Monday, July 4, 2011

Transit Heaven! Take a look at Vienna, Austria

I just returned from 11 heavenly days in Vienna, and the transit system there deserves some serious analysis for possible emulation. For the entire time I was there, I never scanned a farecard, bought a coin, pushed through an entrance barrier, or had to interact with any bus or street trolley driver. How does Vienna manage to run a world-class transit system that cover the ENTIRE city and its suburbs, running nearly every mode every 10 minutes or so?

Street trolleys in front of the Opera House
On this trip, I was visiting my sister and brother-in-law, who were living in the city for 4 months while Jared was teaching at the university. By the time my daughter, Rachel, and I arrived for our visit, my sister was thoroughly familiar with the system and had purchased two passes for us. The first, a Vienna Pass, was good for 4 days and entitled us to reduced entrance fees to nearly every museum and palace tour, many shops and cafes, and unlimited access to the transit system. The second pass was a standard weekly pass, used by Viennese residents, that simply covered all transit. There is no way to purchase a fare for a single trip. The passes are sold for time periods, daily, several days, weekly, monthly. After purchasing a pass, it becomes active once it is stamped at one of the time-stamping machines that are everywhere, and it then goes into your pocket or wallet and carried whenever you travel.

Enforcement is intermittent and unannounced. Enforcement officials, called Kontrol, will occasionally board a bus, Metro, or tram and check the passengers' passes. If caught riding without a current pass, the passenger is removed from transit and given a fine. Here's how the system is effective...the fines are really, really hefty. Therefore, it doesn't pay to try to evade paying for a pass, since getting caught will be truly punishing.

The result, from the point of view of the passenger, is that, once the pass has been purchased and activated, it makes sense to use transit rather than taxis or private vehicles under almost every circumstance. You've already paid for the transit, and there is no impediment whatsoever to getting on and off any modality. Step on, step off, no gates, no fumbling for farecard or money, no machines in the way. Just get on a bus, get off, wait no more than 10 minutes for the trolley, get on it, go wherever you want, get on and off the subway, etc. It was easier than walking or even trying to hail a cab.

From the point of view of the transit authorities, there is no need for all the machinery that monitors entrances and exits, no holdup at buses for payment at the driver's door, access to all forms of transportation can be at any door (front, middle, back), and the manpower requirements for each station are dramatically reduced. What is added is the enforcement squad. If the fines for noncompliance are not very high, $100-$250 for instance, this system will not work. It will also not work if the transit system is spotty in coverage and unreliable in frequency.

When it works, as it does in Vienna, the incentives for the public to keep a current pass and then use transit extensively are very high. The fee has already been paid and the transit is there for the riding. As much fun as it was to play with my daughter and sister, visiting beautiful and interesting sites, eating pastries (yum, yum!), and learning new things at every turn, one of my greatest joys was popping on and off buses, trams, and subways with no obstacles whatsoever. It was truly transit heaven!