From Russia, with Transit Love

6_29_09_alexander_4.jpgView of a departing Moscow subway train. All Photos: Alexander Friedman

I just returned from a trip to Moscow and noticed an interesting trend. Despite the economic slowdown, which Russia is also certainly experiencing, their public transportation is not only as efficient as it's always been, but - it keeps getting better and better.  Unlike in the United States, nobody is discussing service cuts!

Namely:

  • Buses, trolleybuses, and streetcars run more frequently than ever before;
  • Subway trains continue running every two minutes (every minute during rush-hours);
  • Commuter/Regional electric trains run even more frequently than before (5-15 minute headways, including evenings!);
  • New, state-of-the-art Express Commuter Rail routes have opened to various regions, including Airport
  • Connector trains to all 4 (four) Moscow region's airports;
  • New Subway lines continue to be built as we speak (3 extensions now under construction, that's in addition to the existing 180-mile subway network);
  • No service cuts are on the horizon whatsoever!
Russia has had reliable mass transit service since the beginning, and has never been a victim of economic issues. More importantly, Russian government never allowed the auto industry to destroy their public transportation, thus helping the country to preserve its mobility, and social life.  Now, transit is helping tremendously to boost the economy!

Embarrassingly for Angelenos, Los Angeles city buses run less frequently than Moscow's regional trains! Whenever I was asked a question about our public transportation in LA, I was embarrassed to answer that - getting around without a car even within the city is practically impossible, let alone trying to travel outside LA! Needless to say, Russia is not the only country that can be proud of its public transportation and ability to get along without a car - something that cannot be said about Los Angeles!

Most cities across America - even with a developed mass transit system are still far from leveling with European transit systems. Even in cities such as Washington D.C. and Boston, intervals at certain times of the day are too long. American mass transit agencies have a strange "Fewer People thus Long Intervals" approach, leading to implementing 20-30 minute intervals at evening and night hours.

6_29_09_alexander_1.jpgRed-color train - is a new, state-of-the-art Express airport connector, from the Sheremetyevo International Airport - to Moscow's center (directly, non-stop). By the way - it was very comfortable, with luxury seating, flat-screen TV's, large tinted windows, etc.

For instance, I witnessed in Moscow and Paris late-night and early-morning intervals are no more than 6 minutes (despite relatively low demand at this time of day). Now, compare that with America's major cities' subways, where evening or early-morning headways can range from 15 to 30 minutes. So, part
of the overhaul in our Metro-Rail and Bus service should be significantly improving frequencies at late-night and early-morning hours. We should have trains running at no more than 10-minutes intervals (not 20-30 minutes!). Generally, forcing riders to rely on Timetables for city buses & subway trains is pathetic!

So, we wonder whether U.S. is doing something totally wrong as far as our mass transit funding. Why all of our cities' mass transit systems keep struggling, even the developed ones? Why are we in America constantly hearing about transit cuts and fare increases,  when in other countries public transportation is booming?

Arguments like "Our transit money is diverted by our Governor due to budget crisis" are just pitiful excuses. The fact that other countries can provide wonderful mass transit service despite economic crisis is an indicator that things can be done if there's a will! No doubt, America's entire transit funding system needs serious examination.

The roots of severe under-funding of public transportation are in our own federal funding procedures, laws, and regulations. We need a complete overhaul in our whole system of funding Mass Transit, and not just for Los Angeles (although LA should be the first city in the U.S. for a complete overhaul, due to totally inadequate service); but in all major cities across the U.S.  Just as it is done in other countries, and in Russia in particular, the government should dedicate a MUCH higher sum of money to mass transit, and spend significantly LESS on highways! And not just the government, but local agencies such as Metro should stop focusing on roads & highways, but should truly invest in our public transportation!

Thankfully, for the first time ever since the auto industry took over America, the feds are considering a bill that would switch the funding priorities, from Highways to Mass Transit. This is a phenomenal development, albeit major obstacles ahead. But at least, there is an indicator that America is ready for a change!

More and more people realize that basing our transportation system on cars is doomed for failure!
Ultimately, funding of public transportation should come not just from Gas Tax and Sales Tax (or other
minor sources) - which hasn't worked well, but - Transit funding should be our Federal government's
priority funding, period! The reason that many U.S. cities' public transit systems are heading for severe cuts is because the government does not allocate nearly enough funding; it's that simple! The government should also make it a Federal law - for Transit money to be fully protected and to go directly to mass transit, without ever being diverted (by our California legislature, for example).

Finally, I find bailing-out the auto companies by our government to be a major mistake! Whereas, I do
sympathize the automakers for facing bankruptcies, it's obvious the demand for auto vehicles is falling. People are switching to public transportation with record numbers! So, when the government tries to pay to "save" the auto companies - is like almost forcing those companies to stay in business, even though there is obviously not much business going around!

6_29_09_alexander_2.jpgView of the Russian country-side.

If the government desires to act like a "Big Daddy" to the failing business ventures, then why doesn't the government help everybody, not just the biggest moneymakers? Otherwise, it's clear discrimination, aimed towards "Car Propaganda" that has been dominating America for the last several decades. Rapidly falling demand for new and used vehicles comes shoulder-to-shoulder with rapidly increasing demand for Public Transportation, which again proves that people do not want to be forced to buy cars. People want improved public transportation nationwide!

Yes, stimulus money is badly needed; not to pay-off auto companies, but to re-build our mass transit networks. It's time that government realizes: transportation is about moving people, not cars.

As for the "Americans love their cars" slogan, I believe this to be an old cliché, propagated mostly by our
government and automakers - to force people buying cars! So, I would describe this "car love" being rather - car addiction; most of us are forced to be car-addicted due to the lack of reliable alternatives. Our goal is - to invest in, and provide, those reliable alternatives, thanks to which we won't have to be "in love" with our cars anymore! Providing options for people, the freedom to choose our method of commute is what needs to be done.

The economic slowdown is felt worldwide, especially in European countries, including Russia. But public
transportation systems worldwide are able to avoid service cuts; they sometimes raise their fares, but no service cuts are being forced whatsoever, helping to retain ridership and overall mobility! This should send a strong message to the United States - that economic downturn does not mean mass transit downturn. In fact, improving public transportation is the least the government should do to provide mobility and boost our economy. It can be done, but would require complete change in our government's mentality, in our entire Public Transportation funding politics, and switching priorities.

It's time for the U.S. to get rid of their ego and notorious "car culture" notion, and learn from other countries how to effectively provide mass transit for people. With our new Administration, there is a hope American cities will build reliable, efficient public transportation systems we can all be proud of!