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Why do so many big cities make it so difficult to use their transit systems?

March 2nd, 2016 · 9 Comments

Alert readers may have clued in to the fact that I was out of the city during February. Among other places visited, I was in Buenos Aires for a week, a city I’ve never been before.

And, once again, I was amazed and frustrated and ticked off at how complicated it was to figure out how to use the transit system, the same feeling I’ve had in Toronto, San Francisco, Rome, and numerous other cities.

It’s beyond me why cities that get large numbers of new arrivals and tourists, not to mention the existing huge populations they service, allow transit messes to develop that turn taking the bus and subway into a maze.

New York and Paris are the best. You go to the subway station. You get a pass for a week or a month or three days or whatever and you can use it on everything. You might even get a map.

In Buenos Aires, a considerable part of my mental bandwidth during the week went into figuring out how to use both. The subway, okay, was easy enough. You get a paper ticket for a certain number of rides or a plastic SUBTE card and you’re off. (And an incredible bargain — about 50 cents Cdn per ride.)

For the buses, which I ended up preferring because a) you’re above-ground and b) they go to more places in the city, a whole ‘nother story. I was told in the guidebooks that buses would take real money, but that wasn’t true for most I was on. Instead, you have to buy a plastic SUBE card from a kiosca (corner-store type operation) for $3 Cdn, then get it loaded with value. We managed to find, after much hunting, a kiosca that would do both and thought we were good.

But, when we went to re-load, it turned out that we couldn’t find a kiosca anywhere that would re-load some value — even the place where we got the original card and extra value claimed they couldn’t provide us with that any more. Not sure whether it was just that hour or just that day or what.

This is not some “developing country” thingie. I’ve had the same experience in San Francisco, where a Clipper card for the BART subway system (which you can only buy at certain drugstores and select metro stops), doesn’t allow you to transfer to the bus system. You pay again (albeit with a small discount). And you have to buy your bus tickets in a different place from BART passes.

In Toronto, I’ve spent more hours hunting for the right place to buy what I needed to take the bus/streetcar, without having to hike a few miles to the nearest Metro stop.

In Rome, we simply gave up and rode the buses and trams for free for several days while we tried to figure out where the heck we should buy transit tickets.

I’m sure some dear readers will respond, saying “Oh, it’s really easy, you should have just done X or Y.” But the point is, it should all be completely obvious and everywhere how to use the transit system in cities that rely on them. (And in Buenos Aires, you really need it. The streets are hopelessly jammed. It took 40 minutes in a taxi to get from the centre to the relatively nearby district of Palermo in non-rush-hour traffic.)

And it should be obvious for people who aren’t fluent Spanish or Italian speakers. There should be some kind of international symbol that indicates “transit tickets that work for the whole system HERE.” (Visualizations gratefully accepted.)

Your stories of transit frustration — or compliments for the best systems ever — welcome here.


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