Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Travel Experience on Subways

Rail basically lives up to its reputation as a “more civilized” way of travel—and so does its “cousin,” subways (also known as metros and mass transit).  Perfect? No.  Travel by mass transit posed some interesting challenges, like these.

My first experience on the Madrid Metro was an experience in getting lost. Totally lost.  Admittedly, it was partly my fault; I didn’t call the hotel in advance to find out which Metro stop to take, much less write down its address and telephone number.  But the hotel shares some of the blame; it did not list the actual name of the Metro stop on its website, much less the name of the specific exit to take.

My first indication of a problem was at the train station.  I went to the information desk to get information about the Metro system.  The guy at the desk said he worked for the rail system, not the metro.

We made it to the presumed subway station and discovered it had 5 exits.  We didn’t know which one to take, and couldn’t find an area guide on the walls that might suggest which of the five was most appropriate for us.  I chose one; I quickly learned that wasn’t the right one.   I learned two valuable lessons from that experience; useful, tourist-oriented signage is an essential component of a great Metro.  In the meantime, make sure you have thorough directions.

Déjà vu all over again in Berlin.   I had traveled on the Berlin subway system before, so I felt comfortable using it this time.  It’s extensive, it goes nearly everywhere we wanted to go (except directly to Museum Island) and runs on an honor system (there are no turnstiles to go through).

So I wasn’t prepared for a bizarre situation that happened my first time using the subway on this trip.  After the fifth station, the sixth stop on the line was the same as the fourth stop.  And the seventh station was the same as the third stop.  According to the map on the train, that wasn’t the plan.

Apparently, part of the line on which I was traveling was closed for renovations.  There was an announcement on the train but, because it was in German, I couldn’t understand it.  I learned a valuable lesson from this experience: when lines are interrupted or stations closed for renovations, place a temporary marker on the subway map over the area to provide a visual cue to passengers. Also update the website with similar information.

That said, I found the subway maps for the Berlin metro to be unusually complicated and difficult to follow in contrast to systems of similar size and complexity.  This system has many routes, but the small type on the route maps made identifying route and station names all the more challenging.  Directional signage within stations was similarly confusing.  For example, no direct link exists between the S-bahn and U-bahn trains though directional   signage in the station suggests otherwise.  .

The City Tour in Istanbul:  Istanbul has both traditional subway and light rail systems.  We found both systems to be incredibly easy to use.

Travelers buy tokens (called jetons) from a vendor near the station, then enter the station.  The system was reasonably bi-lingual; visitors who do not speak or read Turkish could easily navigate the system.

Although cities primarily build mass transit systems to ferry locals through the city, we figured out quickly that an above-ground system, like the Light Rail system in Istanbul, could also provide tourists a great tour of the city, too.  So we rode the line end-to-end, traveling from the downtown of the city to a suburb near the airport, and back to the historic section where we were staying.  We took the ride at sunset and traveled over the river--certainly adding to the charm of the experience.  

In general, we found travel by mass transit in all of the cities we visited to be exceptionally convenient and cost-effective when walking was either not practical or not reflective of our moods.  Admittedly, signage and directions posed challenges in some cities.  But in each case, we quickly overcame the challenges, adjusted to the systems, and became regular users. We purchased unlimited travel passes on the Paris and Berlin systems.  We did not need the passes in other cities but used the systems when walking or city tour buses could not take us where we wanted to go.  
Next post:  Wish lists of cultural resources for my home towns. 

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