Saturday, August 16, 2008

Get Out of Your Cars and Go Underground!

The extension of the Los Angeles Metro system has me all giddy and excited. It's a dream to be able to take a Metro all the way to the Westside and hopefully I'll be able to do that while I'm still living in LA. But reading up on the Metro expansion also gave me the idea to rank up cities I've been to on the basis of their public transport systems.

So now that we have begun, let's get the very best out of the way at the outset.

Madrid: Best underground transport system ever. May the bastards who blew up a part of it die a thousand deaths - thankfully the system is back to what it was and functioning as wonderfully as ever.

I was in Madrid in 2001 and staying with a friend in the still kind of working class but rapidly gentrifying suburb of Valdeacederas .

Every morning after my friend would leave for work, I'd walk to the nearby metro station, passing tiny neighbourhood bars open at 9:00 a.m for customers who might want a morning glass of beer to refresh them in the heat.

This is what I loved about Spain - it has an incredibly civilized beer drinking culture.

You walk into a bar, ask for a beer and are given a small glass of beer (only 1 Euro at the time) with some pickled gherkins and cocktail onions. You munch on the pickles, drink your beer and are on your way. In the 10 days I was there, I didn't see a single person get piss drunk and wasted.

So from Valdeacederas, I'd take the metro to go to the heart of the city (Quatros Caminos, or Atocha I think) and the ticket was only 25 cents. And, and, here's the best part. You could use that ticket unlimited times as long as you were inside the station. The metro network was amazing - you could reach practically any part of Madrid using the subway.

And once I saw an adorable scruffy boy sitting across from me reading Umberto Eco. That should be enough to love any metro system, no?

I've been told that the metro system to rival that of Madrid in its breadth is the one in Moscow. I mean, damn it, just look at that map! I'd love to visit Moscow and find out.

Now, honourable mentions -

Rome: Rome is perhaps my favourite city to visit in the whole world. It's such a mesmerizing, enchanting place, with layers and layers of splendid architecture, vibrant street culture, so throbbing with life and you get to hear the musical Italian language everywhere.

So this means that in all probability I'm biased. But my friend Beck and I took the metro all the time, during the night as well and it was safe, reliable and got you to the suburbs and the Vatican easily.

One of the highlights of our Rome stay was when, on an impulse, we just boarded the metro and got off at one of the stations close to the Vatican and just walked in the neighourhood and found a fantastic shopping street. The best part of the street were all the shoe and clothing vendors sprawled on the pavements. And you could haggle away to glory.

So me and Beck (who's American from the Midwest but totally got into the haggling game) went crazy shopping and gave the tenacious Italian grandmas a run for their haggling skills. And then, wandering around, we smelt the most amazing aroma of food coming from one of the side streets. We were intrigued and also hungry, so decided to investigate.

We followed the smell to a small neighbourhood place bustling and packed to the gills with customers (in fact, reminded me of some of the busiest sweet shops like Bikanerwala in Delhi). It was a place that served Lazio style pizza, which is basically a long rectangular pizza sold by the slice with a gazillion different kinds of toppings. They also sold typical Sicilian snacks like arancini. We tried a few different slices and loved the food so much that we were back in this neighbourhood the very next day for more.

(Ok, I'm officially stunned. I tried to google and find this pizza place and turns out that it's Pizzarium Bonci at via della Meloria, which serves the best Lazio style pizza in town and is a huge favourite with Romans (go do a google search for it and check out the effusive praise). And to think we found it by just following our noses!)

Here's a video of the place (only the first part of the video is about Pizzarium, and an interview with its owner Gabriele Bonci) - aww, now I miss Rome.

Singapore: It's tiny and rich, so it would be a surprise if it didn't have a decent public transport system (oh well, I guess it doesn't work for Dubai). Extra points for announcements in four languages - English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

London: The London tube has the most recognizable symbol for any public transport system in the world. And you can get all the way from Heathrow to the heart of city using light rail and then get into the underground at the same station so that's great. Not so great are the fares. A lot more expensive than comparable systems in other cities. But then London in general is daylight robbery.

Moving on to "good work guys, now hurry on and catch up with the rest"

Athens: Poor Athens - it gets a bad rep. I'm yet to meet a Greek, or for that matter an Athenian Greek who unequivocally loves the city. Greeks lavish affection and wax poetic on their mountain villages and island paradises, but mention Athens and they'd tell you how every summer they cannot wait to get out of the city.

Overcrowded (half of Greece lives in Athens), polluted and with nightmare traffic (sounds oh so familiar if you're Indian). I actually like Athens, I find it interesting and charming and soulful, but so far I've not been able to convince a Greek of the city's charms.

But things are getting better, what with all the public infrastructure improvements put in place for the Athens Olympics. Including a brand new gleaming metro.

