One quarter later: impressions on life with public transit
TL:DR — I have a troubled relationship with car-centric infrastructure, and for years have longed to live somewhere with viable public transit.
For the last two months, I’ve been in Berlin, so that fantasy is real! I commute an hour a day, 5 days a week, on the subway. I have a bike, which I ride when the weather is nice (which, in April meant never), and if not, there is a system of buses, trains, and streetcars that can get me basically anywhere, so long as I’m willing to walk 5 minutes to the nearest stop.
It’s a dream come true. But is it worth it?
Short answer: mostly.
Long answer: well…
Here are some things I love:
- It keeps me physically active. I love getting to walk around the city, and because there are so many unique ways to get anywhere, there is plenty of room for novelty.
- I feel cool and urban and environmentally friendly while I ride the subway… and the trains make satisfying futuristic noises.
- Biking feels more dangerous than I expected, but at least there are enough cyclists that drivers are (almost) always looking out for us. Which means the cycling infrastructure just barely ekes into the “positive” category.
- There are a few scenic overhead subway lines, and especially in a city with virtually no tall buildings or topography, they’re among the best views the city has to offer.
Here are some things I actually really don’t:
- If cycling isn’t viable, then it takes a half hour minimum to go virtually anywhere, due to the amount of walking/waiting time. Sometimes this is fine, but when I’m in a hurry, not so much. Especially when Google says it’s a five minute drive… That just hurts a little.
- When the weather sucks, well… It sucks.
- A lack of privacy. I don’t think four-wheeled cages bring out the best in people, but a Berlin commute is its own type of corrosive. First of all, Germans… stare. I’ve been told this is normal here, and not meant to be creepy or hostile, but, well… I don’t completely believe it. This is exacerbated by my dubious German-language skills, which make it all the more difficult to judge others’ intentions. On a similar note, high-speed rail feels basically analogous to air travel: it gets the job done, but also puts your comfort at the mercy of whoever happens to be sitting nearby. Or their crying child.
- There is still a LOT of car infrastructure here, which makes life as a pedestrian… Well, still dangerous and aggravating. I often spend longer waiting to cross the street than waiting for a train to arrive. And worse still, the crosswalk lights are often too short to make it across the street (even at typical German walking speeds, which means fast). I’m not exaggerating when I say three seconds. Why?!
In other words… I miss driving a little bit.
Or maybe just California weather, and the tranquility of suburban life, and being in my own country, and, um… the satisfaction of a smooth downshift. I’ll admit it.
Anyhow, my original stance on the future of transit still stands — but with the qualification that us personal-transit-dependents have plenty to be grateful for. As I often lament, the history of the automobile is laden with greed, complacence, and shady dealings (eg. undermining transit companies, introducing leaded gas). On the other side of the coin, however, I suddenly understand that those pioneering car futurists of the last century might’ve truly had the best intentions.
100-something years later, the siren song of comfort, privacy, convenience, and protection from the elements still carries weight — or at least it does to me.