Urban Density

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reikiman's picture

Prague Thoughts

I was just in Prague for the last 1 1/2 weeks. Most of the time I was spending 12+ hrs/day in a pair of conferences (open source software).. but I did manage to see quite a bit of the city.

Prague is an old city having been settled over 1000 years ago. That sure gives an interesting perspective on "history" considering that "historical" buildings in California tend to be about 100 yrs old, having 1000+ years of history behind a city puts a very different spin on it.

Today it's a thriving city, they had a revolution to throw out the communists and they've been going gangbusters ever since and there's a lot of westernization going on. Well, if the number of signs pointing to McDonalds restaurants is any indication. But for me what I appreciated the most is the extensive mass transit system.

Everywhere I wanted to go (except for the Prague Castle area) there were street cars or subway lines.. these were entirely electrically driven. Meaning that the whole visit I was riding in EV's.

The city has a bit over 1 mil people.. and pretty much the whole of the city is 4-5 story tall buildings. I think this kind of population density is key to having decent mass transit. All my life I've lived in suburbia in the U.S. and never had access to decent mass transit. In Prague, though, it was just go to the station, hop on, ride a little ways, hop off, real easy and quick. Most of the time the trains ran frequently enough I could walk into the station and within a minute or so the next train would arrive. I think that to support a decent mass transit system the population density has to be high enough there is enough ridership etc.

In terms of the dream of having more EV usage this was nirvana, of sorts.

Of course this is a different kind of EV than we're usually talking about. These are trains, with medium size cars that can hold perhaps 100 people at a time. The train cars are hooked directly to the electrical mains full time so there's no worry about battery technology etc. These kind of trains are proof that an EV, if given sufficient power, can perform any transportation task.

Not only did the trains run very frequently, I never saw them running empty, and during rush hour they were pretty darned full. It's not like the trains made it so there were no cars on the road, because they were there. But without the train systems their roads would have been horrible especially in the old town with it's maze of twisty narrow streets. (The old town of Prague is amazing)

On Sunday afternoon I was in a little park pondering the traffic and a history lesson struck me. After WWII the U.S. had 'won' the war and not had any damage to speak of on our soil. Sure some soldiers etc died but it's not like we had our cities bombed out like in Europe. As a rich country having a huge economic boom after the war and not needing to rebuild our cities, etc, we had enough wealth to adopt a very wasteful sort of transport - the car, frequently driven solo. In Europe on the other hand, especially the Eastern Bloc, they were poor, hugely affected by the war, etc, and couldn't afford to switch transportation methods. In the U.S. the cities tore up their street car lines in favor of building roads and highways for cars, while in Europe they preserved the street car lines. Well, okay, I've only witnessed Brussels and Prague but both have decent mass transit systems, both are built to the same population density, and both are very walkable.


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