Public Transit

     If you're a kid in Los Angeles, you're probably used to seeing cars, cars, cars, everywhere you go. But that wouldn't be true if you were growing up on the other side of the world, in Venice, Italy.

     In Venice, most cars aren't allowed! Venice is built on a system of islands and waterways. People can ride boats and buses to get around, or walk.1

     There aren't many places like Venice, but there are lots of cities in which it's easier to live without a car than in Los Angeles.

     Ask your teacher to help you find London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo and Hong Kong on a globe. All of these cities are famous for their transit systems.

     One of the most famous transit cities is right here in the United States: New York City.

     The New York subway has come a long way since Alfred Beach dug a secret tunnel under a clothing store in 1870. Today the subway is 230 miles long.2 If you pulled up all the New York City subway tracks and laid them end to end, they would reach a third of the way across the country ... all the way to Chicago!3

     Over one and a half billion people ride the New York subway every year.4 Most New Yorkers don't own a car5, and many never learn to drive. Over half use public transit to get to work.6

     This picture shows a map of the New York City subway system. Look at how big it is! You can ride a subway almost anywhere in New York City. Some of the lines run twenty-four hours a day.

     But many people don't like New York for the very reason that it's such a good place for public transit:

     Everything is so close together!

     This photo shows apartments in New York City. Do you see how tall and close together they are?

     Many buildings are like this in New York City. Most people there live and work close together. Thousands and thousands of riders are within walking distance of the subway stations. The subway has lots of riders.

     Now, look at this photo of suburbs in Virginia. Do you see how far apart the houses are, and what big lawns the houses have?

     The government could build a subway station here, but there wouldn't be enough people to ride it. Everyone lives so far apart! The subway would lose lots of money.

     Experts use a fancy term for neighborhoods that work well with transit: transit oriented development, or TOD.

     Some TOD is very nice. These condominiums are a ten minute walk from a BART subway station in Northern California. They're clean and pretty and quiet, and there are lots of trees nearby. People can live in nice homes, and be close to the subway.

     Many buildings in New York City are very nice, too. But many aren't. Sometimes there are problems with noisy neighbors, and cockroaches, or landlords who won't fix things when they break. The New Yorkers don't have cars, so it's hard to look for other places to live. And apartments in New York are very expensive!

     In 2007, a reporter wrote about people who want to build TOD in Los Angeles. It turned out that many of them lived in places where homes are spread out. They didn't want to live in the transit oriented development themselves!7

     Subways are also called metros and heavy rail. Some people call them undergrounds, because they usually run under street level. Others call them tubes, because they usually run in tubes through the earth.

     Subways can have many cars connected together. They always travel on a special road of their own.

     Most famous transit cities are known for their big subway systems, like New York's. But subways aren't the only kind of public transit train.

     This photo shows a "light rail" train. Light rail trains are slower and smaller than subways. They usually run above ground, and often share space with cars in traffic. Subways never stop for street lights, but light rail trains do.

     Light rail trains make more sense in areas where people live farther apart. Most Los Angeles trains are light rail. They're not as big or fast as a subway, but they're bigger and faster than the train in the shot below.

     This is a streetcar, or tram. Streetcars run in traffic, like cars. They often have only one car, like this one in Toronto, Canada.

     Do you remember the inventor Frank Sprague, from the 'Train Era' chapter? He might have been amazed by subways, but would have recognized streetcars right away. In some ways, streetcars haven't changed since horses pulled trams on tracks before the locomotive was invented.

     We're not done yet! There are other types of trains.

     These people in San Francisco are riding a cable car. Cable cars don't get electric power from an overhead wire, as light rail trains and streetcars do. Instead, the cable cars connect to a special cable running under the pavement. The cable can pull the train on the street, and up and down steep hills.

     Believe it or not, there used to be cable cars in Los Angeles! They broke a lot, though.

     Cable cars don't go very fast. Maybe that's why people can ride on the outside, like the people in the photo.

     The oldest train still running in Los Angeles isn't the subway, or the light rail train. It's a special train called Angels' Flight, which goes up Bunker Hill downtown. Angels' Flight is the shortest train in the world!

     Angels' Flight is a funicular train. Funiculars are pulled by cables, like cable cars.

     Buses are much less expensive than subways or light rail lines. Many people feel that buses make much more sense than trains in a place like Los Angeles, where people are spread out.

     Buses come in many different sizes! Articulated buses have special sections in the middle that let big buses bend to go around curves. In Los Angeles, 'artics' carry riders on busy streets like Wilshire and Vermont.

