Thursday, January 21, 2010

How Czech Government Delighted Me As a Consumer

"Can you tell me," asked my native-Czech student shyly near the end of a lesson one day, "anything you see here that is better than in your country?"

"Can I? YES!" I answered enthusiastically. "Czech people haven't the faintest idea how FABULOUS their transportation networks are. They are simply amazing."

Hlavni Nadrazi
the Main Prague Train Station
 What I admire:

1) Czech transport makes Czechs more competitive. Here's why: In America, it is suggested that 15% of the average household budget be devoted to paying for transportation. That usually includes cars for both parents and possibly for any teenagers living at home, car insurance, gasoline, and licenses for the car and drivers. That's 15% of American salaries, which run higher than Czech salaries.

Czechs don't need to spend so much of their salaries on transportation because it's possible to survive, indeed thrive, without a car. Not only can companies locate in the Czech Republic and get high-quality, hard-working, highly educated, often multi-lingual employees, it's possible to pay them less because they don't have these household costs that exist in America.

How low are the transport costs in the Czech Republic? Envision living in a city of 1.3 million and paying a mere $300 a year to get around. And if you want to be able to travel through the entire country (similar in size to the U.S. state of South Carolina), an annual train pass is only $100 more! Can you imagine, my fellow Americans, being able to get around your entire state for only $400? As far as I can tell, Czechs spend around 8.8% of their salaries on transportation.  What a competitive advantage in the global fight for jobs!

On the Hlavni Nadrazi
train platform
where you can catch a train to Plzen
or another city or village 

The comfortable seats
on a City Elephant Train
What's missing: stress!

Czechs have the most extensive rail network density in the entire EU.  Railways were built to transport the military in the 19th century.  A CFO for a construction company pointed out to me Communist government also made it easy to create this incredible system of national and metro railways because the apparatchiks just 'appropriated' whatever property was needed from the citizenry. Property owners weren't compensated. If a government such as mine were to develop this today paying retail prices to property owners, the cost would be exorbitant.  Bummer.

Right up this Metro escalator
is one of Prague's newest malls.
Prague kids don't need their parents
to drive them there.

The kids can't get in too much trouble.
See those spiky things?
There will be no sliding down that shiny metal
all the way from the top!

2) Czech parents don't have to be chauffeurs! When children are between the ages of 10-16, American parents spend their "free" time chauffeuring them from one activity to another. Think about this, America.  Imagine your city safe enough that your 10-year-old and his friends could get on the metro and go to hockey practice without you driving them there! Yes, remarkably, Prague is that safe.  Tweens and teens travel on the metro and trams unchaperoned as they pursue their interests.  When Czech children are free to explore the city, Czech parents have a vested interest in making sure that all parts of the city are safe, not just their neighborhood. Surely, that lessens crime.

Czech students on a field trip
using the Prague metro
to get from Point A to Point B
3) Superb public transportation facilitates learning outside of a classroom. It's a giant hassle to take kids on a field trip in America.  The teacher has to coordinate a school bus, discuss it with all the other teachers, get liability release forms from each parent, etc., etc.  Plus securing that bus is all dependent on whether or not there is budget for it that year.  Is it any wonder field trips are dying out? In the Czech Republic, the teacher can just take her class on ever-present public transit that serves everyone! No need to call ahead and order a bus just for her and her kids.  Kids don't need school buses to take them to school either.  They ride the metro like everybody else.

Poetry in the Metro

4) Public transportation creates readers which is good for democracy and good for wealth creation.  One issue poor families face in America is 'a poverty of print.'  No books in the household and no billboards even in their neighborhoods (companies don't bother advertising to folks with no disposable income).  Low-income children don't start kindergarten with the pre-literacy skills developed by observing readers and reading materials on a daily basis.  A sight seen again and again on Czech transport is a variety of people greedily opening their book with such reverence it reinforces the message that reading is fun. At-risk kids in the Czech Republic have other role models beside their parents.  I've even see Czech parents use that transit time to read to their kids!

