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Five Transit Lessons from a Eurotrip
From notebook scribbles to the big stage
A 2018 art exhibition in Paris Metro with mural from famous street artist JR (highly recommend his co-lead role with legendary director Agnes Varda in the documentary Faces Places). Source
For a month in June, I had the privilege to travel through France, Spain and, very briefly, Portugal. This was my first vacation since the pandemic, and I was thrilled to visit some of the great European cities — Paris, Lyon, San Sebastian, Madrid, Barcelona, and Lisbon — for the first time. Within and between these cities, I took as many trains and buses I can (without inconveniencing my partner who was traveling with me for more leisurely reasons). Despite it being a vacation, I couldn't help but take copious notes and continue to research transit systems of my host cities.
It was meant to be private journal entries in my chicken scratch. But as I gathered more material, I thought there was enough to not only organize my thoughts further but also to crystallize some epiphanies I encountered in the train, on the platform or at a cafe nearby after a lovely ride.
Seasoned transit thinkers — especially if living in France or Spain or its neighbors — may find some of my points rather obvious or redundant. But in the forum of discussing mass transit, I find there is always room for redundancies to not only remind ourselves but also for a newcomer may find them revealing. Since I have cultivated one such platform here, I figured I’ll put it down in writing.
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1) The top transit cities are still struggling from COVID impacts
When packing into a train in Paris Metro, or Madrid Metro, or Barcelona Metro, this summer, the very last thought I had was “there is not enough people taking the train here.” But for the three listed Metros, total ridership still has not recovered to its full pre-COVID figures.
Madrid Metro's CEO Silvia Roldán spoke last month that her system remains at 95% of pre-COVID demands.1 Telecommuting has drastically reshaped Madrid's commute patterns: morning peak hours have a loss of around 10% from Monday to Thursday and on Fridays of 18%, according to Roldán. However, mid-day peaks have returned and afternoon commutes have composed of more leisure reasons, such as shopping or family outings, said Roldán.
Paris and Barcelona fared worse than Madrid in ridership recovery. RATP Group — the state-owned public transport operator for Paris Metro — reported average ridership was down 14% compared to its 2019 levels.2 Barcelona’s Metro operator TMB recorded around 549 million passengers in 2022, which was down approximately 13% compared to its 2019 figures.3 4
After three years since COVID-19 disrupted the world, it cannot be lost on us still that major transit systems — true world-class systems and industry leaders — are still reeling from the five-alarm maelstrom that was the pandemic. It often feels like societies have pigeonholed the pandemic, or has declared victory over it, but the pandemic still lives with us through these scars of data.
Another under-discussed facet is that many cities worldwide had to bail out their transit systems for pandemic-related revenue losses. The Ile-de-France region — Paris and its suburbs — received a 1.4 billion Euro subsidy package in September 2020 to cover revenue losses, and has received continuous assistance from the French government.5 London’s TfL was bailed out four times between 2020 and 2022.6 In May, the New York State government provided a package of subsidies for the MTA.7 It’s important to remember that COVID did near-mortal injury to even the robust of transit systems worldwide.
I really do not want this point forgotten as we in North America at least are deliberating the future of public transit. A June 2023 survey from the American Public Transit Association revealed 51% of public transit agencies in the United States are facing a fiscal cliff in the next five years.8 The bigger you are, the more precarious per the APTA survey: 71% of the larger agencies in America’s biggest cities expect a fiscal cliff in five years.9 Even one major reduction or entry to a “death spiral” by a transit agency in the United States — a country already so deficient in transit options — would be one too many.
It is imperative to remind ourselves — and more importantly lawmakers and decision-makers — that not having figured out a sustainable post-COVID model of success is the dominant norm worldwide, not an exception. Asking and receiving state or federal aid to keep a vital public service running was not exceptional but rather a worldwide norm, thus undeserving of shame or ridicule.
2) Having really good service can trump pretty awful rider experiences
When people talk about trains in Europe, they gush over the palatial, futuristic treatment they received while on the Metro. I, either through bad luck or having traveled in one of the busiest travel seasons in recent memory or having too high of an expectation as an employee for a public transit agency, have not had the same luck.
