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Public Transport it does not need to be hi tech

April 8, 2010

I was recently lucky enough to visit San Francisco in California USA, this was my second visit to this amazing city, one of America’s most vibrant and it didn’t  fail to impress me but this time for a very different reason.

One thing that differentiates a visit  to a foreign city from that of your home port  is the ability to easily explore its many places of interest and to move around, at home you are familiar with the many forms transport available something lacking when on holidays . However in many places this does not really pose to many problems as walking is often the easiest and most efficient way to explore all the holiday destination has to offer, however the shear size and logistics of San Francisco made walking only a partly suitable option.  Driving  can be a compelling choice, with easy access to hire car facilities at most airports, however this mode of transport is neither cheap nor as compelling when you take in to account  the need to actually navigate the unfamiliar city , a frustrating experience at the best of times. However that was not the thing that stopped me from driving.

I am an Australian who lives in  Melbourne, a city of just under 3.5 million residents that like San Francisco is located adjacent to a magnificent bay. In Australia we drive our cars on the left hand side of the road, the same as in England and many other countries that used to form part of the British Empire. Driving  in an unfamiliar location is stressful but coupled with the disorientation of driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of  a car that you are not used to with different traffic rules tipped me over the edge, so driving was out.

I decided to luck public transport, now as I already mentioned I am from Melbourne and we have quite a well established public transport system consisting of trains, trams (trolley cars) and buses, I am acquainted with using public transport and was quite eager to give San Francisco’s a go. I never envisioned that I would end up comparing the relative merits of both systems, however human nature is that we tend to compare things to what we know or have experience of.

The first hurdle to be negotiated of any transport system almost any where in the world after locating a station or terminus to board is of course the buying of the ticket. Melbourne has a rather good system called Metcard, that allows for multiple transfers and trips within a zoned area for either 2 hours or all day. That said we are also in the process of having introduced forced upon us an ill-fitting, over priced, over budget and frankly not fit for purpose system called myki. It would appear that some politician or bureaucrat persuaded the government that what Melbourne needed was the worlds best ticketing system and rather than draw on worlds best practice from cities like London, Hong Kong, Singapore or the countless other perfectly fine ticketing systems that they would create their own.

Now as  I said in Melbourne we had/have a perfectly fine system  that works really well, and I don’t think  that the majority of travelers really care or actually pay a moment’s attention to the  ticketing system as  long as it works. The average punter wants to get from point a to point b as quickly as possible as cheaply as possible and the ticket is exactly that a ticket.

Well in San Francisco, the ticketing is as simple as it can get, board the vehicle place 2 one dollar bills in to a vending machine located next to the driver, the machine beeps and the driver then hands you a piece of paper that is valid for travel on the vehicle on the network for up to 3 hours. It not high-tech by any stretch of the imagination but it’s simple and it works.

The first vehicle that I decided to travel was a trolley car that runs on the historic F line from Castro to the Fisherman’s Wharf. What sets the F Line apart from systems anywhere else is the trolley cars are all vintage examples acquired from retired systems of other American Cities and the world, they are all painted in the original livery of their day and have been loving restored and maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers.  They even have a W Class tram from Melbourne.  This is a functioning piece of history that really shows that the basic premise of public transport has not really changed at all, and the best thing it works and works well.

The bus service criss crosses the city using a combination of electric and conventional diesel buses not flash, but roomy and reliable. Every cross-road is displayed on a huge sign at the front of the bus so finding your destination is very easy and the whole system seems to gravitate around Market Street downtown so armed with a transit map and a spirit to explore you are set.

There is also a train system that I did not need to utilize as between the trolley cars and buses I was easily able to commute the whole of the city, or at least the places I wanted to visit. So I’m not able to comment on the train service but if my experience of the other parts of the network is anything to go on I am sure it more than adequate.

Off course I would be remiss to not mention the world-famous Cable Cars that traverse the many hills that can be found in the historic parts of the city, and although utilized by the locals these truly are a tourist attraction first, but still an important foundation of the overall transit system.

The next thing the struck me was how regular the system is, it seems that as soon as you arrive at a pickup point no sooner a trolley car or bus is there to pick you up, so a timetable is not required at all.

Now when I contrast this to the transit system of Melbourne I think that we are sadly lacking, our train system is decaying, the tram system is way to slow and the bus network although good where it exists is really a hit and miss affair.

In this age of global warming and diminishing fossil fuels, I would have thought a cheap, reliable and patronized transit system would be a priority of any city, it appears in Melbourne it’s not. Our system is a semi privatized one with private operators subsidized by the government so the cost is even higher than if it was state-run as in San Francisco. The government recently had an idea opportunity to reclaim this once proud asset and return to state-run where is my humble opinion it belongs but I suspect it easier for them to blame a private operator for its shortcomings then to actually fix it.

But as I alluded to early the biggest problem of our system is the myki ticketing system that has cost in excess of 1 billion dollars is 3 years late and does not work on buses or trams yet, and is the butt of many jokes and It would be funny if it was not my taxes that had been wasted, 1 billion dollars could have bought many improvements to a stretched and run down system.

It’s a real pity for me to have had to write this blog piece giving the thumbs up to a transit system on the other side of the world as the one in my backyard continues to fail miserably.

So in conclusion if you on planning to visit the US for a holiday do visit San Francisco and feel safe in the knowledge that you can easily and cheaply get around using an excellent transit system and if you are visiting Melbourne well good luck with that.

do you have any tales of woe or great transit stories leave me a comment I’d love to hear them.

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