RUSSIA TODAY Transportation

William Urban

One of the facts of European life that always surprises Americans, even me, who who has visited often and lived there for considerable lengths of time, is the excellent public transportation. It is easy to understand why. In Germany, a country only slightly larger than Illinois but with a much larger population and more mountains and hills than are really convenient, there isn’t much room for parking. Even when you have a car, as I often have, it is often faster and cheap to take a bus downtown. Major cities have subways.

Russia is different. Most importantly, it is big. Therefore, as is the case in America, building tracks or running buses is not a matter of a few miles, but of long distances. This necessarily limits the number of secondary routes, which ultimately makes public transportation much less practical than getting in a car and driving. Moreover, few people live in the metropolitan centers any more, so one often has to transfer to a bus or take a cab to get to the suburbs. More often, one just arranges to be met at the airport or train station. This reduces ridership, which hurts income and causes routes to be cut; the fewer routes left, the less Americans use public transportation.

Russia is like America a half-century ago¾fewer cars, many train, bus and tram routes. It will probably not remain so long. Already there are traffic jams and some pollution. Imagine standing in a very crowded bus in very hot summer weather, waiting for the traffic to thin out so the driver can move ahead and get some new air coming in the windows. That is the reason that Russians are crowding into privately-managed mini-buses. These are more expensive and the passengers are packed into a small space, but everyone gets to sit and everyone gets to the destination faster. Alternatively, one flags down a private car headed in the right direction and arranges a price.

The patience of the public is remarkable. In the countryside one often has to wait quite a while. Young people squatting on their haunches look only half-way comfortable, but there are few benches and nobody wants to run their pants by sitting in the dust. (Besides they get considerable practice in this position by using “Turkish” toilets at home.) In the cities there is a bus or tram every few minutes, but transfers take time, no matter how well you know the system. Parking downtown, in contrast, is impossible, and finding a space in the shade is even harder.

The politeness is also remarkable. Young people stand up and offer their seats to their elders, even to me, and to women with bags or infants. No reluctance, no wry faces, and on the one occasion I saw a teenager move too slowly, the other passengers spoke to her. No hard feelings. She got right up.

There was only one drunk, a woman well past the prime of life and equally far past knowing quite where she was. But her female companion got her on and off successfully, and I didn’t have to make conversation long. (Not that my Russian was good for more than the most sober and conventional of exchanges.) The other passengers were not pleased except when she left.

Neither I nor the other professors on the trip were allowed to venture out much by themselves. Our host families took seriously their responsibilities to get us to the university and back, so it was only by slipping off between meetings that we could explore on our own. Except in St. Petersburg and Moscow, where we had considerable freedom and free time. Bus tours, of course, are bus tours. You get on and you get off, and you can often catch a nap between stops. Russians are into travel by luxury buses, many bought recently in Germany, used but not repainted (perhaps to indicate that it is a quality vehicle). Our drivers were expert at instant (or at least quick) repairs, so we were never left standing by the side of the road (squatting was out of the question for most of us), waiting for a ride into town.

William Urban, Lee L. Morgan Professor at Monmouth College, spent three weeks in Russia this summer on a Global Partners program sponsored by the Mellon Foundation.