All those readers create a healthy market for print newspapers and weeklies which is great for democracy.

Good readers grow up to earn 20% more than average readers. Constant reading builds up a skill critical to wealth creation.

5) Public transportation is safer than driving. Americans curtail their activities because they fear driving when drinkers could be on the road.  I went out with full confidence on New Year' Eve in Prague because I knew I didn't have to worry about dangerous people on the road. It's a little crazy, isn't it, to deprive ourselves of activities because we fear driving?

A new, less predictable, driving danger is becoming known: texting while driving. It results in driving so distracted it is the equivalent of twice the impairment of driving while intoxicated.  Why not bring laptops and electronic devices on public transit to use that time to accomplish work undistracted rather than try to work and drive at the same time?

6) Public transportation creates a pedestrian culture that limits obesity.  I offer my own experience.  Twenty pounds lost in the Czech Republic in six months without trying! But think of the money slimmer people save the country's health care budgets with less chronic diseases caused by overeating and inactivity.

Life goes on!
Here a Czech takes home
a Christmas tree on the metro

 7) Public transportation limits human isolation. You know how people who have just broken up with someone have a grudge against the opposite gender?  It would be hard to keep that attitude alive using Czech public transit. You may not be in love, but everyone else is.  My goodness, I've never seen so much public smooching in my life! On the metro, you'll see couples in love, families moving their household furniture, students studying madly for a test, and people on their way to a potluck with a dish balanced on their lap.  I think it's healthy and gets people outside of their own head to see the wonderful parade of humanity that happens on the metro.  It's a conversational banquet too.  I can't count the number of interesting five-minute conversations I had with perfect strangers on the metro!

The futuristic feel
of the Prague Metro
is part of the fun

8) The Czech Republic is already armed with an infrastructure that limits global warming. Every family that uses public transit saves 20 lbs. of carbon emissions annually from entering the atmosphere. Czech people already have it built!

9) Public transit keeps the air cleaner. - the street my language school was on was like a valley of trapped car exhaust.  I'm sure vehicle traffic has made the air in Prague less healthy for the people who live there.

10)Public transit creates a very livable city. In a city of 1.3 million people, I could go home for lunch!  That's what delights me the most.  The incredible, extensive transport network allowed me to move into Prague without a car and get about the city without any anxiety.  An English teacher in Prague gets to know how to use the metro, trams, and buses in combination with each other so extensively it would be normal to get from one side of Prague to another in 20 minutes.  If I was going someplace new I just used a first-class website to help plan the trip.  All included in my $22 a month transit pass.

An elevated Metro tube
headed into Luziny Metro stop
in Prague
The Challenge for Czechs

Czech families with the funds available are purchasing cars.  Because that strata, articulate in their demands, tends to get listened to in a democracy, there's a danger that public transit budgets will begin to favor highways more than public transit.  In America, 80% of the money goes for highways and 20% for transit. Our transit looks like it too. It's not world-class.  How will the Czech Republic maintain it's fabulously competitive transit system if the loudest citizens value something else?  Are you rich enough as a country to afford both? We aren't - or at least haven't prioritized it that way. What would Prague and other cities be like to live in if the car became the dominant vehicle of choice? Would you have additional costs to your society if obesity was higher, carbon emissions, pollution, and foreign oil imports were higher, stress was higher, human isolation was higher, educational costs were higher, and household expenses were higher?

Czechs, do you understand what an infrastructure gem this is? Have you purchased a car? What do you think will be favored more in the next twenty years? Vehicle traffic or transit traffic?

Americans, does this appeal to you at all? Is there any American area that comes close to this level of transit service?  What kind of public transit do you wish you had where you live (I would love high-speed rail from Madison, WI to Milwaukee and Chicago, Illinois. Rockford, Illinois is a city the size of Plzen that would explode if it had any kind of rail service to Chicago, 90 miles away.

