Skip to main content

Bogotà’s TransMilenio bus route is a successful example of modern mass transit, says Taras Grescoe.

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: I'm not a rail fan, one of those grown-up lovers of choo-choo trains often referred to by railway employees as "foamers" (apparently because froth tends to accumulate at the corners of their mouths when talk turns to bogies and pantographs).

Nor am I a "juicehead," whose knowledge of vintage electric streetcars, and even "doodlebugs," the streetcar's gas-powered equivalent, can be distressingly encyclopedic.

What I am is a straphanger: a lifelong user of public transport, and somebody who has reached his mid-40s without owning a car. While I love the gritty allure of a metropolitan subway, and consider a rail trip one of life's great pleasures, my interest in transportation technology runs a distant second to my love of cities. Simply put, I like subways, buses and trains because I believe they make better places than cars and freeways.

I have spent three years researching the state of public transport around the globe for a book, and nothing I've seen makes me believe the private automobile has any future as a form of urban mass transit. From Lagos to Los Angeles, we're reaching a crisis when it comes to ever-worsening gridlock. (Congestion in the Toronto-Hamilton region, which some experts rank the worst on the continent, is now estimated to cost the regional economy $6-billion a year.)

Whether it involves digging new subways in Shanghai, creating Bus Rapid Transit systems in Istanbul, or urban bike-sharing plans in Montreal, Paris, Copenhagen or 120 other cities, far-sighted administrators have done the math: Cities people want to visit, and live in, are also places finding alternatives to that old emblem of personal freedom, the private automobile.

But transit isn't a surefire cure-all for our urban ills. If you're going to build public transport, you have to do it right. Throwing multibillion-dollar light-rail systems at sprawled exurbs, for example, can be as big a waste of taxpayers' dollars as a bridge to nowhere.

In my travels, I talked to experts in a dozen cities, and all had their own nostrums for successful and sustainable transport, Many prescribed regional-scale planning, reliable funding from as many tax streams as possible, and avoiding the temptations of privatization.

Of course, part of the fun of being a travelling writer is that you get to see how these things work for yourself.

As I discovered, some cities are getting transit right; others – some of them right here in Canada – are getting it disastrously wrong. To show what I mean, I have selected 10 examples of the best and worst.


HIT: MiniMetro, Perugia, Italy

The hilly capital of Umbria was once besieged by tourists during its summer jazz and chocolate festivals (it's also home to the foil-wrapped Baci). To solve the problem, Perugia closed its core area to cars and tourist buses, and recruited an Italian company to build a cable-driven "MiniMetro." Driverless cars arrive every minute, shuttling visitors from a station designed by French architect Jean Nouvel along a three-kilometre elevated track to within a short walk of the spectacular hilltop Palazzo dei Priori. Perugini also use the service, which has, by removing traffic, reinvigorated the passeggiata – Italy's eminently civilized tradition of the early-evening stroll.

MISS: Metro Monorail, Sydney

The gimcrack back-to-the-future monorail, which has snaked between skyscrapers and around Darling Harbour, turns what should be an up-to-date central business district into a permanent expo site. Its stations are inconveniently located, tickets are expensive and the thing is molasses slow, rarely intersecting with Sydney's heavy-hauling buses and commuter trains. For all their retro charm, such monorails (particularly those, like Sydney's and Detroit's People Mover, that operate in one-way loops) usually turn out to be more glorified shuttle buses than serious transportation. Fortunately, Sydney seems to have figured this out – last month, the Transport Ministry announced it will tear down the 24-year-old monorail and replace it with something else.

Lesson: To paraphrase the old ad for Tonka trucks: Sometimes big, big boys want big, big toys – and sometimes they shouldn't get them. Shiny trains (or in Sydney's case, sky-trains) can seem glamorous, but they aren't necessarily the best fit for a city.


HIT: Toden Arakawa Line, Tokyo

Japan is famous for the speed and efficiency of its shinkansen, electric-powered bullet trains, and Japan Railways is working on a magnetic-levitation train – top speed 580 kilometres an hour – capable of making the Tokyo-to-Osaka run in one hour. But one of the best rides I had in Tokyo was on the 40-year-old Toden Arakawa line, a chin-chin densha ("ding-dong train") that trundles from Waseda University to working-class Minowabashi. Seated on a bench of green baize, I watched as the tram's route offered a back-door glimpse into Japanese neighbourhood life: Ramen houses, public baths and bicycle shops were wedged among the wooden homes backing on the tracks. Tokyo was formed by its railways, and tram lines like the Toden Arakawa foster the kind of cozy warrens (rarely glimpsed by visitors).

MISS: Metro Light Rail, Phoenix, Ariz.

