Thoughts on Public Transport

While I avoid public transportation in Boston, I love it in Vienna. The Wiener Linien system consists of: the U-Bahn (subway), the Straßenbahn (trams), the Schnellbahn (high speed commuter rail), and the Autobus Linien (bus routes). Together, these options cover virtually every block of greater Vienna - making public transport here as useful for traveling to work, as it is for going to the countryside.

I have given it some thought, and here are some of the factors that make Vienna's Wiener Linien system easier and more pleasant for me to use than Boston's MBTA system:

. Density of coverage: In Vienna there are transit stops everywhere. My old flat was around the corner from an UBahn station. My current flat is 1/2 block from a tram station. In Boston, I have to walk for 15 minutes from my apartment to get to a T-Stop.

. Ease of access: In Vienna, it is the passenger's responsibility to purchase tickets and to keep them on their person, but the passenger does not need to produce the ticket in order to enter a station or to hop onto a tram/bus directly. Random ticket checks with steep financial penalties function as incentives for keeping people honest. The free entry speeds everything up considerably, prevents pushing and fighting to get to the front of a queue, and makes everything feel more easy-going. I simply buy a weekly or monthly ticket, slip it into my wallet, and forget about it.

. Purchasing tickets: Even though my English is better than my German, I find Wiener Linien tickets a million times easier to purchase and use than Boston's Charlie Card.

. Atmosphere: For some reason, I find public transport in Boston more stressful and exhausting than in Vienna. Not sure what accounts for such a difference, but I definitely feel it.

The convenience of Vienna's public transport is one major reason why I seldom cycle here for transportation, and vise versa in Boston. I wonder whether cities conduct research regarding what factors make their residents more or less likely to use public transport.


  1. I've never been to Vienna, but I absolutely agree with you about Boston's system. I have a friend from a more rural area Russia who was shocked by how difficult/little coverage the T has compared to her hometown.
    I also am pretty apprehensive about riding my bike around Boston because of inconsistent bike lanes. Some places have them some places don't. If I knew there were bike lanes on all the roads I needed I would definitely ride my bike more often.

  2. Nice observations, I agree. There are a few minor things, however, that I don't like about the Wiener Linien: If one enters a tram or bus, you either already need to have a ticket or buy a more expensive single ticket inside (no other tickets are available there, and without coins at hand one is doomed). Ok, I compensate that by purchasing multiple trip tickets in advance at subway stations. Still, I wish that there would be more machines around (e.g., at some squares where various tram lines meet). I don't use the Wiener Linien currently cause I live in a place where I always have to change lines in order to get to the places where I need to go -- very time-consuming. Well, I obviously didn't choose my flat according to public transport (but convenient for biking), so you can say that's the reason why it doesn't work out so well :-).
    Generally I'm very happy with the Wiener Linien. They have a really dense network. Other cities' public transport system I liked was, e.g., Zurich and Linz. Maybe because they have vending machines at every station :).

  3. maybe you will ride just with bicycle in Vienna soon :-)

    enjoy jaqueline, thats the name of the bike


  4. I've had an unlimited use transit pass for DFW for three years and
    have never found it convenient to use for the bus even once in that time. I did use the light rail once just to see what it was like. The combo of the bike and the TRE Commuter heavy rail is why I keep it. Boarding on TRE sounds much like in Vienna.

  5. Anna - That is true. But at least in Vienna it is possible to buy a 24 hr ticket, 2 day ticket, 3 day ticket, 1 week card, 1 month card, etc. In Boston you have to "load the Charlie card" with a monetary value that corresponds to the number of rides you will take. And then you have to swipe the card every time you want to enter any form of transportation, even if you have a monthly or yearly pass.

    Hoefi - Yes, it seems I spoke too soon about not using a bike for transportation. How quickly things can change : )

  6. I've called the MBTA a tinker toy version of public transportation. But I grew up using the NYC subway and bus system and once could rattle off several different ways/routes to get from "here to there". In boston I always feel stressed- not sure if the train is actually going to come.

  7. Lisa - the comparison with rural Russia put a smile on my face. I imagined collective farm women with baskets of radishes outraged that the MBTA is always running late. Cycling on the road in Boston is not so bad though; I do it all the time and I'm a neurotic wimp.

    Vee - in Boston it's more like "you can't get there from here" : ) If they ever make an online route planner, they should have that come up as an error message.

  8. Compared to what we have here in Atlanta, the MBTA is a dream system to aspire to.

  9. Put simply, you are treated like a second class citizen on the MBTA. I will not accept being treated without respect for my dignity or time. I will not accept waiting in crowded and hot stations for a train that might not come, the smells, the grime, the NOISE, obscured views, illogical routes, widely spaced stations. I haven't taken the T (except when with a group of friends) since I got a bike, and I don't plan to anytime soon.

    In contrast, in most European countries, less wealthy ones included, public transportation is clean, efficient, dignified, and *normal*.

  10. scootia - Yes, I have heard lots if "feedback" from friends about Atlanta. It's too bad.

    Giffen - okay, so I am not imagining the things I attempt to describe under "atmosphere"!