In Barcelona Metro, I saw more urine or post-urination messes than I can recall in a long time.10 In Madrid Metro, I vented to my partner that I keep getting lost in the stations due to its poor and surprisingly confusing wayfinding signages. As someone who thinks a lot about wayfinding in stations for personal and work reasons, Madrid was quite shocking.11 In Paris Metro, I witnessed so many broken equipment (next train signs, ticket vending machines, fare gates, elevators) and also a lot of mess. In Lisbon Metro, in limited experience, I noted quite a lot of broken equipment too.
All in all, I was not impressed, which frankly left me disappointed. But I prodded myself why these observations, which would be primary hindrances from taking the train in North America, were mere minor nuisances in Europe. My strong hunch was simply: the trains came frequently to wash away its sins.
Paris Metro ran a train every 2-3 minutes on all lines for most hours. Madrid Metro and Barcelona Metro was, on observation, 5-6 minutes on all lines for most hours. Very rarely would anyone wait more than 10 minutes. If it occurred, the rarity would be noted by learned behavior, with people waiting in platforms getting antsy and rubbernecking down the tunnel for their train. (Lisbon Metro, I may have just had rotten luck, having waited more than 10 minutes in two of our three rides)
It served as yet another reminder that service of frequency is and should be the main barometer for success for any mass transit system. But I also know, working in the industry, that upping frequency often can be the hardest change possible internally due to personnel or resource limitations. These two truths do not excuse poor rider experience or poor frequency, but I have a greater appreciation for the Metros who can provide such service levels every day, all day, for decades prior and for decades to come.
3) Station spacing and train length matters for a line’s success
When people have asked me why can’t America just take Europe’s transit successes and graft it on here, I postulated prior to this vacation that the distance between train stations in a given European Metro system may be a key factor in its success. I think I was onto something that goes under-appreciated in North America.
An extreme example may be the Paris Metro, where two stations between a line in central Paris may only be separated by 200 or 300 meters. In train time, a train will depart and arrive at the next station within one minute. I think that is too short a travel time and rather creates redundancies. But the great thing about the Paris Metro is that all stations are well-attended despite the closeness of stations to overcome this 19th century anachronism.
A more sustainable scale was found in Spain. The spacing between two stations in Madrid or Barcelona may often be 500 or 600 meters: close enough to transport from one neighborhood to another but far enough that walking or biking cannot replace the one-stop Metro ride wholly with ease. It was also close enough to render an automobile rather pointless; it seemed a Goldilocks zone for station spacing for a heavily used Metro system.
Another appreciation in Europe was the length of a Metro train. Usually four or five cars long, increasingly connected via open gangways, I found this to be an ideal length for several reasons: 1) it is of a more human scale, I can reasonably see most if not all the train from end to end on an open gangway train; 2) it keeps the transit systems honest about providing high frequencies instead of falling back to longer trains with lesser frequencies.
In much of the United States, stations are too far apart and trains are either too long or too short for its respective station distance. If stations are too far apart, then the automobile comes in play as a competitive mode. And consequent train length determines whether the train ride will be too uncomfortable (too short) during the long travel between the stations, or too spacious (too empty) which often engender a feeling of unsafety on the train. Ever since returning, I have more sensitive to this observation — and more assured in its solidity.
4) The City maketh its transit (or Culture-Trips vs Capital-Trips)
In reportage or discussions on the state of public transit in North America, a major focus is given to each transit agency of note. The actions of the transit agencies are seen as determinate of the success of the system itself and thus attracts scrutiny and vigilance. I fear that focus carries a very low ceiling of potential for those who want transformative change for transit and a misunderstanding for how a transit system succeeds or fails.
I was in Barcelona in late June during the weekend of the Feast of Sant Joan, which is one of Barcelona’s most popular holidays. The scenes were not dissimilar to that of Fourth of July in the United States, with fireworks, barbecues, beach parties and neighborhood festivities galore. It was an incredible time to be in Barcelona — and on Barcelona Metro. Despite many store closures for the weekend, Barcelona Metro was packed across all hours. I was shocked to be on a crowded train heading to the beaches at 7 pm and crush-load trains from the beaches at 11:30 pm.
