Friday, September 9, 2011

Commuter Hell

I have lived in London for almost 15 years and I have loved (almost) every second. Despite three noisy kids, an incontinent dog, two warring hamsters, a sputtering literary career and the high cost of living I'd like to think my stress levels are low. I attribute much of this to the fact I can work from home (despite the noisy kids, incontinent dog, violent hamsters etc). Even when I worked in an office, and it feels like a long time ago now, my shift patterns were at odd times, so rarely did I have to commute to work in rush hour.

If I had to, I doubt I would have lasted in the city so long. The London rush hour is awful. On the tube you are crammed cheek to jowl with a bunch of sweating strangers who have all consumed four bulbs of garlic and nine pints of ale the night before. Go by bus and you're stuck in the long, grinding queues of traffic. Go by bike and you risk life and limb from angry bus and car drivers, plus you turn into that most objectionable of human sub-species: the cyclist. Smug, sanctimonious, breaking red lights because you believe you're above the law, entirely unaware of how bloody stupid you look in lycra. Go by taxi and you would be bankrupt in seconds. No, I think if I had to commute to and from work each day and evening in London I'd be in the ground by now.

But, it turns out, London isn't that bad. According to the IBM survey included above this post London is one of the best big cities to work in. My first thought was: no way! My second was: how bad must it be in Mexico City? Almost five times worse than London! I can only think the downtown traffic never moves. It's always there, and people sleep in the cars, head on their horns, for perpetuity, while taxi drivers of Istanbul craziness weave in and out cackling maniacally. Moscow sneaks in about halfway down the list. I once went to Moscow. It took four hours to get from the airport to the centre of town. It should have taken twenty minutes. Again, it lags in way behind Mexico City. Again I ask; just how hellish must it be in Mexico City? I'm almost intrigued enough to visit just to see how bad the traffic and public transport is. On the other hand, Beijing ranks quite high and in my time there the traffic didn't seem too bad.

I notice that Johannesburg sneaks in reasonably high up. Perhaps Michael might be able to tell us why? Is it because you might you get stuck in traffic, and while you're stuck in traffic you might get shot? Which is enough to ruin anyone's trip in to the office. But still, not as bad as Mexico City apparently.

I can't make it to Bouchercon this year, sadly, but I think someone should offer Mexico City to the organisers as a putative hosting city. Full of crime and sleaze, it sounds like the perfect backdrop to a writers' convention.


Dan - Friday


  1. Hi Dan,

    Indeed, we have hijackings and the like, but I think the main problem is that the public transport is pathetic. We do have a new very expensive high speed light-rail system. Problem is that the tickets cost a fortune and it doesn't take you anywhere you want to go. The authorities are very surprised that it isn't used all that much.

    Flexitime is becoming popular. That way we can have rush hour traffic all day!


  2. I think you're right Michael. It's all about the level of public transport. Londoners might moan and groan about the tube, and it does break down rather too much, but a lot of cities would kill for its reliability and capacity.

  3. I've used public transportation in Toronto, the trains, and it is as pleasant an experience as a commuter could want.

    Washington, DC isn't mentioned but their subway system is also very good. They actually have a schedule and that is reality-based. And, when waiting for a train, there are actual updates on how much longer it will be before a train enters the station.

    Boston, MA is also not mentioned. I don't know where I would slot it. Sometimes it seems to have a schedule but most of the time what passes for a schedule is pure fantasy.

    As mentioned before, city planners (?) were not consulted. We have buses on the streets that carry passengers to and from the different lines. We have color-coded lines. Some run on the same tracks and pick up passengers at the same place....BUT (word to city visitors) as they approach the end of their routes these routes diverge. There are two red line trains; one will take me to the station where I parked, the other will take be to a station that is miles away from where I need to be. BUT...all stops are the same except for the last three and if I make a mistake, I have to go back into the city to get the right line.

