From L.A. To Paris, Reflections On The Power Of Public Transport
For the author, the biggest surprise in living in Paris has been the city's efficient metro system. Her hometown of Los Angeles has an addiction to cars that is more than just unpleasant.
PARIS — Between 3:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on an average weekday, you know what to expect in Los Angeles: traffic jams. The reality is that the city is always so full of cars that we pollute the air and our ears that locals are so used to they hardly notice it.
For this summer, which I've spent in Paris, that means I've developed a severe case of metro envy. My morning commute is a short 20 minutes. I walk to one station, get on the metro line and within 15 minutes, I have made it to my destination.
When I step off the train at my final destination, I am greeted by the sight of cyclists and pedestrians making their way around the city. Sure, there are cars around, but nowhere near the monopoly I'm used to back home.
By contrast, my hometown of L.A. is a sprawling city, designed around cars. To get from point A to point B, you are practically forced to get into a car, whether it is your own vehicle or a ridesharing service like Uber. L.A. is suffering from a severe case of too many cars and not enough public transport.
I am not saying the transportation system in Paris is perfect by any means. But the ability to travel within a city, often a walkable city, without stepping foot in a car or worrying about car payments is a luxury.
Issue across the pond
A comprehensive public transportation system fundamentally alters people’s way of life. It makes everything more accessible, reduces transportation costs and creates a better relationship between a citizen and their city.
Cars are expensive, and due to shortages, they have only become more inaccessible. A city as large and sprawling as L.A. needs a functional metro system that allows residents to easily get from one side of the city to the other. However, its metro system has a myriad of issues that keep it from becoming a highly usable rail system.
As reported by the Los Angeles Times, crime, a feeling of desolation on public transport, a lack of shelters to mitigate the effect of weather and design issues, including a lack of retail vendors at stations, make the Los Angeles metro system dysfunctional. One anonymous train operator uses the word “horror” to describe what he witnesses each day, stating that "We don't even see any business people anymore… It's just people who have no other choice (than) to ride the system, homeless people and drug users,” reports governing.com.
So what can my hometown learn from across the Atlantic? The first, and the most important, lesson involves the necessity of a fleshed-out public transportation system.
The Parisian metro
An example to follow
Europe is a completely different story and should serve as an example to follow for cities in the United States, particularly Los Angeles. An article published in Bloomberg by Jonathan English, “Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S.,” highlights some of the reasons that other countries have succeeded in public transit while the United States largely falls behind.
The lack of investment and attention that has been given to public transit in the United States has made it an aspect without a growing need to be developed, writes English. Even when metro systems were developed in the U.S., “Cities rarely provided good, frequent local connections that allowed people to actually get to rail stations without walking or driving.
To this day, in most parts of American cities, it is all but impossible to get anywhere on a Sunday at 8 p.m. by transit, and if you miss the bus you might be waiting an hour or more for the next one,” writes English. The system is not viable as a primary means of transportation for most Americans.
America's love affair with the highway
America is the land of the suburb, and getting to the suburbs requires a car. When the first Ford car came out, it made automobiles more economically accessible for Americans. This made paved roads a necessity which, over time, led to a large network of highways and freeways being built across the country, mostly from the 1950s on.
With well-developed public transportation systems, large cities become smaller.
However, in Europe, many suburbs were built with the transit system in mind rather than the highway. Rail lines in the United States are primarily used by commuters or for freight needs, and English argues these are an untapped resource, writing “There’s no reason why those railway lines can’t be turned into what are effectively subway lines — high-capacity routes that allow people to get across the city quickly — without the immense cost of tunneling.”
Arup points out that public rail systems can assist in the regeneration of neglected areas, help alleviate traffic congestion and keep cities moving and functioning. Additionally, they are more environmentally sound as they keep large amounts of people from using individual gas-powered cars. With well-developed public transportation systems, large cities become smaller.
The Pigalle metro station in Paris.
A European anomaly
But Europe is by no means perfect. Although I am from Rome, Italy, originally and am a dual citizen of the EU and the U.S., being in Paris for the past month has given me a true peek into the European metro system. Rome, a beautiful city filled to the brim with history and culture, does not have a well-developed underground railway system. While I have taken the bus in Rome many times, I cannot consciously recall ever having taken the subway.
I want the ability to ditch my car.
Rome only has about 60 kilometers and three lines of the underground metro to its name, as Il Foglio notes. The metro cars themselves cause frequent issues and subway developments cause closures and take years to complete. Many of the issues with the metro are largely due to all the archaeological artifacts that lay beneath the city’s surface and cause developmental halts. In 2019, Rome ranked second in Europe for cities in which people lose the most hours a year to traffic jams. Paris was a close second, but Paris has a highly functioning subway system, whereas Rome does not.
As a result of being from two cities without wholly developed metro systems, I have metro envy. I want the ability to ditch my car, to rely solely on more sustainable and affordable methods of transportation to get around. In Los Angeles, that is not a possibility, but it should be.
The United States is often looked to as an inspiration for modernization and innovation, but the reality is that its lack of effective transit systems is a huge developmental discrepancy. Cities across the globe have been able to master the art of public transportation, allowing their citizens to get from one place to the next for less than $3.00 and without having to pay for gas or find parking.
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