Posts Tagged ‘transportation’


Max: Transportation Systems

January 5, 2012

Transportation is something most of us use every day, but notice only when it bothers us or stops working correctly. Every week I take the subway to campus and back and take a local train to visit nearby relatives, but I rarely stop to think about how this wouldn’t be possible at all in Minneapolis because of the lack of reliable rail service and infrastructure. On the occasions that I do stop to think about the transportation I use every day I realize how different the transportation systems in the US and Germany (and in Minneapolis and Munich) are. Even if I had a car and could use the road system I would be noticing some big differences:

The first thing most Americans will notice when first driving on German highways is the stretches where there is absolutely no speed limit. While it seems a little odd at first that this is the same country where you can get ticketed for passing a car on the right, or even driving in a left lane when the one to the right of you is free, it makes sense when you realize that it can be more dangerous to disrupt the normal flow of traffic than to drive very fast. Also, German drivers generally don’t drive faster than they feel is safe. 

The other major difference in road travel, besides the fact that German drivers seem to be, in general, much better (more attentive) drivers than the ones in Minnesota, is in the structure of road networks. Most large German cities, including Munich, existed long before cars or even horses and carriages were in common use. They grew slowly, starting with a wall around the inner city, then eventually broke out of that wall and absorbed smaller cities nearby. The roads developed slowly along with the city, eventually forming a radial pattern with the oldest part of the city in the center. This historic city center is often a pedestrian zone; car travel is limited in this area.

Large American cities, by contrast, usually have a pronounced grid pattern in their street layouts and the entire city is usually directly accessible by car. This is probably the result of deliberate planning due to the fast growth of these cities. Even outside of cities this pattern is apparent: Most of the farmland in the large, flat parts of the US is divided by roads into neatly tessellating squares and rectangles, giving the land the appearance of a patchwork quilt when viewed from the sky. This isn’t the case in Germany, where farms generally have a more irregular shape.

Where the American and German transportation systems differ the most, of course, is in passenger rail infrastructure. American regional and inter-city rail service is either slow, unreliable, or rarely available in most parts of the country. For the majority of Americans it isn’t an attractive option for any kind of travel. The only options these Americans have for inter-city travel are car or airplane travel, neither of which is particularly comfortable or enjoyable. 

Germany, on the other hand, has an extensive rail network that reaches every major city, just about every small city, and even some large villages across the entire country. Train travel is a viable option for those who do not own cars, along with car sharing or comparably-priced flights. The service is usually punctual and has a frequency of at least one train every one or two hours at most stations. The trains are usually fast and comfortable, with the extreme being the high-speed InterCity-Express service that can travel up to 300 km/h and is the most comfortable vehicle in which I have ever traveled (except the one time I flew on business class, but that was orders of magnitude more expensive than a typical ICE rail ticket). Compared to car travel, train travel is comparable in cost (depending on the level of train speed and comfort) and often is about as fast, occasionally even faster (also depending on the location of your start point and destination). 

Perhaps most Americans simply prefer the flexibility and independence offered by cars over the comfort, low cost, and safety offered by trains. Perhaps the US’s geographic size and relatively low population density make trains an impractical option compared to cars and airplanes. Whatever the reason, America’s passenger rail network has a long way to go to match the efficiency, popularity, and ubiquity of Germany’s network.

Until now I’ve covered road and rail networks on a regional and national scale. This leaves out an important component of transportation networks, namely public transportation within cities. It’s hard to make national generalizations in this area, mostly because each city seems to take a unique approach to public transportation. Since I have used the transportation systems of both Munich and Minneapolis/St. Paul extensively, I’ll profile them as examples. I should note that the city of Munich is considerably larger than Minneapolis/St. Paul. Munich’s population is about one million, while Minneapolis/St. Paul have a combined population of close to one-half million, although many more people live in the sprawling suburbs that surround the cities proper.

