If Mass Transit Worked Here, It Might Look Like London

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday July 16, 2009 - 10:50:00 AM

For the East Bay’s many public transit groupies, London must seem like Nirvana. Cars are now taxed and otherwise restricted, so that in theory there are many fewer of them in central London. Parking, such as it is, is priced at premium rates, both on street in a few privileged neighborhoods and elsewhere.  

Streets, however, are still crowded—with buses of all descriptions, powered mainly by diesel and emitting unpleasant odors. Besides the iconic red double-deckers, there are “coaches” of all kinds, in from all over Britain and now even from distant parts of the continent, variously powered and therefore variously polluting. There are a lot of taxis too, reputed to be expensive but still popular with those who can afford them—the big black cabs from World War II spy films and a lot of minis and vans.  

The Tube, London’s huge and extensive subway network, is still running, though it’s had problems in recent years. Apparently there was a strike not too long ago, but now all is sweetness and light, just in time for the massive influx of tourists from around the globe. It’s rare to hear conversations in English on the Tube this summer. Polish, Russian, Portuguese, Italian, French and a lot of languages no one in our group has any chance of recognizing are a lot more common. Most of these are lively parties of youngsters on summer school holidays, but bourgeois families are also visiting London this year, despite the economic downturn, or perhaps because of it. 

Perhaps the—what are we calling it these days—recession has something to do with the Tube’s all too frequent and unnerving outages. The line that serves the flat that our family group is using for the week was completely out of service all day Sunday—not a bad thing, since it motivated us to learn how to use buses, which are pleasanter and more convenient if you can figure out where to catch them. 

There’s no shortage of transit information, either, perhaps too much information. There seem to be several kinds of buses in London alone, besides the huge number of competing inter-city coach companies, a legacy from Thatcherite privatization. The best aspect of London transit is the “oyster cards,” plastic credit cards that document pre-purchase of travel fares which can be used on many different systems. Using them automatically halves your fare for a given ride, and it’s also possible to pay a flat rate for a stipulated number of travel days, as many rides as you want. Kids are free if they’re with adults. 

When you enter the Tube system or get on a bus, you just have to touch your card (or even your purse with your card in it) to a bright yellow disk at the entry. That way tourists can jump from Tube to bus and back again all day long, and they do. 

Is this better than having personal cars? It’s certainly preferable, in a city like this, to the single-occupant gasoline-powered vehicles that are the California standard.  

Could we ever get there in the Bay Area? It doesn’t look promising. 

We can’t even manage to implement a single card system for all Bay Area transit, or a simple payment method like the oyster cards for even one of our various transit authorities. The Tube, imperfect as it increasingly is, represents a huge sunk cost, which could never be raised by California’s failing governments if we wanted to build a decent subway.  

Privatization hasn’t proved to be the panacea Thatcher envisioned. We rode from the Holyhead Ferry to London on a train operated by Virgin—yes, that Virgin—and it was not a pleasant experience. There was no provision for luggage, and there was a scheduled train change half an hour into the trip, with little guidance for foreigners on how to do the transfer. 

Even worse was the unscheduled change of trains after a traveling dog got his leash caught in an automatic door, bringing the whole train to a grinding halt. One employee of the substituted train directed second-class passengers to take seats in the first-class cabin since no regular seats were left, and then a different employee came along and tried to throw them out. Eventually he conceded, but the whole thing was annoying and added almost an hour to a supposedly four-hour trip. 

The other major problem with mass transit is that it works for able-bodied people, and it provides for disabled people who use wheelchairs, but it’s difficult and frustrating for the increasing number of riders with some mobility impairment, often invisible. I’m luckier that many of my age peers in that I’m still using my original-equipment hips and knees, but most of us can expect to see the day when that becomes painful or impossible.  

Swinging yourself up onto a bus or subway using your shoulders and knees for leverage will get harder and harder. London’s fast-moving public transit systems don’t take this into account, nor do those in the Bay Area. Walking several blocks to get on a train or bus is also hard for many. 

I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to drive in London, however.  

At the moment, warts and all, London’s mass transit options are terrific.