Traveling by train from Chamonix (France) to Grindelwald (Switzerland) was easy, despite having to change five (!) times. In most other countries it would not have been so easy. Certainly not where we live in Los Angeles, where public transportation is much more limited, especially when driving in mountainous regions.
It’s really unfair to compare a city with lackluster public transportation like Los Angeles to Switzerland, a country with perhaps the best public transportation system in the world, but in this post I’m emphasizing the importance of social structure and its importance. shapes culture.
Los Angeles was associated with “car culture” in the last century. Driving the Pacific Coast Highway or Sunset Boulevard is advertised as a must for visitors. There are car-focused events throughout the year, and there’s even a car museum. Add to the mix the vast wealth that some have amassed, often displaying high-end sports cars that are commonplace on the wealthy streets of Southern California. Cruising or driving around to show off your car started here and still happens on weekends in some areas.
Although a bus system and light rail run across parts of the city, traveling consistently using public transportation alone is admittedly difficult. Buses often find themselves stuck in the same heavy traffic as cars, drivers may have to wait long between transfers or find a full-speed bus at busy times.
If I were to take the bus to work, it would take me a few hours each way (compared to less than 30 minutes by car if I timed my commute). And I would still have to drive to the bus stop or walk about 2 miles each way, adding another hour. Public transport here sticks to the higher density areas and is less accessible in the less populated foothills. So if I tried to take the bus to the trailhead, even just a few miles from my house, I would be out of luck.
How did this happen? Is it just that LA is a car city and public transportation just isn’t part of the “culture”?
Los Angeles once had a thriving public transportation system Smithsonian Magazine the article tells. As the city grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, electric trams carried passengers. However, they found it difficult to survive as the city began to expand:
in 1926 there was a huge push to build over 50 miles of elevated rail in Los Angeles. The city’s low density has led many to be skeptical that Los Angeles could ever support public transit solutions to its transportation woes in the 20th century. Local newspapers campaigned heavily against downtown elevated railroads, even sending reporters to Chicago and Boston to get quotes criticizing those cities’ elevated railroads. Los Angeles’ low density was a direct result of the city’s most drastic growth in the 1920s and 1900s, when automobiles allowed people to spread out and build homes in far-flung suburbs without having to rely on public transportation to reach the center of commerce and retail. city center.
Cars allowed suburban sprawl and made public transportation less attractive, creating a vicious cycle. As the number of drivers decreased, so did income, renovation or resources for development – structural factors that shape culture. Private streetcars just weren’t profitable enough to continue (see the video below for more on the story). Public investment was lackluster; partly due to taxpayers’ reluctance to subsidize public transport charges.
By contrast, public transport in Switzerland was incredibly easy and stress-free. Before the trip, we read about the best ground transportation options—primarily a rental car—and figured that between the cost of the rental, parking each night, gas, and tolls, it would cost at least as much as taking the train. Also, we would still have to pay for gondolas to take us to trails that were not accessible by car.
We chose to get a Swiss Travel Pass for the day; it wasn’t cheap (about $50 per person) but it turned out to be the best deal. The trip from Chamonix to Grindelwald was about 120 miles, required 6 trains and a border crossing, and took just over 4 hours. Our tickets were downloaded to our phones, we didn’t have to figure out how to buy tickets at the station, we just had to scan the QR codes when the employee came to check the tickets on the train.
Using Google Maps, which tracked our journey in real time, we knew exactly when the next train was leaving, which platform the next train was on, and even how busy the station was. Most of our connections lasted 5-10 minutes, so there was almost no waiting. And there were trains always on time The larger ones even had a bathroom on board, so you don’t have to find one at the station.
(See the video below for more information on the Swiss rail system):
What makes public transportation in Switzerland so different from our home in Los Angeles?
The two regions have several important similarities and differences. Both mountains have mountain ranges. The highest in the Los Angeles area is Mount Baldy at just over 10,000 feet, while Switzerland’s Dufourspitze peaks at just over 15,000 feet. Los Angeles County is about 4,000 square miles, and the country of Switzerland is four times that size at 16,000 square miles. Los Angeles County has a population of about 10 million, while Switzerland has a population of about 8.5 million.
Both the Los Angeles and Swiss transit systems were state-owned until the Swiss system was privatized in 1999, with shares held by the individual Swiss cantons. The LA system serves about 1,433 square miles, while the Swiss system serves about 3,308 square miles. Operating costs are similar; Los Angeles has a budget of $8 billion, compared to just over 10 billion Swiss francs (about $10.5 billion). Swiss trains serve more than 880,000 people a day, compared to 178,000 people a day in Los Angeles.
Social structure can help us understand some of the differences in public transport. It should be noted that the Swiss railway system has been in continuous operation since the 19th century, before the production of the automobile.
In contrast, Los Angeles is a much newer city than the cities and towns of Switzerland. Los Angeles’ suburbs were built after the car, and urban planning is clearly car-centric. 1910-1930 the city’s population nearly quadrupled, and suburbs sprung up over the next few decades as interstate highways were built. Affluent LA residents are less likely to take public transit; in 2018 survey found that only 1 in 8 bus drivers earned more than $50,000 a year, while nearly 2 in 3 earned less than $20,000. In Los Angeles, transportation disparities reflect income inequality. Transport both reflects and reproduces social structure: the patterns and practices that shape society.
Saturday Night Live’s sketches of Californians, where every conversation eventually leads to a discussion of driving directions, is a pretty accurate description of how essential driving is to living in the region (minus the airhead accent). Ironically, the car culture that is often associated with the area is the least attractive aspect of living here, as traffic has made traveling by car stressful, time-consuming and environmentally unsustainable.
We could argue that Los Angeles traffic and the high cost of driving in Switzerland discourages driving, but the public transport structure in Switzerland makes it more practical to travel without a car. What are the structural factors that determine transportation options where you live?
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