Munich has a dense, extensive, and robust public transportation system. Its high-capacity backbone consists of the U-Bahn, a subway system of six lines, and the S-Bahn, a collection of suburban trains consisting of twelve spokes that join in the city center to form a single trunk line. These trains are usually fast and punctual (the U-Bahn more so than the S-Bahn). The stations and trains are clean and safe. Although the system sees heavy use and trains can get crowded during peak hours and football games, overcrowding on a scale comparable to the Tokyo subways is very rare. With an extensive streetcar and bus network supplementing the U- and S-Bahn, almost any place in the city and most of the surrounding towns can be reached from the public transportation network. In addition, bicycle paths are available along most streets as another alternative to car travel.

Minneapolis and St. Paul have no real subway system. The transit system for this metropolitan area consists chiefly of a bus system which provides good coverage within the city limits and connects busy areas like the downtowns and the U of M campuses. The city had a streetcar network but this was dismantled in the 1950s because a bus system was thought to be more economical. Rail seems to be making a comeback, however, with the recent construction of a light rail line (a sort of compromise between streetcar and subway) with another line currently under construction and a third in planning. Bicycling is especially prominent in Minneapolis/St. Paul: Bike paths are common and all buses and trains are outfitted with bike racks. Biking is especially popular among university students, who (unlike in Munich) usually live within short biking distance of campus. In the suburbs, however, transit coverage is usually spotty and limited to commercial centers. Because of this and the sheer geographic sprawl of the suburbs, residents there are often left with car travel as the only practical option.

It’s been interesting to look at how two different countries, or two different cities, solved the fundamental problem of getting people from one place to another. It’s a sign of how far modern society has come with this task when I can step into a train in one place, step out fifteen minutes and ten kilometers later, repeat this daily with hundreds or thousands of other people and not even give it a second thought most of the time.


Doug: The Kenyan Matatu – public transportation on steroids

August 14, 2011

It is physically impossible to come to Nairobi and not encounter a matatu. These small privately-owned vans are literally everywhere. From “Jesus Van” to “Cash Money”, they always have creative names. I saw an ad in the newspaper that said “Men are like matatus. If you miss one, another will come right along”. Whether that is true or not for Kenyan men, I’m not quite sure, but as far as matatus go, that’s a pretty accurate description. Whether you are being yelled at from across the street (if you’re an mzungu this happens a lot) by the guy trying to get you to ride in his matatu (This gets pretty frustrating and makes no sense. If I need to go somewhere, I’ll just tell you!), or choking down their beautiful exhaust, or almost getting run over by one in the street, these multi-colored vans are the heart and soul of Kenyan public transportation.

My friend Mary and I had the joy of taking multiple matatus last Saturday when we went to go visit the Westlands, an area of town outside Nairobi. After packing into a matatu with a bunch of other Kenyans, we rode for 30 minutes in the wrong direction (my bad…), facing snickers and laughs as we got out to jump into another matatu back the other direction toward downtown Nairobi. Both our matatu ride out to the Westlands, and then back to Nairobi were quite the adventures. At one point, as we bumped and bounced over dusty “roads” going through areas that were questionably under construction, we entered a packed traffic area where there were cars facing almost every direction in a 360 degree circle. There is a guy who drives the matatu, and then one who opens the sliding door and hangs onto the side, recruiting and ushering people inside. The recruiter jumped out as we sat in traffic, while the driver floored it onto and over a curb (legal?), cut through 3 lanes of traffic, and bounced back over another curb, just in time for the recruiter guy to jump back in and slide the door shut. No one in the van said a thing—apparently this is not out of the ordinary. Even more fun, our matatu home broke down directly in the center of a hairpin turn where 4 lanes of traffic were trying to get by and around us (some driving directly over the traffic “barrier”). Somehow it sputtered to life again after 5 minutes—once again all the Kenyans in the van didn’t say a thing, and just waited in silence for the predicament to be resolved. Another typical ride on the Kenyan matatu…


Shawnda: Where stoplights and lanes are optional

August 2, 2011

My first experiences in Botswana were those dealing with transportation.  It was our first ride out of the airport and we were on the left side of the road, going what seemed to be 80mph, and in a combi.  I was already anxious of finally arriving in Africa, and the lack of a speed limit or traffic regulations didn’t ease my worries.  A Zebras game had just ended at the stadium, and the streets were congested with blue and white fans, combis, taxis, and what seemed to be an unusual amount of Audi’s.  While trying to enjoy the scenery, all I could think about was how I wanted to slam on the breaks or steer the combi to safety.  Only 20 minutes through and I am about 98% sure we got in an accident.  We either hit the car in front of us or a traffic cone, but the driver seemed completely unfazed by it; TIA. 

