What the snow teaches us about public transportation

Spain 2013 259
A subway station in Barcelona. (Photo by Sandy Bauers)

I didn’t exactly delight in yesterday’s tales of woe by travelers stuck on cold, snow-blown station platforms as commuter trains whizzed by, full.  It was just too awful.

But part of me enjoyed contemplating what a ringing endorsement the day’s ridership was for public transportation.

What it said to me was that all these passengers evidently lived near enough to a train station to warrant taking one yesterday, and that they probably could on many other days.

When the going on the roads gets tough, people move to public transportation.

And wouldn’t it be nice if they could do that all the time - a boon for highway congestion and air pollution and probably a lot of other things I’m not thinking of at the moment?

But it’s a perennial question with extreme economic implications: Which comes first, the passengers or the trains? Perhaps they just have to grow in tandem, and snowy days can only help, unless people get so frustrated at the lack of bathrooms and dirty environs that they vow to never come back.

Last month, I went to Barcelona, and the subway system there was a gleaming, on-time example of just how great public transportation can be.

I never had to wait in a station longer than two minutes. I knew this because signs on the platforms said how long it would be.

Speaking of the stations, they were clean and even, in the case of the one with this post, pretty. Imagine!

The route maps were prominently posted and, once on the subway, understanding where you were was intuitive.

Above each door was a series of lights, one for each station on the line. If the station had been passed, the light was lit. If the station was still ahead, the light was off. If the station was the next stop ahead, it was blinking. Easy!

The riders on the subway ranged from kids to moms with baby carriages to the elderly. And most of the trains were, if not packed, certainly approaching full.

Maybe it also helped that driving in Barcelona — as it appeared to me — was all but impossible.

So the next time I’m coasting along on the Schuylkill at four miles an hour, I’ll think of Barcelona and hope for more and better public transportation here.