Maggie and I are hardly novices to public transportation – far from it; we’re big believers and daily users, at home and when we’re on the road. We even got used to the old system in Austin, when bus service was unreliable, the routes changed numbers as they went through downtown, and many bus routes only ran every 45 minutes, even during peak times. The Austin system is much better now: breakdowns are rare, routes don’t change numbers, and the frequency of major routes is much higher.
Good mass transport systems are common in Europe, and the Scandinavians in particular have made public transportation a priority. The concept of loading everybody on the same vehicle, regardless of class, income or title fits in well with their spirit of egalitarianism. They put a lot of effort into making the system easy to use: trams or buses run often during peak hours, usually every 5-10 minutes, so unless you have a specific appointment, there’s no need to pay attention to the schedule – even if you miss a bus, the next one will be there soon. At every stop there’s an electronic sign, updated in real time, that shows when the next bus, tram or subway train will arrive. The systems run on time, almost always. Taking the tram, we’ve made some transfers from one line to another where the scheduled layover was just five or ten minutes, and never missed the connection.
The most difficult system we’ve dealt with is the one in Helsinki. Everything I’ve said about the frequency and reliability of the lines applies here, but it’s sometimes hard to figure out which line or what stop you need.
First of all, because Finland used to be part of Sweden, the stops are labeled in Finnish and Swedish – and since English is so common, a few of the major stops are also labeled in English. You might be looking for the stop that’s labeled Hakaniemi/Hagnäs, or Rautatientori/Järnvägstoget/Central Railway Station. Every bus and every tram car has a screen that flashes up the name of the next stop, but the names are flashed up in each language sequentially, so you’d better pay attention, or know the name of your stop in Finnish and Swedish.
Second, we’ve used the #2 and #3 tram line to get to a lot of places, but by riding the trams, we figured out that the #2 and #3 were really one line laid out in a figure 8, with the middle of the 8 being in front of the central train station; it was the #2 line on the upper left and lower right of the 8, and the #3 on the upper right and lower left. The line changed numbers at the top and bottom of the 8, so riding east at the bottom of the route on the #3, we looked up and the line had become the #2. Confused? It took a while to get used to, but it wasn’t so bad once we did. Except we didn’t figure it out until July 2nd, the day that the routes changed and the previous explanation no longer applied. The new #2 now stops at the park just down the hill from us, so it’s much closer. We don’t know what happens at the top and bottom of the route any more. That threw us into a tizzy for a couple of days, until we realized that we’re still using the old map.
Changes are understandable; routes need to be changed every so often to fit changes in population, and the time to do that is in the summer, when more commuters are on vacation. (A major change is in the works in Austin, so the system will be radically different when we get home.) Not a major problem to us vacationers. It’s just another problem to solve, something new to memorize. All of that keeps the brain pliable, which is a reason to travel in the first place.