Back from the USA: Thoughts on public transport

schiphol train station

Though I don’t really enjoy traveling by plane, Kyoko and I always note how wonderful it is to return to Schiphol Airport, far and away the best airport we know. It’s attractive, well marked and human in scale. There’s interesting art, pleasant lounges and acceptable restaurants. There are seemingly never lines or confusion and our luggage is usually on the baggage claim conveyor within moments of arriving. A few meters walk and a spacious elevator downstairs and we’re on a train to Amsterdam Central where another few meters walk brings us to tram 13 which stops in front of our house: 30 minutes from terminal to home in the city center. Thanks Amsterdam. You rock.

We test the public transport systems everywhere we go, sometimes to save money and sometimes out of morbid curiosity. Getting from the airport in Washington DC to Manhattan would fall into the morbid category. What could have been a few hour drive turned into an expensive all day adventure of ad-hoc shuttle buses, waiting for hours in train stations, broken down trains and struggling to drag luggage though New York’s horribly outdated and inaccessible subway system.

During this trip we sampled San Francisco and New York (JFK) again, this time with 8 month old Pascal in his carriage. With Sky Trains finally linking both airports to metros and trains things have improved considerably. But then again improvement is always easy when beginning with nothing. Just a fistful of comments:

New York
The fit, unencumbered and intrepid urban warrior can pretty quickly get around most of New York City in this extensive but hopelessly inhumane system. The shameful condition of the stations and non-Manhattan trains I can accept but the inaccessibility of it all is a bad joke. Try getting around the boroughs as a visitor, with a baby and/or luggage and you’ll understand what I mean: terrible and often misleading signage, large elevation differences and generally no working elevator or even escalator, very narrow turnstiles and not always an attendant to open the gates…

New York: charge lots of money for parking and on all of the bridges and shove that money right into building cycling infrastructure, traffic calming and massively overhauling the subways. As a result fewer people will drive reducing the costs of road maintenance, and subway ridership will increase massively increasing revenues.

San Francisco
The shiny new Air Train here connects directly to BART which goes right to the city. So far we’re in Euro performance territory here. But then it somehow just ends… before we’ve even really gotten into the city. That great BART metro runs along the southern edge of the city and then from there it’s just a ragtag collection of buses and Munis to serve the city. We actually walked up the hill to our hotel in Nob Hill along the bus line on late weekday afternoon. After 30 minutes pushing a baby carriage, towing a suitcase and wearing backpacks we arrived at the hotel… not a single bus had passed us, nor did one go by while we checked in.

SF: You’ve a lovely city but it’s terrible to get around. Charge lots of money for parking, institute some form of congesting pricing and put tolls on the bridges. Use the money to build a public transport system that actually goes through the city. Much of SF is lightly trafficked and/or too hilly for practical cycling so building cycling infrastructure should be relatively easy and cheap.

See? Everybody can be an urban planner as long as they needn’t show any results.

12 Responses to “Back from the USA: Thoughts on public transport”

  1. patrick Says:

    When we first visited Portland before moving here, I was amazed to find that the light rail went directly to the airport. At the time, we lived in the bay area and there was no direct connection from BART to either the SF airport or the Oakland airport- you always had to take a bus connection from the end of the BART line. I thought it must be illegal. SF’s bus system is totally corrupt and terrible, by the way. It’s not just poor funding, it’s rusty old ways that won’t be shaken off by MUNI.

    Did you visit Portland?

  2. Dave Says:

    Well, that makes me feel good about Portland in comparison – from the airport you would take a light-rail train to the center of downtown Portland (probably 30 min), at which point, within a walk of a few blocks, you could catch buses or other light-rail trains that go all throughout the city, and even to the suburbs – and you could even call on your mobile phone to find out when the next bus is coming in real time. You could also look up all your bus and train routes online prior to coming so you know exactly which routes to take to get where you’re going.

    Speaking as someone who has relatively recently taken up biking as a means of transportation, I’ve made a lot of use of public transportation in Portland, and though it does have some issues and doesn’t go everywhere, I think we really are way ahead of most of the US in city accessibility by public transit. I’ve never been to NY, but I have been to SF, and remember being there wishing the bus system was more like Portland’s (as we just parked the car for the day and walked/bussed around the city).

  3. Abigail Says:

    SF already charges a lot for parking! I just don’t think a lot of it is public parking, is the problem.

  4. Sean Says:


    As a New Yorker, I thank you for your suggestions. They’re good ones, but unlikely to happen anytime soon. In fact, the city is moving in the opposite direction.

    The transit system is trying to close a huge budget gap. At the end of May, subway and bus fares will increase about 25%. In addition, there will be service cuts: several subway and about 35 bus lines will be eliminated; train frequency will be reduced; and some workers will be made redundant (laid off). Sadly, your experience with trying to find a station attendant to open a gate will likely become more common.

    Some of this could have been avoided if politicians agreed to a proposed $2 toll for cars entering Manhattan via the three “free” bridges. Consensus couldn’t be achieved though. It didn’t happen.

    The Mayor’s 2008 plan for congestion pricing would have helped close the gap too and fund transit. That didn’t happen either. The proposal was suffocated in the state assembly, with the leader refusing to bring it up for a vote.

    Oddly, I haven’t heard anything about raising the price of parking.

