A tale of three cities

A tale of three cities

I’ve recently been travelling on public transport in two big cities (London and New York) and a medium-sized one (Charlotte, North Carolina). I’ve picked up a lot that we can learn


London has been a jumble of routes for decades. Along many sections, particularly in the central area, buses simply get in each other’s way. In order to fix this, London recently cut several routes short. Sadly, it hasn’t helped to ease congestion much.

New York’s bus system is much easier to figure out, and its route coverage and frequency is just as good as the one in London. There is a simple “flat” bus fare in London, but a complicated zonal rail fare. New York uses flat fares for both its buses and the subway.

Charlotte’s bus routes are a patchy mix of good services in some areas and non-existent services in others, particularly in the “rich” south-eastern areas. I call it a subtle form of apartheid; it reminds me of the Gautrain. The city has spent far too much on a light-rail scheme when fixing the bus service should have been priority.

All three cities have a ticket allowing unlimited rides. The New York one gives particularly good value for money.

Currently, London is busy with an ambitious scheme called Crossrail. It is due to be competed in 2019 and will provide a long-awaited link from west to east. It will be combined with the electrification of the “old” Great Western line (the last main line in London to be electrified), and is expected to reduce travelling times considerably.

New York has also been building, but on a much more modest scale.

A tale of three citiesCharlotte opened its controversial Lynx light-rail line in 2007 and is currently extending it northwards by about 12 km. It also recently started a “heritage” tram running along a few central city blocks.

Despite the large amount of transport-related construction in London, traffic there is in a state of almost-permanent gridlock. It isn’t only confined to the city centre, but also extends to outlying areas. It’s time to apply the congestion charge to the whole city.

New York also experiences gridlock, especially in Manhattan, where it is possible to sit through four changes of a traffic light without moving. During a snap 30-minute survey in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Ninth Avenue (four lanes), 700 cars came past.

That’s less than six cars per lane per minute, something like Johannesburg’s M1 and Cape Town’s de Waal Drive. NYPD officers stand around waving their arms, but are largely ineffective.

Charlotte experiences fewer problems, but complacency means the I-485 ring road around the city is steadily being reduced to the crawl experienced daily on our own M1 in Johannesburg. Like our Gautrain, its light rail isn’t having any visible effect.

The issue that bothers me the most in New York is the number of anonymous limousines that clutter its streets. Even their rich users are affected by the grindingly slow traffic, which makes me doubt the assumption (much loved by transport “planners”) that time has a value.

If these rich users aren’t bothered about the time that they spend in traffic, why are we still bringing “time savings” into our calculations? Meanwhile, the cost that they impose on the rest of the community, in the form of inconvenience and frustration, is immense.

It seems that city councils throughout the world are scared to take on these wasters of road space. In London, the problem is the metered taxi. During a snap survey in Oxford Street, I counted 50 taxis, of which more than 40 were empty.

Charlotte’s problem is closest to that found in South Africa – public transport is inadequate and needs to be improved.

The lessons? London and New York teach us that even if public transport is already fairly good, no amount of new infrastructure will help – congestion is caused by space-wasting private vehicles.

Charlotte teaches us that we need to first fix bus public transport, and only then can we expect to attract new bus passengers.

How complicated can that be?


Vaughan Mostert lectured on public transport issues at the University of Johannesburg for nearly thirty years. Through Hopping Off, Mostert leaves readers with some parting food for thought as he continues his push for change in the local public transport industry.

Published by

Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publication in southern Africa.
When 1 500 hp and 26 axles is what it takes
Prev When 1 500 hp and 26 axles is what it takes
Next Think globally, serve your customers locally
Think globally, serve your customers locally