  11. I have to say I search frequently for an online route planner. Although I will say I did end up having really good luck taking the bus from Newton to Cambridge. except I've become a total suburban bubble person b/c I was really put out by having to sit next to a man who reaked of smoke for half the ride. It's been a while ( even on train) since I was so put out by a person's off smelling.

    The green line gets so crowded that during certain hours it is simply not acceptable to travel by train with the kids. Sadly these hours start around 4. I nearly freak out trying to get on at say copley and fight through the crowd holding tiny hands and dragging them through and up the steps.

    I'm just rambling now. :-) the MBTA is the thing that drives me crazy about living hear and makes me want to go home.

  12. The problem with Boston's public transportation is that the street level trolley lines which used to link neighborhoods are almost all gone, replaced by bus routes, and the existing subway and commuter rail routes generally follow paths set in place one hundred, two hundred, or even three hundred years ago. It's hard to compare a system which had its basic outlines completed by 1930 to mass transit systems designed in the post-WWII era. It was clear in the Boston area by the 1930s that the automobile was going to dominate new development in the Boston area and transit planning documents and dollars spent reflect that reality.

    The actual mechanics of the MBTA system however, like paying one's fare, train arrival announcements, etc., leave much to be desired. I will say that I like the MBTA better than the tube in London, but not as much as the Metro in Paris.

  13. Aw, proper Bostonians, I am sorry for you because the T really sucks. Getting around by T is like if one were only able to get around Paris using RER. Like Paris with trains but no metro or bus. Or London via Britrail instead of tube. Sure, there are stations but they make no sense except in a larger getting-to-suburbs context. Maybe that makes no sense but it feels so weirdly suburban, and it always makes sense that everyone drives there. My pity ends when I consider your surfeit of wonderful, cheap vintage bikes and less dense traffic patterns, though. I think Boston is a wonderfully bikeable city.

    Atlanta is downright hostile to pedestrians or bikes. I really admire the people who cycle there -- I would be terrified and yes I am a regular NYC cyclist.

    In NYC the subway is definitely normal, in the sense that I think Giffen meant, meaning that everyone takes it -- rich, poor, old, young, etc. I think that has a good effect and it's democratic and generally tolerant and I guess that means it has its dignity, though not really in the Duke Ellington A Train kind of way. The subway is also very frequently hilarious (to me) but also can be horrendous and I do have the luxury of being freelance and plan my trips for when it's not crowded at rush hour. If I might be so bold here is a wee youtube clip that encapsulates what I love about the subway:

    Within Brooklyn, I prefer to cycle because it's easier and faster and much more pleasant and I like to move in the fresh (ha) air. When I lived in Manhattan I walked everywhere. Now I would cycle there, too.

  14. Actually Atlanta has excellent public transit, thank you very much. For the money, you can't get a better system than MARTA. The only real problem is that the state doesn't adequately fund it, so sometimes the frequencies are pretty low.

  15. For the U.S., I think Portland has a fantastic public transit system, with great coverage, and easy transitions between bus, light rail and streetcar, with a lot of coverage even in the suburban areas. Tickets can be purchased for 2 hours, a full day, a month, or a year, and all tickets are transferable between bus, streetcar and light rail.

    I still enjoy riding much more though, as I get to see so much more, and the buses follow the busy car routes, so they always get stuck in traffic, which I can easily avoid on a bike most of the time. I don't usually travel far enough for light rail to be an advantage, and the streetcar again is slower and less convenient than riding a bike. It's a nice option if I'm just feeling tired or it's dumping rain or whatever, but for the most part, it's just easier and more enjoyable to go by bike anywhere in the inner part of the city.

    I used to live in Vilnius, Lithuania, and the transportation system there was even better. Not to mention, because they don't have this obsessive fear about socialism, the tickets are heavily subsidized for students, seniors, veterans, people with health conditions, etc (up to like 75%, if I remember correctly). Buses would run everywhere in the country, out into the middle of nowhere to farms and such. In the city, the most common public transit were the trolleybuses (small buses that ran from electric lines overhead, but had normal bus wheels). Normal auto buses were very common as well. Most trolleybuses and autobuses used the same tickets, but there were some private autobuses that were marked differently. You could buy the trolleybus/bus tickets at kiosks that were all over the city, or on the bus for slightly more money. There were either single trip tickets, or monthly passes. Basically, there, I would guess only about 1/3 of people actually owned and operated automobiles on a regular basis. Almost everyone uses public transit or just walks everywhere. I never really rode a bike while I was there, but I imagine it would be a nice option, as many of the streets are simply closed to automobiles, and many that have automobiles, the traffic speed consistently stays around 10-15mph.

  16. For people who seem to love alternative forms of transportation, you are awfully spoiled. MBTA buses are very convenient and far more timely that most other bus systems I have encountered. The subway does leave some things to be desired, but you can get almost anywhere once the bus and commuter rail are included.

  17. "Anonymous" - I do not take the bus, because I get severely motion sick - i.e. puking and migraines. That happens to some people.

    It is technically true that you can get almost anywhere in Boston once buses and the Commuter rail are included, but this can take a loooong time - compared to other cities, with more efficient and direct routes.

    Also, please note that nowhere on my website do I claim to "love alternative forms of transportation". I am not an activist of any kind, I just love cycling and beautiful bicycles.


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