computer or mobile device to get the information).

That being said, it is clear that America has to reconsider the development of its cities in order to bring high speed rails back into the mix.  Smart Growth America is an organization which promotes this type of development and which supports the need for a reform to our current transportation plans.  Educating yourself on these matters is the first step, but we must become involved to see what we can do together to help end our addiction to oil.  Arlington is one example of how careful planning and development of city’s infrastructure yielded positive results, and I know there are other models out there which bigger cities can learn from.  We have to work together, to move forward together.

If you’re a fellow public transit lover like myself, I would highly recommend watching this presentation given by the President of LOCUS – Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors.  It’s 43 minutes long but well worth it if you want to learn more about how there has been a structural shift in the built environment which is leading up to a higher demand for sustainably viable development, which essentially means public transit because transportation drives development.  I would also recommend checking out Transportation for America which is a coalition of  housing, business, environmental and many other organizations who are campaigning for a change in our country’s transportation system.

And last but not least, for anyone who is interested in public transit, but not necessarily a public transit enthusiast, this website may satiate your appetite without overwhelming it.




About Zanna Leigh

I am a born Wisconsiner, native New Englander, short term (and wannabe) European, vegetarian foodie, good music lover, public transit enthusiast and sustainability devotee in the DC metro.
This entry was posted in DC, Green, London, Smart growth, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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