You can also read my previous post about what I valued about the United States Government:

The United States Government Saved My Life


Michael Carøe Andersen said...

Very nice write up. I miss the speed and reliability of the Prague transit system here in London.

Anonymous said...

And I miss the speed, reliability, and cleanliness of the Czech Republic's public transport system now that I live in New York (City).

BlackGirl said...

Super post! Now, if the Czech govt could hurry up and give Hlavni its long-overdue makeover....

Karen said...

Thanks BlackGirl! I wrote a post about that too -
Fantova Kavarna is Waiting for It's Closeup

Karen said...

Anon, come in from the cold. You can sign up for a real identity - it's more fun - especially if you're going to keep coming back. I thought if anyplace in America had decent transit service it would be NYC. Not so, huh?

Chaplain said...

Hi Karen - Extremely good post which I was nodding in agreement with, all the way through as I read it.

Ironically, we can thank the Communists, both for the remaining density of the Czech railway system and for building the main core of the Prague Metro system.

The UK, like many other Western European countries, closed down and tore up considerable sections of their railway network in the 1960 & 1970s, deeming them to be uneconomic. Now, with roads being overloaded, rail passenger numbers have increased dramatically but replacing lines closed 40 years ago is hideously expensive. Real economics didn't exist under Communism so the Czech railways were retained.

The building of the Prague Metro started in 1967 but had its real impetus after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The main core was built by Soviet engineers based on their experience of building the Moscow Metro. Stations were given names to promote Soviet-Czech friendship!!!! What you know as Andel was called Moskevská (Moscow Station)and the nearest Metro station to me, Dejvicka, used to be known as Leninova. 14 stations were re-named shortly after the Velvet Revolution.

What you say about safety on the Metro is also true. I feel far safer travelling late at night on the Prague Metro than I ever did on similar occasions using the London Undergroud.

The last section of your post does highlight a possible future problem. Those Czechs who have become very wealthy with the triumph of capitalism over communism, are all buying large expensive cars, particularly what you would know as SUVs. These are beginning to clog up the city streets thus delaying buses & to a lesser extent, trams. Around where I live, you are beginning to see a culture of transporting children by SUV rather than by public transport.

Gulland said...

I linked from CFN. Thanks for posting this. So many people don't realize that a world exists beyond the shores of the US. Keep up the good work!


C.S. said...

Interesting insight into a foreign country's transportation. I would love to see such a system here in the southern USA. However, I fear it would take communism to get most SUV cell-phone talking mommies to give up their expensive ride. Pity.

Basically, it's a reality-based solution (railway transportatio) which could even help our ailing economy. Yet when the majority are living in the la-la-land where everyone will eventually be rich, real solutions just can't be accepted.

Patrizia said...

I like your optimism and I really do not want to criticise, but I only took once a train from Dresden to Prague and return.
The way there was with a german train and it was perfectly on time.
The return, with a Czech train, we had a four hours delay.
May be it was just that day, but it didn´t make a very good impression on me....

Karen said...

Patrizia, Thank you for leaving a comment and welcome to my blog! I can't write about German trains because I haven't experienced them. Whenever I would rave to my Czech students about how amazing their subways and trains are they would always say "but I think German trains and subways are even better." It just goes to show how far my country has to "travel" to get where you already are today.

Karen said...

C.S. and Gulland, thanks for coming to my blog and leaving me a comment. I hope you'll keep coming back. I enjoyed looking at your blogs!

Karen said...

I'm so excited! Today, Jan. 28, 2010, $810 million was allocated to high speed rail in Wisconsin for a Madison/Milwaukee corridor and $12 million for a Milwaukee/Chicago corridor. Now how you do high speed rail for $12 million is a question I have, but the point is, it's a start! Yea, President Obama and Wisconsin/Illinois delegations!

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