Contrast this with a recent experience I had in San Francisco on the eve of Fourth of July. I joined a large group of friends visiting San Francisco to go to a Giants baseball game. After the game, we walked toward Market Street to hit up some familiar and favorite watering holes. To our surprise, our first, second and third choice bars were closed for July 3rd. At 10pm, standing on an empty Market Street, we decided not to head further north for some brews and instead call it an early night. I took the bus home; the majority of them called Uber or Lyft to go back, a major missed opportunity for BART or Muni who may have been happy to patronize an extra dozen riders.
When I reflect on these two experiences, I feel strongly that most of the great cities people love to visit have a robust glut of cultural or leisurely activities spread disparately across a wide geographic swath of the cityscape. Metros, if they connect well to the constellation of these events happening every day and night, will naturally attract a high level of ridership. These rides — I coined them Culture-Trips in my chicken-scratch writings — have a very positive feedback loop; people want to go see friends, or play sports, or go drink, or be social and seen wherever. Systems which can provide a wide array of Culture-Trips to people at a good level of service are deigned to succeed.
Standing in contrast are Capital-Trips, mainly commutes to and from work. They are the atom-level actions which sustain a city’s economy; without commuters, a city is paralyzed. Mass transit excels at providing Capital-Trips, but Capital-Trips carry inherent limits. Most people only make two Capital-Trips a day (home to work; work to home) and the experience is usually displeasant. Capital-Trips in most cities often congeal into morning and afternoon rush hours. Capital itself is usually not pleasant too; to borrow from a certain 19th century German philosopher, Capital has an uncanny characteristic to make people involved feel alienated from their labor, their society and even their human existence.
Most if not all metropolises in North America neatly design and separate areas for Capital and for Culture. Downtowns are a place for jobs, corporations and banks; the Bohemian/LGBTQ+/ethnic/hipster neighborhoods are for music, cocktails and fun. As such, transit systems in cities become designed to provide majority Capital-Trips on some lines and majority Culture-Trips on others. Outliers, like BART in the Bay Area, were designed and built for only Capital-Trips from the suburbs to Downtown San Francisco. It worked great until it didn’t, when COVID blew up the walls between two carefully tended gardens of urban Capital and urban Culture.
Cities worldwide do not have this strict of a separation. They also have a surplus of spaces for cultural and leisures to take place as scheduled or spantaneous. Culture-Trips and Capital-Trips are intermingled every hour, every day on the same trains and same buses. On hours and days outside dominant work hours, like evenings or weekends, cities like Paris or Barcelona are teeming with its citizens out in transit for leisure or for culture. Culture-Trips constantly dare a rider to redefine their associations to mass transit based on their transit experience and also what the transit trips connects them to. Capital-Trips, in contrast, can be disciplinary and alienating in nature where behavioral decisions are made by “I have to/I should”. (Is this why remote work looms as such an existential threat for mass transit in metropolitan areas?)
All cities have the ability to house within itself spaces and events to encourage and unleash more Culture-Trips on a daily basis. To win more ridership, they need a positive, actionable reason to get on. That encouragement on a municipal level can be the tried and true ceiling breaker for North American transit and its lagging ridership figures.
5) Political will is the only instrument which saves or kills mass transit
Through France and Spain, I took not only Metros but also regional trains and high-speed intercity rails. It was a trip of a lifetime for a lifelong railfan, but I was also working out a puzzle: how can we obtain this luxury back home as well?
Since returning from Europe, I am increasingly radicalized in the opinion that national government action and national government investments are the main, if not only, key power to transform mass transit. France and Spain, for decades, have spent billions and billions of Euros to develop their national railway networks. But, as importantly, they have invested and created mechanisms to provide revenue for its most recognized transit systems, for example Paris region's RATP. In contrast, a recent budget crisis with Madrid Metro highlights money-saving decisions can carry massive ramifications down the line, nulling whatever past cost savings occurred due to present and future outstanding bills.
France and Spain has invested billions and billions upon their transit networks. France, in particular, have been aggressive; in addition to pandemic subsidies made available to RATP, the French government pledged 4.7 billion Euros to its national railways in its recovery plan in September 2020.12 Three years later, as part of a “France Nation Verde” plan to sharply cut carbon emissions, France pledged 100 billion Euros to expand and upgrade its national rail network by 2040.13 The 100 billion Euro investment may include construction of RER-like regional rail systems in other cities, the return of night trains, construction of new lines and upgrade of existing rail infrastructure, according to French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.