After a less than positive start to driving in BW, we were then thrown on the combis to fend for ourselves at about 10 at night our second day.  Cramped into the back of the van, fumbling for pula, and unable to distinguish anything familiar in the dark, we were all terrified.  Luckily we made it to the Oasis Motel unharmed, but I think each of us were somewhat traumatized by the experience.

I can describe my many terrible taxi experiences, but they all boil down to about the same blueprint:

Taxi is not licensed. Taxi overcharges us. Taxi bottoms out on every speed bump (and if you were not already aware, there are probably 10 times as many speed bumps as people). Taxi man hits on us. Taxi almost hits pedestrians, animals, or other cars. Taxi follows up to two traffic laws out of about 50. 

Our trip to Serowe was not exactly a luxury tour either.  Our bus there was so full there were people standing in the aisles and sitting two to a seat.  You can imagine how hot it got.  Roughly 5 hours with no opened windows and only short blasts of “air” that lasted for literally 1 second every 7 minutes; we counted. The bus driver was a tease in every sense of the word.  To make it even better, I had two kids behind me hitting my head and pulling my hair for at least half of the trip; I don’t think I’ve ever so strongly considered pushing a kid off a bus.  The way back may sound like an interesting ride…but it was miserable at best.  5:30am, we were picked up outside of our cabins in safari trucks.  Most of us were underdressed, assuming we would make the 20km trip to the bus station in combis.  Nope.  We drove in the back of the safari trucks on the highway, about 20 minutes in below freezing weather and harsh wind.  By the end we were either in tears or complete shock. Safari trucks have slightly lost their appeal. 

My experience in an ambulance wasn’t much better, and was illegal in every sense of the word.  On one of the clinic days, Lizzy and I decided to observe home based care in Gaborone.  One of the male nurses arranged for us to be driven to the facility and told us to call when we needed a ride back.  Now, you would assume that if we drove a regular car there, we would drive the same back.  False.  We were picked up in an ambulance at peak traffic time.  With the three of us in the front seat, the driver attempted to dodge traffic by driving on the median to get into the left turn lane.  Well, sticking out in clear sight was a traffic sign…we assumed that he would have seen it like any other person on that road.  Yet another falsity.  He blew straight through the sign, taking off one of his side mirrors, scraping the passenger door, and taking out a side window…not to mention completely destroying the sign.  How can we not help but think it was our fault?  Clearly ambulances aren’t supposed to chauffer lekoa around Gabarone…but either way, we were indirectly blamed for the incident.   By the end of our time in the clinics, said ambulance was still MIA. 

But, my friends, the crème de la crème of transportation woes is our trip to and from Victoria Falls; never again.  The way there was sleepless, cramped, cold, and just odd.  We took an 11 hour bus ride to Kasane, Botswana which was both cramped and uncomfortably cold.  It began with a prayer for our safety…somehow not as comforting as it sounds.  We made several pee stops, but in the most remote areas with about 3 small bushes to do your business behind.  Our privacy was soon thrown out the window and traded for bathroom breaks.  2am and maybe 20 minutes of sleep, and we were stopped in the middle of nowhere to get off the bus.  Considering everyone was half awake, there was little explanation in what we were doing.  We had to walk through a puddle of chemicals, which we now know is for treating foot in mouth disease, thinking it was some spiritual adventure.  When we got off the bus we realized we weren’t even in Kasane, where our hotel was arranged to pick us up.  Luckily we got everything sorted out, and our trip across the Zimbabwe border was quick and simple.

The way back, however, is one that I hope no one will have to go through.  We went to the Falls with several alternatives to get back, but unsure of which to take.  We decided to take a train from Vic Falls to Bolowayo, Zimbabwe which is near the Botswana border.  Apparently we were the talk of the town, and everyone was gossiping about the crazy white girls taking a local train.  If only we knew this ahead of time.  The train first lost its appeal at first glance; but I kept “don’t judge a book by its cover” in mind.  That was thrown out as soon as we boarded.  The bathroom was a bowl with a hole in the bottom that emptied onto the tracks.  The emergency doors, despite their warnings to remain locked at all times, did not close, and freely swung open when the train was moving.  Let’s say going to the bathroom was a danger in itself.  The bedroom was not necessarily in sync with my expectations. 

