The European Experience

Last week, I had the great fortune of being able to spend about 10 days in Europe; France and Switzerland, in particular. As a transit nerd, this was obviously a fantastic experience. (And as a food nerd, equally if not more so.)

Gare de Lyon, Paris

Gare de Lyon, Paris

I will have more detailed notes on the different cities I was in, but a few general observations first.

  •  When it comes to intercity rail, the United States is absolutely pathetic. And not just in terms of speed (though the TGV between Paris, Reims, and Lyon was the single best train experience of my life); the Swiss InterCity and RegioExpress services are fast, relatively frequent (at least hourly point-to-point, much more so for trunk lines). Electrification, frequency, electronic ticketing and payment,
  • Punctuality was incredible. To get from Lyon to the tiny Lötschental Valley in Switzerland, it required four trains and three connections. One connection, from a French TGV to a Swiss IC in Basel, had only 5 minutes between the two. Despite it not being a cross-platform transfer, we made it with minutes to spare.
  • There was not a single surface rail system I saw that did not have dedicated tracks of its own. There was barely a single street we found that had more than three traffic lanes. The primacy of transit was clear.
  • The mixing of cars, pedestrians, and transit was very pronounced, particularly in Paris, but drivers were not crazy the way they seem to be in the DC area. This is reflected less in a sense of caution on the part of French drivers and more a general awareness and expectation that yes, there will be people on foot and moped and bicycle so it’s best to stay alert. There was a good amount of hard braking and stopping short, but no actual collisions anywhere that I saw.
  • The TL;DR version: walking is normal, driving is not; TGV is really, really fast.

In general, too, the public transportation facilities across France and Switzerland are actually emblematic of a respect for their citizens. I know Ben Kabak and others have written of the folly of a new Penn Station when there are so many other higher priorities – and I agree – but at the same time, there is a whole lot to be said for magnificence in the public sphere. After experiencing the multimodal wonder that is Zürich, I found this quote that sums up the “Zürich Model”:

There are communities … whose public realms exude respect in their principles and architecture, and whose citizens are therefore under less compulsion to retreat to a private domain. Indeed, we may find that some of our ambitions for personal glory fade when the public spaces and facilities to which we enjoy access are themselves glorious to behold: in such context, ordinary citizenship may come to seem an adequate goal. In Switzerland’s largest city, for instance, the need to own a car in order to avoid sharing a bus or train with strangers loses some of the urgency it has in Los Angeles or London, thanks to Zurich’s superlative tram network, which is clean, safe, warm and edifying in its punctuality and technical prowess. There is little reason to travel in an automotive cocoon when, for a fare of only a few francs, an efficient, stately tramway will provide transportation from point A to point B at a level of comfort an emperor might have envied.

More to come. But the Zürich Model and its respect for the citizenry should be standard operating practice for every transit system in North America.