Athens has the newest metro in Europe, which means it looks the swankiest. But that's not the only attraction. Basically, given that Athens has been inhabited continually since antiquity, when they started digging for the metro, they found layers and layers of urban settlements. So they put a lot of the artefacts excavated during the metro digging on display in the stations. In fact, in the Syntagma station, you can see an entire cross-section of the layers of settlements.

My only complaint is that the line is rather limited if you are travelling to the suburbs. But if you live fairly close to the centre of the city, the metro is great. In fact, a friend told me of how everyone takes the metro to go clubbing on weekends, parties all night and then takes the first metro the next morning to go back home.

Delhi: For the last two decades, Delhi has been the pits as far as public transportation is concerned. When I was a little kid, and the city was still a small, charmingly provincial and yet surprisingly cosmopolitan, compact, green urban centre, the Delhi Transportation Corporation (DTC) ran a tight ship.

The buses were never overcrowded, they were on time and anyway, the distances between destinations were hardly more than 20 minutes each way (I know I sound like a fossil saying this, but I'm talking early 1980s here, not generations back in time).

The immigration explosion of the 1980s changed all that. Suddenly, neighbourhoods started sprouting up in all directions overnight, the buses became frighteningly overcrowded and getting from point A to B became a nightmare. The government solution to this was to privatize public transport, which brought the horrific Redline service to the city (since renamed Blueline) with badly trained, reckless drivers and a tremendous rise in road accidents.

And then, something happened in the last 5 years to dramatically lift the public transportation scene in the city and relieve some of its worst traffic bottlenecks. The Delhi metro has been a life-saver for Delhi residents, and is as clean, punctual and well-run as any metro in any city I've been to.

Hopefully, we keep our long exemplary record of wrecking civic infrastructure at bay and the metro continues to function as well as it has in the last few years (being Indian and knowing my countrymen, I'm not so optimistic). The line is being extended to other parts of the city, and the existing lines have drastically cut down travel times to older parts of the city - which means that I have great access to the perfume shops, jewelery makers and kebab sellers of Chandni Chowk.

Chicago: Well, you can take a light rail from the University of Chicago to the Art Institute and the downtown which is great. In fact the best thing about Chicago was that every single major attraction of the city was so accessible if you were staying anywhere near the University. I love how the University is seamlessly integrated into the best parts of urban life there.

Which is all I really know about their transport system. Others tell me it could be better so I believe them.

Bucharest: I loved my time in Bucharest. Yes, there are plenty of hideous Soviet style concrete buildings. I guess they don't bother me as much because I saw plenty of crappy apartment blocks growing up in Delhi. What a lot of people seem to willfully ignore is that Bucharest has a lot of fantastic turn of the century French-influenced architecture that has been surprisingly well-preserved. And it has a breathtakingly beautiful lake in the middle of the city. And lots of public parks.

However, throughout my stay in the city, I never took the metro. Yep, not once. I'm puzzled why this was the case. Perhaps it was because my dollars went a long way and taxis were very reasonable (I've never felt so rich in my entire life as I felt in Bucharest. Taxis everywhere, dining in the finest restaurants in town, buying flowers and the finest glassware for myself just 'cause). But I think I vaguely remember my friend telling me that the metro is fairly complicated to use if you're a tourist and cannot speak Romanian.

In fact, not one person in our large 30+ group ever took the metro even when they wandered off to explore the city by themselves. That really says something, no?

San Francisco: The funny thing is, I've been to SF so many times and I've never taken the BART to get into the city. Hopefully, sometime soon in the future. I've taken buses within the city and they are great. The Bay Area in general though is as bad a public transport nightmare as Southern California is (and don't you snooty NorCal folks tell me otherwise).

And now for the "I have no idea how you grew so huge when no one can get from point A to B"

Los Angeles: Bad rep. Well deserved. The boyfriend was desperate to take the metro to work when he worked in Chatsworth, an hour away by car from downtown LA (two hours in peak traffic). He was in for a rude shock when he checked the fare. The daily fare worked out to be some $10 and the monthly pass was a ridiculous $300. The worst part was - the last train left Chatsworth at around 6:30 pm. So basically if you are even a little bit late at work, you're royally screwed. No thanks.

Same story for the other lines. The evening service is sparse and at times erratic, the trains are no faster than cars because, get this, they stop at traffic signals because there's no grade separation (I've never seen something so nonsensical anywhere else in the world).

I think people are slowly coming to their senses as the I-10 and I-405 freeways are virtual parking lots all through the work day. The weird thing is, I distinctly remember that when I first came to LA, there was very sparse weekend traffic on the freeways. Now even on the weekends the freeways are jam packed. Yeah, sometimes, all this laissez faire business gets to its logical conclusion and bites folks in the ass. Hopefully the Westside line is completed before things get so dire that it becomes faster to walk from downtown LA to Santa Monica than to drive.