Ten Countries on the expat’s moving list that do public transport better than Britain
Moving abroad can be a fraught and testing experience. One thing the expat does not need is a repeat of the familiar misery of commuting, only made more complicated in the transfer to another country.
So it should come as a pleasant surprise that, compared with the UK’s antiquated and often inadequate public transport, the provision in many, if not most cities in Europe, Scandinavia and North America is far superior.
In Europe, for example, convenient street level tram systems are common in many cities and large towns, and underground metro systems are widespread. (In the UK only London can complete, with its now creaking Underground – while in the provinces only a few places such as Manchester and Nottingham run trams.)
Good public transport means the expat worker may not need that second car, and in many cities there is a case for not even owning a first car.
And there’s another big benefit. Good integrated transport means that children can travel easily – and safely – across town to schools and social events.
One of the most popular overseas postings, the emirate of Dubai, also has what must be the most lavish of the new metro systems. It opened in 2009, with new stops added this year (2014). Elevated gold-coloured stations serve the airport, and most of the many big hotels and shopping malls. The driverless trains are scrupulously clean – and perfectly safe for women, and children travelling alone.
Prospective residents should note that the road congestion the Metro was designed to reduce is already building again as the emirate recovers its boomtown status. I saw this on a recent visit (February 2014). And it’s only going to get worse, as economic activity accelerates before Expo 2020, to be held in Dubai.
Dubai is a good example of a place where you should choose your accommodation carefully, ideally within walking distance of a metro station. Extensions to the system are being planned ahead of 2020.
And don’t discount the humble bus. A recent survey found that bus fares in Dubai were cheaper than many major European cities.
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A number of annual surveys look at the transport picture worldwide. In its latest study, the BEST (Benchmarking European Service of Public Transport) survey puts Helsinki top for the fourth year running. 77 per cent of the region’s residents said they were satisfied with its public transport. Next in that survey comes Geneva, with a 72% satisfaction score. Stockholm follows with 71%, then comes Vienna on 67%.
Vienna is a good example of an extensive, long-established network working well. It is a model you will find throughout Europe. It’s a contributory factor to the Austrian capital being chosen for the best quality of life of any city in the world, according to the latest global survey from consulting firm Mercer. The extensive public transport system costs just €1 a day for an annual pass.
Another good example of an old and venerable but very efficient transport system is Moscow’s, where the Metro, with its beautifully ornate stations, is still a thing of wonder. It has lost little of its magnificence in the switch from Soviet statism to rampant capitalism.
In Germany, urban public transport, often a combination of buses, underground, trams and trolleys, has been strong and efficient since the days of postwar reconstruction, and it’s hard to single out any particular town or city.
From personal experience, I rate Freiburg highly. This is a small city, but with a far-reaching network of lines, and the planning rule that any new development has to come with an extension of the tram system.
Hamburg is another strong player I have experienced recently. Its transport system is user friendly, barrier free and extensive.
Hamburg has set a 15 to 20 year target to become the first major metropolis in the world to get rid of the private car as a standard means of transport on city streets.
Paris was a world leader in city public transport back in the 1980s, with the introduction of the cross-city RER services – think London’s Crossrail, but 40 years earlier. The latest project there is the building of a tramway in the city's suburbs.
Another aspect of Paris’s shining transport credentials is its bike hire scheme. Devotees sing the praises of the elevated bike path along the Seine, segregated from motorised traffic.
In France building one’s own city tram is an expression of civic pride, involving the sort of ambitious investment most British local authorities would balk at. One I’ve enjoyed riding is the harlequin-liveried tram in Angers (it opened in 2011) which glides elegantly and quietly through the pedestrianised heart of the city, down boulevards grassed over as lawns to deaden the sound, and through the spruced-up central square.
Copenhagen is a fine example of a city combining both excellent public transport and one of the most extensive cycling systems in the world. The city’s system was named the world's best metro in 2008 and 2010. Amsterdam is another fine example, combining excellent public transport and a network of bike paths where cyclists rule.
In the USA the best cities for public transport include, not surprisingly, Boston, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Portland, one of a number of cities with entirely free public transport in the central downtown area, is also one of the most cycle-friendly cities in the USA.
One surprising rising star is the city most readily associated with the dominance of the car – Los Angeles. It has recently acquired an extensive bus and light-rail system, to counteract routine gridlock. Ridership on the trains increased 6 percent sat year over 2012, as the public took advantage of an expanded network of lines.
Expats will find public transport a more attractive, and efficient, prospect abroad than they are used to in the UK. But at what cost? Isn’t it still worth thinking of buying or renting a car, or using taxis?
According to HSBC’s 2013 Expat Explorer survey, public transport was said to contribute to increasing the cost of living for European-based expats.
37% of expats reported spending more on public transport since moving overseas.
However the survey didn’t break down these costs in sufficient detail. Is this because they were using buses and trams more? Perhaps a more meaningful measure would be to compare the cost of running a car, to that of using only public transport in a city with excellent and comprehensive public transport systems, such as Bordeaux, Lyon or Zürich.
Somebody in, say, in Zürich, where the cost of living is high, could still save money by not running a car. For example, a 12 months all-zones travel pass costs £1452. Add on a spouse and two children and the cost will still come in under £5000, considerably less than running a car for a year.
In China, beset with serious road congestion and, increasingly high and sometimes perilous air-pollution, cities are embarking on serious public transport initiatives. One of the best is in Guangzhou, where the emphasis is on BRT (Bus Rapid Transit). Buses run in dedicated lanes. There is also a bike sharing system, with bike lanes along the BRT corridor.
Another city which might have shrieked “congestion” to the potential expat is Mexico City. There's been a big improvement here too. In 2013 it won a Sustainable Transport Award for a string of new features, including expanding its Metrobus network. Line 4 now runs from the historic city center to the airport. The successful public bike system (Ecobici) has been widened, with more bike lanes, and pedestrianized streets.
Tokyo is beyond big. Think of it is as a series of smaller cities, linked together without a gap, each with a station five times the size of a London terminus. And yet the city’s vast train and underground network works with the precision of a meticulously fashioned chronometer, running to almost perfect time.
How good public transport can improve your mood.
There is little doubt that moving to a town or city with good public transport brings practical benefits to the incomer. Now a researcher suggests that living close to a good public transport corridor can actually make you happier.
There has not been much study on this connection, and research carried out tends to focus on the negative psychological impact of commuting.
Jason Cao from the University of Minnesota concluded that a good rapid transit system in Minneapolis had a measurable positive impact on the well-being of people living nearby.
He focused on the Blue Line tram, which runs 12 miles from the downtown area, sending questionnaires to households in the corridor and to other transport corridors with the same demographics but with a bus instead of a tram.
People in the corridor with the tram gave higher ratings on questions related to the quality of their lives, compared to people in tram-less corridors. Cao concluded that access to the high level of mobility that good light rail provides were responsible for this satisfaction. Contentment with urban travel was leading to contentment with life.
Written by Gareth Huw Davies
In a busy journalistic career Gareth Huw Davies has contributed to UK and overseas publications on a wide range of subjects, from property to travel, and business to the environment, most recently for the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday. He has also written five e-books, on subjects as diverse as Garfield Sobers, David Attenborough and the River Fleet.