About a 10ft x 10ft square, it had two ‘couches’ that each folded out into three layered beds with maybe 2 feet in between.  Confined doesn’t even begin to explain it.  Within our first minutes in the car, we managed to find several bugs…which soon led to plenty more; I was on bug patrol for the remainder of the ride. The train stopped at least 20 times, and went maybe 30 mph maximum.  The windows were frosted before the end of the night, and even if I were comfortable, the freezing cold kept me from getting anywhere near sleep.  I spent the night at the farthest edge of the bed, trying to avoid touching the wall where any potential bugs could be.  I managed to wrap myself in every layer of clothing I brought, yet still that was not anywhere near the amount I needed.  Getting off that train was the second biggest relief of the trip.  However, we soon realized we were stranded in Zimbabwe with no sense of direction.  Luckily, a local man opted to help us find a bus ride back, which turned out to be one of our most difficult tasks of the trip.

The 7 of us piled into his small car and drove around the town to each separate bus station hoping to find one going into Botswana.  No such luck.  Not only did most people not understand us, most places were not even fully running.  After an hour of driving around, we finally decided to take a combi to the border, walk across, and get a combi from there to Francistown.  The combi to the Botswana border was sketchy to say the least.  As we were driving away, our chauffer was trying to grab and stop the driver…we still don’t know why. You can imagine the kind of picture that burnt in our minds.  Luckily we made it to the Botswana border unharmed; the biggest relief of the trip. Touching Botswana soil, then having it cleaned off of our shoes three more times on the way back, was a luxury.  We arrived at the Francistown bus rink just minutes before the last bus to Gaborone was leaving.  The ride back was spent sleeping from exhaustion or trying to silence our minds from thinking about how badly we had to use the restroom.  Either way, we were on our way to Gabs finally.  We took the first taxi we could find at 10:30pm when we arrived to the station, and ended up piling into a minivan for only P30.  Peace.

The rest of my time in Botswana was relatively silent regarding transportation.  I always expect some kind of complication in the process, but that’s Africa for you.  


Brittany: Getting around in Quito

October 1, 2010


I like to walk home after school with friends, but I ride the bus to school every day.  It is .25 cents a ride (no matter where you go), which you give to a certain person on the bus rather than a machine. In the city, buses whirl by at ridiculous speeds. They only stop if you flag them down, and sometimes—unless you specifically tell the driver—they don’t come to a complete stop to let you off. They just slow slightly and people hop out the open door.

Buses that travel longer distances are even crazier. I was seriously contemplating the possibility that I would not survive the trip from Otavalo to Quito. We hopped on and quickly realized there were not enough seats. Francisco and Sam started heading to the back to stand, but the driver stopped me, saying, “Chica, aquí.” For the first twenty minutes of the drive I sat in the long bench seat in the front of the bus with the driver! AND he left the door open! The money collector would literally hang out the door, yelling the destination of the bus as we sped toward people waiting along the road ahead.

The thing I really couldn’t deal with was the passing on winding, two-lane roads through the mountains. At one point we were driving in the middle of the road on the line with a car on either side of us! Finally there was a seat by my friends and I was able to move to the back… At least that way I wasn’t going to see my death coming.

We use taxis to get home after dark or with my family because they don’t own a car. They are a cheap way to get around—if we go out it is usually only a dollar per person. You have to be careful, however. There are a lot illegal (unregistered) taxis that have stared partaking in this crime trend called secuestro express. In this crime, a driver kidnaps the passenger for an hour or two, long enough to max your debit/credit card, and then they let you go. Unfortunately, it is a crime that is popping up around Latin America. There are ways to avoid it, of course, including only getting in registered cabs and always traveling in groups.

I hope this post doesn’t freak out anyone! Crime is of course an issue in such a big city, but most of it is nonviolent. The reality is that unemployment is high here and people have been driven into petty crime out of economic desperation. But our program is very serious about safety and I use my common sense!

–Brittany Libra

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