     In a few cities, giant buses run on special bus lanes, almost like subways. The one below is in South America. Riders wait on a special platform for the bus to pull up, and get on and off like riders on a train.

     The most famous busway is in Curitiba, Brazil. Other busways are in Colombia and Ottawa, Canada.

     Many people want to travel in cities without riding cars, trains or buses. Sometimes they can, too. They ride bicycles!

     Bicycles don't make pollution, and they use much less space than cars. But they can be dangerous. Bicycles are a lot smaller than cars. If a car hits a bike, the bike rider can be badly hurt.

     Los Angeles and other cities have special bike lanes, so cyclists can ride without worrying as much about cars. But drivers still sometimes hit the cyclists in the bike lanes, too.

     In some cities, you can ride a bike without even owning one! Bike riders in Canada pay to rent "Bixi bikes" like the ones in the photo above. They can 'check out' a bike next to one train station, and ride it for up to a half hour before checking it in somewhere else!

     In Northern California, some people ride a special kind of transit to San Francisco. Ferries like this one carry them across the bay.

     The ferries run about once an hour. Riders can stand outside and look all around the bay. But they have to be careful not to fall in!

     People use public transit for long trips, too!

     Airplanes have come a long way since the first flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903. There are over 20,000 flights each day in the United States alone!8 You can pay $50 to fly from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, or over $11,000 for a first class ticket to London.

     Riders can travel a long way on a train, too. The national train company is Amtrak. You can ride an Amtrak train from Los Angeles to Chicago, or from Boston to New York, or on other routes all over the country. Amtrak trains have sleeping rooms; you can sleep in a bed while the train moves.

     In some ways, Amtrak trains are like the trains that Richard Trevithick built over two hundred years ago. The power comes from a locomotive. A locomotive is a special train car with a giant engine inside -- a much, much bigger engine than in any car. The locomotive pulls or pushes all the other cars.

     Commuter trains have locomotives like Amtrak trains, but don't go as far. They usually carry riders from the suburbs to the central city, so people who live far away can still work downtown. They're called commuter trains because they run most often in the early morning and late afternoon, when adults commute to and from work.

     Some special trains go very fast! In France, Trains Grande Vitesse, or TGVs, carry riders to faraway cities at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour!

     If you want to go even faster, you can buy a ticket on this maglev train in Shanghai, China. Powerful magnets on the tracks and under the train keep the maglev floating, or levitating, over the tracks. The top speed of this maglev is 268 miles per hour.

     Jakarta is a big city in Indonesia, across the Pacific Ocean from the United States. Traffic there is very bad. Sometimes cars only go four or five miles an hour.9

     Some people try to beat the traffic by riding in a becak. The man in the back of this photo is the becak driver. If you pay him, you can sit in front while he pedals to make the becak go!

     Becaks are a form of paratransit. The word 'paratransit' is used for shuttles, mini-buses and taxis that don't follow a fixed route. The 720 bus always goes on Wilshire ... but a becak goes wherever the driver pedals it!

     Tuk tuks are a lot like becaks, except that they have motors. This green tuk tuk is in Vietnam, but there are tuk tuks in poor countries all over the world. In some cities, you can see hundreds of tuk tuks every day.

     We don't have becaks or tuk tuks in the United States ... but we do have taxi cabs. In most American cities, it's not legal for the driver to pick up more than one customer. But a few places have shared ride taxis. One customer gets in, and then the driver can pick up other customers, too. This makes the ride cheaper for everyone.

     In the 1970s, there was a big shared ride taxi system in Little Rock, Arkansas. The average costs for a trip was just $1.35. Almost two million riders used the system in a year!10

     Have you ever been in a car with GPS? GPS stands for global positioning satellite. The car gets information from a satellite in outer space, high above the earth. The satellite can tell the car exactly where it is on the map.

     In 2005, Google Labs made a system that tracked taxis. You could look at a map on a computer, and see how many taxis were close by.

     What if a satellite system helped connect drivers with people who want rides? Then people could share rides without using taxis, and make less pollution. Maybe you can help build a system like this when you're an adult!

Next : Chapter Five Quiz
Or : Return to Cover

1 Accessible Venice

2 Facts and Figures, New York City Subway

3 The Ten Busiest Subway Stations 2010

4 The Ten Busiest Subway Stations 2010

5 The Carfree Census Database

6 U.S. Census Bureau, New York City, New York, Selected Economic Characteristics, 2005-2009

7 Do as We Say, Not as We Do

8 RITA TranStats

9 Robert Cervero, Paratransit in America, (Praeger, 1997), pg. 131

10 Cervero, pg. 33