In a last-ditch bid for urbanity, freeway-formed, foreclosure-fraught Phoenix recently bought $1.4-billion (U.S.) worth of state-of-the-art public transport. Since 2008, Metro Rail has been running brand-new Japanese-made light-rail trains on 20 miles of track, from Mesa to Camelback Road. When I rode them, the trains were mostly empty. How could it be otherwise? Routed through endless stretches of low-rise strip construction, and past the high-vacancy condos of "downtown," they spend most of their time whizzing past miles of surface parking lots. After four years, ridership barely tops 40,000, an infinitesimal fraction of all journeys made in the area.

Lesson: Transit has to be matched to city form and density: just as hilly San Francisco isn't going to need a ubiquitous Métropolitain system any time soon, frigid Montreal is probably better off without a city-wide network of cable cars.


HIT: Cargo Bike. Copenhagen

These sturdy tricycles, developed in the Christiania urban commune and made by companies such as Nihola, feature two small, swivelling front wheels and deep round cargo bays, and can easily carry three young children or a week's worth of groceries. In Copenhagen, 36 per cent of commuters use bicycles, and 25 per cent of families with two or more children now own a cargo bike, making it the SUV of Denmark. Worth $4,000, it has become something of a status symbol; Crown Prince Frederik is regularly photographed ferrying his children aboard a Nihola.

(NEAR) MISS: MAX Light Rail, Portland, Ore.

There's nothing wrong with Oregon's urban light-rail system. Riding the Blue Line from downtown Portland, for example, you board a low-floored, two-car train that moves like a streetcar, operates like a subway as it enters a tunnel through the West Hills, and then zips along like a true light-rail, reaching speeds of 90 kilometres an hour when it hits the western suburbs. The problem becomes evident when you get off at such "New Urbanist" developments as the much-studied Orenco Station. Despite a valiant effort to build Boston Back Bay row houses in the forest, the park-and-ride that surrounds the station turns the walk to and from the station into a dispiriting slog, so many people still commute by car. Vancouver, which prioritizes bus loops around SkyTrain stations, is closer to getting the balance between density, cars and transit right.

Lesson: When it comes to reducing car dependency, half-measures like park-and-rides are counterproductive. If you make it convenient to use cars, people will continue to use them.


HIT: Grand Express, Paris

The suburbs have always had trouble being served by transit. In the 1960s, Paris tried to solve the problem by building the RER, a train system that revolutionized commuter transit by linking far-flung suburbs and contained sprawl by permitting denser settlement near stations. Now, the metropolis is set to launch the next innovation: a €21-billon "supermétro" that will create rough figure eight loop of 57 stations. Circling the Périphérique, the automatic trains will mostly run underground – some 24 hours a day. More to the point, they will link suburbs, obviating trips through central Paris on packed métro or RER trains, and put any household within an hour's ride of almost any point in the region.

MISS: Regional Rail, Philadelphia

Philadelphia should be a great transit city – its system was the first in the U.S. to have publicly owned trains, and its transit agency has authority over almost all of its operating area. In 1984, a downtown-spanning tunnel, championed by far-sighted planner Ed Bacon (actor Kevin's father), allowed regional rail trains to run from one distant suburb to another, offering multiple stops downtown. Unfortunately, in recent years Philadelphia has reduced frequency and limited runs from suburb to suburb, making the system balky, unreliable and hard to use. A pity.

Lesson: In the highly sprawled metro areas of North America, transit has a future only if it can serve the suburbs. For models, we'll have to look to Asia and Europe, whose cities have been tackling the problem for decades.


HIT: TransMilenio, Bogota

In the developing world, some are using huge machines to expand their subway tunnels (Shanghai has built the world's largest system in less than a decade), while others still rely on private mini-buses, leading to nightmarish congestion. A cheaper middle ground is called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), fast-loading buses that run in dedicated lanes and operate like subways. There are now 84 such systems worldwide, mostly in Asia and Latin America, such as TransMilenio, which has unclogged Bogota's streets. Overcrowding suggests that it has become a victim of its own success, spawning talk of building a subway, but when I visited Bogotanos seemed to prefer expanding and improving TransMilenio.

MISS: Eglinton Line, TORONTO

Transit City, a plan that would have given Toronto 75 more miles of surface rail along dedicated rights-of-way in seven corridors and put the city on the cutting edge of global transit. Instead, its SUV-driving mayor, Rob Ford, elected to kill the project, and, to keep streetcars and light rail out of the way of suburban drivers, plumped for a single, expensive subway line along Eglinton Avenue. A recent revolt by the transit board, and Mr. Ford's declining public profile, suggests there is still hope for Transit City, although many urbanists fret that an opportunity to diminish congestion has been squandered.

Lesson: Just as far-sighted municipal pols and planners can steer their cities in the right direction, myopic populists can undo cities, sometimes for years. So, watch whom you vote for – and never let yourself be fooled twice.

Montreal writer Taras Grescoe is the author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, published by HarperCollins.