Spain is following suit with a 24 billion Euro investment to its national rail network over the next five years.14 (Considering Spain's world-class reputation as economic infrastructure builder, this money may stretch further than most of the developed world) Portugal, a relative late bloomer, recently have pledged a Lisbon-Porto high speed rail line at the cost of 4.7 billion Euros.15
Aforementioned investments are mainly capital investments, leaving out operations for the time being. France have supplied its major metropolitan transit systems the critical operating funds to keep trains running with a novel solution: versement mobilité, or mobility tax. Formerly called the transport tax (versement transport), the mobility tax is a local payroll tax levied on all public and private employers with more than 11 employees. It was first introduced by the French government to the Ile-de-France region in the 1970s, and has been a main engine to help drive RATP — and its Paris Metro and RER — grow and modernize for the past 50 years.
Despite opposition to the mobility tax from pro-business organizations, France's mobility tax has provided the stable financial foundation unfound in most North American peer systems. As impressive has been the French government's steadfast support for the mobility tax, as evidenced by its expansion in the 2019 Mobility Orientation Act.
In 2023, RATP reported 48% of its operating revenues came from employer contributions mainly through the mobility tax.16 Operating revenues from fares (not counting the share many employers pay for discounted employee passes) amounted to 27%. Ile-de-France region has the highest rate of mobility tax at 2.95%. Sytral Mobilités, which operate the Metro in the second biggest city in Lyon, also registered more than 40% of its operating revenues from the mobility tax, set at 1.85%. (The rate was recently raised to 2%).
(I highly recommend this thread on the mobility tax from Kueller on Twitter — who I got to meet in Paris!)
In contrast, we can see a major transit system pushed to the brink of financial catastrophe through poor political choice. Madrid Metro currently has its hands tied behind its back under recently political gridlock in the Community of Madrid, the authority overseeing the Madrid region. In 2022, the President of the Community of Madrid Isabel Díaz Ayuso extended the existent budget to 2023 after the far-right party Vox derailed budget negotiations. For Madrid Metro, this 2023 extension dug Madrid Metro deeper in debt, with around 130 million Euros of debt since 2021 to provide core services.17 With not-yet-100% ridership recovery (Madrid Metro's revenues rely more on fares than Paris Metro, at around 40%) and recent skyrocketing electricity bills, Madrid Metro's financial grounds remain shaky.
This unstable foundation set the stage for what could be a “catastrophic” near-future for the world-renowned Madrid Metro. Madrid Metro stands to lose nearly 40% of its train fleet in December 2023 unless they can buy out 142 trains already in circulation. But due to the current debt burden and because Madrid Metro cannot borrow money themselves without the Community's approval, the situation remains unresolved.18 If the 142 trains are not purchased, Madrid Metro will have to run service with only 207 trains — a crushing blow to its service levels.
Why does Madrid Metro need to buy out trains they already run every day? Twenty years ago, the authorities in charge opted to rent out new fleets with the right to purchase decades later. As the newspaper El País calls it, it was “bread for today and hunger for tomorrow”.19 In addition to this morass, Madrid Metro stands to lose nearly 100 million Euros more as they put a down payment as the partial purchase amount back in 2022 — not knowing then the budget would be extended with no assistance for the rolling stock purchase.
As of publication, the funding crisis surrounding Madrid Metro is not resolved. The opposition party in the Community of Madrid has demanded Díaz Ayuso for a one-time bailout to rescue Madrid Metro out of its indebtedness.20
France and, less generously, Spain has demonstrated how political support and foresight can either set up a system for success for decades or push another system to the brink of a death spiral. Public mass transit is not just a carbon emissions reducer or an equity leveler or a regional economic engine; it is also an endowment, an expression of nation-building. Countries who have demonstrated this understanding and acted with supplying major investments or mechanisms to create operating revenues — over years and decades, as these decisions multiply — are now the ones leading the world in mass transit.
Countries which make corner-cutting decisions or become reduced to political paralysis — whether it be Spain or my United States — are always going to pay the price, and pay them dearly.
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