November 07, 2022

Culture, Structure, and Public Transportation

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Traveling by train from Chamonix, France to Grindelwald, Switzerland was a breeze, despite having to change trains five (!) times. It wouldn’t have been so easy in most other countries. Certainly not where we live, in Los Angeles, where public transportation is much more limited, especially when traversing mountainous regions.

It’s not really fair to compare a city with lackluster public transportation like Los Angeles with Switzerland, the country with perhaps the best public transit system in the world, but I will in this post to make a point about the importance of social structure and how it shapes culture.

Los Angeles has been associated with “car culture” for the last century. Drives along Pacific Coast Highway or Sunset Boulevard are touted as must-dos for visitors. Car-centric events take place year-round, and there is even a museum dedicated to automobiles here. Add to the mix the vast amount of wealth that some have amassed, often displayed through high-end sports cars that are a regular feature on affluent southern California streets. Cruising, or driving around to show off your car, got its start here and still takes place on weekends in some neighborhoods.

While a bus system and light rail trains crisscross parts of the city, it is notoriously difficult to traverse with consistency using public transportation alone. Buses often find themselves in the same heavy traffic that cars are stuck in, riders might have long waits between transfers or find full buses speed by at busy times.

If I were to take the bus to work, it would take me several hours each way (versus less than 30 minutes by car if I time my commute just right). And I would still have to drive to get to a bus stop or walk about 2 miles each way, adding another hour plus. Public transportation here sticks to the higher density areas and is less accessible in the more sparsely populated areas in the foothills. So if I were to try to take a bus to a trailhead, even one just a few miles from my home, I’d 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, as this Smithsonian Magazine article recounts. As the city grew in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, electric streetcars carried passengers. But they had trouble surviving as the city began its sprawling growth:

In 1926 there was a big push to build over 50 miles of elevated railway in Los Angeles. The city’s low density made many skeptical that Los Angeles could ever support public transit solutions to its transportation woes in the 20th century. The local newspapers campaigned heavily against elevated railways downtown, even going so far as to send reporters to Chicago and Boston to get quotes critical of those cities’ elevated railways. L.A.’s low density was a direct result of the city’s most drastic growth occurring in the 1910s and ‘20s when automobiles were allowing people to spread out and build homes in far flung suburbs and not be tied to public transit to reach the commercial and retail hub of downtown.

Cars both enabled suburban sprawl and made public transportation less appealing, creating a vicious cycle. As ridership decreased, so did revenues, renovation, or resources for expansion: structural factors that shape culture. The privately owned streetcars were simply not profitable enough to continue (see the video below for more information on the history). Public investment has been spotty; in part due to the reluctance of taxpayers to support taxes for public transportation.

In contrast, public transportation was incredibly easy and stress-free in Switzerland. Before the trip, we read about the best ground transportation options—starting first with renting a car— and found that between the rental costs, parking each night, gas, and tolls, it would cost at least as much as taking the train. Plus, we’d still have to pay for gondolas to take us up to trailheads on the trip, which were not accessible by car.

We opted to get a Swiss Travel Pass for the day; it wasn’t cheap (about $50 per person), but appeared to be the best deal. The trip from Chamonix to Grindelwald was about 120 miles, requiring 6 trains and a border crossing, and took just over 4 hours. Our passes downloaded to our phones, we didn’t have to figure out how to buy tickets in the station, just have our QR codes scanned when an employee came through to check tickets on the train.

Using Google Maps, which tracked our trip in real time, we knew exactly when the next train would depart, which platform the next train was on, and even how busy the station was. Most of our connections were 5-10 minutes, so there was almost no waiting. And the trains were always on time. The bigger ones even had a bathroom on board, so no need to find one in the station.

(See the video below for more info on the Swiss rail system):

What makes public transportation in Switzerland so different from our home in Los Angeles?

The two regions have some important similarities and differences. Both contain mountain ranges, the highest in the Los Angeles area being Mt. Baldy at just over 10,000 feet, while Switzerland’s Dufourspitze tops out at just over 15,000 feet. Los Angeles County is about 4,000 square miles, while the country of Switzerland is four times its size at 16,000 square miles. The population of Los Angeles county is about 10 million, while Switzerland’s population is close at about 8.5 million.

Both Los Angeles's and Switzerland’s transportation systems were publicly owned until the Swiss system became privatized in 1999, with shares owned by the separate Swiss cantons. The LA system serves about 1,433 square miles, while Switzerland’s system services about 3,308 square miles. Operating costs are similar; Los Angeles has an $8 billion budget compared with just over 10 billion Swiss Francs (about $10.5 billion USD). Swiss trains serve over 880,000 people per day, with ridership in Los Angeles estimated at 178,000 per day.

Social structure can help us understand some of the differences in public transportation. Most notably, the Swiss rail system has been operating continuously since the nineteenth century, before the introduction of the automobile.

By contrast, Los Angeles is a far newer city than Swiss cities and towns. Los Angeles’s suburban areas were constructed after the automobile, and its urban planning is distinctly car centric. Between 1910 and 1930 the city’s population increased almost fourfold, with suburbs emerging over the next several decades as the area’s interstate highways were built. Affluent L.A. residents are less likely to take public transportation; a 2018 survey found that just 1 in 8 bus riders earned over $50,000 a year, while nearly 2 in 3 had incomes under $20,000. In Los Angeles, transportation disparities reflect income inequality. Transportation both reflects and reproduces social structure: the patterns and practices that shape society.

Saturday Night Live’s Californians sketches—where every conversation eventually leads to a discussion of driving directions—is a pretty accurate description of how central driving is to living in this region (minus the airhead accent). Ironically, the car culture that is often associated with the area is the least appealing aspect of living here because traffic has made travel by car stressful, time consuming, and environmentally unsustainable.

We might argue that LA traffic and high Swiss driving costs disincentivized driving, but the structure of public transportation in Switzerland makes it more practical to get around without a car. What structural factors shape transportation options where you live?

Comments

Some of the variations in public transportation can be explained by our societal make-up. Switzerland's rail network, in particular, has been in continuous operation since the nineteenth century, long before the advent of the automobile.

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