    We have street cars that run on tracks/overhead electric lines. There are many routes assigned to the Green line BUT...there are never enough passenger cars so when the streetcar pulls into Park Street in downtown Boston any hope of a schedule is lost from the get-go because the residents, who know the score, understand that this is like Russian roulette. There may be another car right behind the first one with no one on it or there may not be another for 45 minutes. (Mr. Siger - you must have some happy memories of the Green Line to BC). Park Street station needs people with those broom-like things that the Japanese use to maximize capacity.

    There is one constant in life in the Boston area. No one ever remembers from one year to the next that the city gets snow. When the city plows, it pays no heed to bus stops. Since the streets have been narrowed by snow piles, no one with an iota of sense would stand in the street. So, when the bus finally appears, those waiting begin the climb over rutted, icy snow slopes. This maneuver is a threat to neck and limb so it is done cautiously and very slowly. So much for a schedule.

    Then there are the trains that run, for the most part, underground. Unfortunately, in very cold weather, which, like the snow, takes everyone by surprise each year, the tracks that are not underground freeze. The solution to this is to run empty trains overnight after the system is closed for the day. This can lead to cars being pulled from the "schedule" because there aren't enough crews left to run the trains because these crews have been up all night.

    The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority gets the job done BUT...heart rate and blood pressure can become a serious threat to good health for those who believe in schedules.

  4. I can't believe how lucky I am to be in a city (at the moment) that's off the charts. As for which end it currently fits, we shall see tomorrow morning. In Athens the issue isn't how bad the traffic is, it's whether you can get to where you want at all. Tomorrow the taxi drivers are striking (again) and when they strike they block the road to the airport, meaning you miss your plane and somehow sympathize with the plight of the poor taxi drivers affected by new EU mandated regulations like giving receipts to customers. Personally, I'm preparing for the journey by watching old "Smokey and the Bandit" roadblock breaking movies to help can plan my strategy if the yellow men try to keep me from making it to Bouchercon. NO CHANCE, pilgrims.

    As for moi and Boston, Beth. From my memories of Boston transit to the nether regions of Chestnut Hill and Brighton, I think the Green line you refer to was inspiration for Steven King's "LONG Green Line."

    Will miss you, Dan.

  5. 1] "Violent Hamsters" should be the title of something.

    2] As a life-long member of your "most objectionable of human sub-species" (why are you overlooking Governors of Texas?), I assure you that even more drivers than bicyclists deserve to be described as "smug, sanctimonious, breaking red lights."

    While there are sanctimonious, entitled riders who bug the hell out of everyone, even other riders, some of us riders are reasonable, considerate and (occasionally) safety-conscious.

    Most important of all, I have never been and will never be seen in lycra. One of the few advantages of having pissed away my life in showbiz is having a sense of what costumes not to wear unless I'm being paid to make an audience laugh.

    3] I don't understand how Los Angeles ranks so high in the IBM survey. This place is a transportation nightmare. The number of bus lines and train lines is woefully inadequate, and the frequency with which they run is a joke.

    Plus which the one subway line that heads towards the airport stops about a mile-and-a-half short of it. Riders have to take a shuttle bus or taxi the rest of the way. That's right: L.A. is the only major First World city whose subway doesn't go all the way to the airport.

    So it's not just the spirit-crushing car culture; the corruption is fairly awesome, dude.

    Makes you want to unleash some violent hamsters on the guilty parties.


  6. Beth, it sounds like you could be talking about London.

    Jeff, after a brief trip to Athens a few years ago, most of which was spent stuck in traffic, I'm surprised it's not in there too. As well as my old friend Istanbul.

    Lenny, my dig at cyclists was more than tongue in cheek. I prefer them to car drivers any day of the week. Not least because my car and I come out of those 50/50 collisions in a lot better shape with a cyclist...

    As I type, the hamsters fight by the way. They're ready...

  7. Wow. What's wrong with the dog?

    Just kidding. I hope he's OK. I mean really, wow. Especially regarding the garlic/ale recently consumed.

    I thought NYC was bad.

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