Public transit in Lyon makes life so much easier

Why can't the U.S. get its act together?

Published September 25, 2008 7:00PM (EDT)

Before I go any further, I should note a few housekeeping items. The first is that I've taken over the Machinist blog from Farhad Manjoo. He hung up his Salon keyboard some weeks ago and is now over at Slate. (You should still read his stuff; it's awesome.) Salon kindly invited me to take the reins temporarily and now I'm continuing permanently as of a couple of weeks ago.

Now, if you'd like to send me e-mail directly, feel free to do so at cfarivar [at] salon [dot] com. I may not have time to respond to each message directly, but I will do my best. I should also mention that I've temporarily moved from the Bay Area to Lyon, France, where in addition to my blogging duties, I'm teaching English for the next seven months. So if you're in the neighborhood and would love to meet up, I'd totally be down.

Speaking of France, one of my favorite things about this country (well heck, most of the continent, really) is the presence of efficient, cheap and freakin' awesome public transit. Yes, there are strikes occasionally or whatever, but it has been a pleasure to be able to ditch my car and exist entirely via bus, train, tram and, my personal favorite, shared bikes.

Lyon's a decent-size city (about 1.7 million). There are basically three elements that make transit work here, significantly better than in most of the U.S. (or heck, even just California).

The first is integrated tickets and stations: Lyon, like many other western European cities, has a ticketing system that lets you use one ticket on all buses, subways, trams, etc. You buy a day pass, or a single ticket, or a monthly pass, and you can be sure that it will work on everything. In the Bay Area, we were just starting to get such a system a few months before I left (Translink), but it didn't work on BART or Caltrain (yet). But seriously, why is integrated ticketing so hard in this country? I mean, I guess New York has one of the best such systems, but it's really just for the buses and the subway, and not for the LIRR or PATH.

The other thing that Europe has that the U,S. still hasn't really figured out is how to build public transit systems that incorporate multiple modes of transport -- to use the jargon "intermodal" -- in the same station. I'm actually writing this post from the Gare de Perrache, the train station in Lyon that has a tram stop, subway stop, regional train, local buses and inter-European city buses all in the same place. Most airports here have direct train connections that are right in the station, and (usually) don't require some crazy weird connection just to get from the airport to the actual station (like the AirTrain in New York City, for example).

At least in the Bay Area, we're starting to figure out this intermodal stuff, what with the recent Millbrae station -- it incorporates local buses, Caltrain and BART in the same spot. Sadly, it's only one of a few such stations in the entire Bay Area. I hope the area will soon be getting the new San Francisco Transbay Terminal, which will be what I've sorely wanted for years now: a true transit center with local buses, BART, Muni, ferries and Caltrain all in the same building. Unfortunately it probably won't be available until 2018. Yes, there are such stations in New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago and other major American cities, but few, I find, are as truly intermodal as many of their European counterparts.

The second best thing that France has in the way of transport is its famous TGV (high-speed train) network. While the U.S. majorly lags behind with its wannabe high-speed train, the Acela, which exists only on the East Coast, France has had TGV for decades now, and it continues to expand service both within France and to neighboring countries as well. I can easily take a train from the center of Lyon to Paris in two hours, not to mention to Geneva, Torino or Marseille as well. It's comfortable -- heck, they serve alcohol on board! -- and if you buy tickets early enough, it's only about $30 for a one-way from here to Paris. I really hope that California's ballot measure this fall authorizing the high-speed rail passes, which promises to take me from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in under three hours for only $55. Color me chuffed. If the ballot passes, California would get the first such true high-speed rail system in the entire country.

Finally, Lyon has a pretty low-tech transit solution as well that other cities would do well to emulate -- a community bike-sharing program. Just about every few blocks and at major urban landmarks and transit centers there's a bank of bikes (like these) where, after an annual fee of $9, you can pick up a bike and ride it around for 30 minutes, for free. Plus, you can return it to any other docking station in the city. Walking around the city, I'm shocked at how many times I run into a docking station even in the quietest residential neighborhoods. My friends here use them all the time for quick outings and shopping jaunts. (Sadly, I haven't been able to use one yet as I'm waiting for my new French bank card, but once I get it, then I'll be able to hop on like everyone else.) I'd love to see such a program in the U.S. -- Washington, D.C., just launched its version of Lyon's V´lo'v, but there aren't nearly as many docking stations as there need to be for it to be really effective.

While there are definitely things that I miss about life in the U.S., it's refreshing to have well-thought-out public transit.

By Cyrus Farivar

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