Living with Mass Transit

By Browne, Stephen | Ideas on Liberty, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Living with Mass Transit


Browne, Stephen, Ideas on Liberty


The foes of the automobile have long sung the praises of mass transit as the savior of Mother Earth. The automobile pollutes and enables human beings to spread out over the surface of the earth, paving over an alarming amount of green land. Automobiles regularly kill more people than all of our wars. It's utter nonsense to invest tremendous resources to create a half-- ton or more of metal, glass, and petroleum-- derivatives to carry perhaps only a single individual about and which sits idle most of the time anyway, etcetera, etcetera.

Mass transit, it is argued, would carry people about in a more economical and energy-efficient way and would have minimal casualties from accidents. There are those who claim that it would help restore a sense of community, making everyday travel a shared experience again.

Well, as it happens, I live in a European city, Warsaw, with a fairly well-developed mass-transit system of buses, trams, a commuter-rail system, and a suburban lightrail line. Recently it has been improved by the addition of a subway line, currently being extended, with plans for additional lines. I don't have a car.

More than a few people have noticed that the most prominent American proponents of mass transit all seem to get around in cars, and often chauffeur-driven cars at that. However one can't blame them for not using a system that doesn't exist, and I'm sure that Messrs. Gore and Nader and their cohorts will all be rubbing elbows with the rest of us on the subway trains and light-rail carriages just as soon as they are built. Although I didn't happen to run into Mr. Gore when he was last in Warsaw, I'm sure he enjoyed his trip from Okecie Airport to the Bristol Hotel on bus number 175, affectionately known to us expats as the "pickpocket express."

Sorry, satiric irony always seems to get me in its grip when I contemplate the logical and well-thought-out plans of the overeducated and underexperienced. I may sound like a broken record, but in any conflict between logic and experience, experience is almost always a better guide. Don't tell me how it would work, could work, or should work-tell me how it works. If there is no direct experience, find me a historical example, and if there isn't any then find me a close analogy.

In this case, how about asking an intelligent and articulate person who lives in a city with a functioning mass-transit system and uses it every day? For example, me. How does it affect one's life to be totally reliant on mass transit for traveling around the city, the country, the continent?

In the city and surrounding towns, not bad. It's quite nice to be able to live without a car actually. Finding parking can be a frustrating experience. Warsaw was almost completely rebuilt by socialist planners after its destruction in the General Uprising. They didn't plan for so many cars, and consequently people often use the broad sidewalks for parking and get indignant when you walk across the space they are trying to park in. The older apartment buildings, where a storage area/garage comes with each unit, were usually built with tiny European cars in mind, not the big American cars people love so much here. It's also difficult to provide for both curbside parking and bus stops.

What's really lovely is that a whole category of bills is out of your life when you live without a car. And in Poland, especially if you're an expat, there is a world of bureaucratic hassle you don't have to put up with if you don't have one.

Within Warsaw it's not too difficult to get around by tram, bus, and metro, and you can buy a reasonably priced monthly pass to ride on all of them. Commuter trains run fairly frequently to outlying towns and villages for people who only work in Warsaw.

From Warsaw you can reach any number of interesting cities via train in no more than a day and a half, and quite cheaply too. You can also go to Gdansk and take ferryboats, with a wide range of prices and accommodations, all around the Baltic, to Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic States. …

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