04 June 2008

Ode to the Subway

Last week was, on balance, a bad week for the MBTA. Overshadowing the fact that ridiculous gas prices are driving up MBTA ridership, there was both a fire and a trolley crash. However, despite all that, I couldn't help but stop and think about my great love for true rapid public transportation, be it the T, El, Metro, or U-Bahn. A good (or even just adequate) subway system cuts down on drunk driving, cuts down on any kind of driving and allows for freer movement of workers to better jobs. In more abstract ways, it helps create a better city. Cities with great metro systems, like New York, engage in a virtuous cycle of car-free living where essential services, such as food shopping, are easily accessible via public transportation. Because of the availability of these resources, fewer people are compelled to start driving and the cycle goes on. This can also help discourage the homogeneity of Big Box stores which require large amounts of square footage and, to an extent, creates real-world "long tail" niche serving stores.

Okay, okay, this is very rose-colored. And I acknowledge that public transportation generally underserves the poor and minority populations and can be plagued by choices made for political reasons, rather than due to sound planning. And, let's face it, every rider on earth complains about how terrible their system is, no matter how good it is objectively. But none of that diminishes the fact that metro systems bring real social, economic and environmental benefits to the cities they serve.

Personally, I can feel an added vibrancy to cities with a real metro system. The constant movement of people, the fact that I can get to any event or restaurant I choose at will. I first fell in love with the metro in Budapest and now make it a priority to learn the metro system of any new city I visit or live in. Besides empowering me to go anywhere I want, they also enable me to get wherever I need. I don't have to rely on unscrupulous cab drivers or any other questionable means of transportation and orientation.

In other words I love subways - for reasons both rational and irrational.