  5. henry Says:

    Abigail, Sean,
    For comparison sake: on-street car parking in Amsterdam costs between €2 and 5€ per hour and has been rising quickly in recent years. There is no free on-street parking in the city except for in the farthest reaches of Amsterdam North across the Ij river, accessible only by ferry.

    What hasn’t kept up though are the costs of parking permits for residents. Though these are very difficult to obtain (waiting lists of several years for some neighborhoods) they’re fairly cheap. So basically if you’re “grandfathered in” you can park a car cheaply in the city.

    Sean, Of course I realize my suggestions are politically impossible in 2009 but hypothetically speaking they’re approximately what’s needed. It’s very unfortunate that New York is moving away from what will actually provide the most benefit for the people. I suppose as other cities improve their public infrastructure people and businesses will see them as better values and move away from NY. My suspicion is that a city with a narrow demographic such as only young working people, only wealthy or poor etc is simply a less dynamic, interesting and pleasant place to live and work.

  6. bicyclemark Says:

    Welcome home Cotter… wasn’t that a show? welcome home at any rate..

    Remind me to give you the lowdown on schiphol and how they got their land.. and how they build runways they dont need just to request funds and please some contractors.. best airport ever for the traveller… agreed.. but they’re up to some shaninigans behind the scenes. Still.. its true.. you get back to schiphol.. it feels good to be home. Greetings from istanbul.

  7. henry Says:

    That was a television great, Mark, but I think you had to live in the NY Metro area for it to make any sense.

    The dirty tactics of Schiphol doesn’t surprise me a bit. You should hear some of the things I do in my quest for world bakfiets domination 😉

  8. Anon of Florida Says:

    In Miami, there are buses and buses and buses that arrive intermittently. There is a regional rail that extends from Miami to West Palm Beach, that theoretically runs on an hourly schedule but it suffers from frequent delays. The local rail runs on time, although it is currently impossible to get on directly from the airport, one must take a bus first.

    The city is building a transit hub where the national rail, regional rail, local rail, and buses can congregate. Its located about a few miles to the east of the airport, and the locale is linked to the airport via a dedicated shuttle service. The city is also extending the local rail to reach this transit hub.

  9. Scott Mizée Says:

    Henry, I read your article in interest, in light of my own experience at Schiphol and at Portland’s airport, PDX. I have only been in Schiphol once, but my most vivid memory there is the man offering to sell me drugs while I was standing next to my wife in the terminal. 🙂 I will try and pay much more attention to all the good things you spoke of next time I am there.

    Regarding Portland, I found it interesting that there have been *several* times in the last year that I have had a very similar conversation to yours about PDX with co-workers and friends. Amongst those of us that have had to travel by air around the U.S. it is common to agree that PDX is our favorite airport in the country. –not just because it is home. The light rail line directly to the city is definitely one of our reasons. I also love the architectural scale and its “fit” in the Pacific Northwest. It DOES have a separated bicycle trail that allows you to travel to or from the airport on two wheels, however it is not the most direct route to the urban core and it may be more convenient to just take your bike on the light rail train.

    I love PDX!

    ….oh and did I mention the free public WiFi?

  10. Christian Ford Says:

    Hi Henry—
    As an envious fan of your Netherlandish lifestyle and a New Yorker, I have to agree with your assessment of the survival-of-the-fittest nature of the NYC subway’s (in)accessibility. However, the very impossibility of using the system with a stroller often provokes its own solution into existence. It goes like this: single parent with stroller comes to a halt at either the top or the bottom of the stairs. Anonymous passerby — typically w/o breaking stride or making eye contact — reaches out and grabs the front strut of the stroller and the whole conglomeration hustles to the other end of the stairs where — still w/o breaking stride — it decouples and the pieces go on their way.

    I often wondered how the NYC subway could get away with being inaccessible to wheelchairs and the like, as accessibility is a requirement for some kinds of federal funding. Turns out that only the *system* has to be accessible, and by that standard, kneeling buses do the trick. Not in real life, but you get the idea.

  11. Meagan Says:

    Hi Henry,
    I found your blog while searching for information on public transit in Amsterdam. I will be visiting Amsterdam with a 13month old and a stroller next month and have wondered whether the public transit system is accessible and easy to use with a child in a stroller. Incidentally, I lived in NYC for almost 7 years and agree, I found using the subway, tram and buses with a stroller in tow quite difficult.

    Can you enlighten me? How is it traveling on buses, metro and trams with a child in a stroller (are strollers allowed, are their elevators down to metro stations, can strollers stay open on buses, etc.?)

    Many thanks,

  12. henry Says:

    Hi Meagan,
    My family gets around just fine with a 10 month old in a stroller. A bigger stroller will be tight or not fit in the older trams but there aren’t many of these on the popular routes any more. Trains are no problem at all and you probably won’t ride a bus. Metro routes are limited and the elevators and escalators in every station are always in service. Nobody will ever ask you to fold up your stroller. I remember those signs in the NY subway and found it too crazy for words… and refused to do it. Nobody complained either. That’s the public transport story.

    But you’ll probably stay in a fairly small area so you can walk and bike and hardly ever use public transport anyway. WorkCycles rents both city bikes with child seats and bakfietsen and we equip many a visiting family.

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