Monday, November 10, 2008

I Miss Paris, Part One

I used to like the Washington, DC area metro. Then I lived in Paris. Six months on the other side of the Atlantic taught me that our nation's capitol shouldn't just be known for monuments, museums and unattractive 70s-era federal buildings, it should also be known for building a public transportation system and then making it as inefficient as possible. After a rough weekend of riding the rails and getting nowhere I'm about ready to jump on the next plane back to France, where public transportation is, and deserves to be, a source of national pride.

There are two main features of the Paris metro that make it vastly superior to it's counterpart in Washington, DC. First, Paris' system is incredibly prolific. No matter where in the city you might find yourself, you're rarely more than a few short blocks from the nearest metro station. With 16 lines and 300 stations at your disposal you can go anywhere your traveling little heart desires. In contrast, the DC metro has an embarrassingly minimal 5 lines and 86 stations. True, Paris is the larger city by a sizable margin, but there are entire sections of DC that have no metro service at all. The popular dining, shopping and nightlife neighborhood, Georgetown, is not served by trains and neither is much of The National Mall once you leave the bank of Smithsonian museums. It's a long, lonely walk to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

Secondly, the Paris metro runs at a high frequency rate. Five minutes is a long wait for the next train in Paris; passengers generally wait no more than two or three to get on board. This is true for weekends and other non-rush hour times as well. As a result, metro is a quick, easy and efficient way to get around town. Washingtonians do not have the same kind of service. The trains are fairly frequent during rush-hour, but "off-peak" times will cost you. It's not unusual to wait 10, 15 or even 20 minutes for the next train. Getting from my apartment to Reagan National Airport took 40 minutes on metro yesterday due to wait time. I could have been there in 10 with a car. This is a huge source of frustration for local riders, and I just simply don't understand why any rail system would operate in this manner.

Of course, the Washington metro isn't all user un-friendliness. There are a few bright spots: The stations and trains are spotless in comparison with what you'll find in Paris, graffiti is non-existent, and you'll never have to endure a ride accompanied by an accordion player who hits you up for a few euros after the ear-splitting performance. But I would take an efficient metro over a aesthetically pleasant one any day. Washington DC's street and general layout was designed by a Frenchman named Pierre Charles l'Enfant. Hindsight is 20/20, but we should have hired a French metro-builder instead.

1 comment:

Fida said...

Public transportation systems - in Canada almost non existent. Toronto grew so fast, nowbody even thought of putting a system in place that would be able to grow with the city. And now it's too late. Vancouver has a bus/sky train system that is so slow at times that you are faster walking.