Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Amazing Race 16, Episode 1

Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Santiago (Chile) - Valparaiso (Chile)

The Amazing Race 16 kicked off with the challenge of getting from a park on the edge of downtown Los Angeles to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) by public transit.

That’s not nearly as difficult as the Angelenos in the race assumed, but it did provide an object lesson in some of the issues you might face trying to get to the airport from other cities.

There are two choices — “each with its own pros and cons”, as the host of the race is fond of saying. Some of the racers choose the express bus, and some the rail connection (two trains and a shuttle bus), but they all ended up on the same flight. (As usual, they were required to take connecting flights on a sponsoring US-flag airline, rather than being allowed to take the nonstop on a better foreign-flag carrier, LAN Chile.)

The slightly more expensive express bus can be significantly faster, but because it’s subject to traffic delays it’s harder to predict how long it will take. The Metrorail connections are slower than the express bus if there’s little traffic (when is that, you ask, on the Santa Monica Freeway?), but the journey time by train is more predictable. And while airport express buses in L.A. and many other cities are the exceptions that prove the rule, it’s typically much easier to find a subway station and figure out where to board which train and when to get off than to find the right bus and bus stop.

If you don’t know if a city has a subway, streetcar, or other intra-urban rail system, or where its routes go, is the place to start. It’s an obsessively complete and authoritative Web site maintained as a hobby by Robert Schwandl, detailing every new metro system, new line, or new station in operation or under construction around the world.

People who don’t use public transit often know little about it, even in their home town. Rarely can you rely on what you are told about transit by someone who never uses it but goes everywhere by private car. When I tell people I’ve taken more than one business trip to Los Angeles by public transit, they think I’m weird. I must be willing to put up with long waits and long walks to catch slow and infrequent buses, right? When I tell them that it’s not like that — while it doesn’t go everywhere, on its limited but growing route system the L.A. Metrorail is fast, cleaner and quieter and more more modern and comfortable that the New York City subway or the the El in Chicago, and a remarkably pleasant and easy alternative to driving in L.A. traffic — I get double-takes, especially from people who’ve lived all their lives in Southern California without ever setting foot on the new rail system they’ve spent billions of dollars to build over the last 20+ years.

Perhaps the extreme case of this is in South Africa, where as World Cup 2010 visitors will learn, along with how to say “Yebo Bafana Bafana!”, there are (still) completely separate systems of local and inter-city bus for different races and classes. Ask a white person about buses to World Cup venues like Port Elizabeth, and they’ll send you to the Greyhound station downtown or in a white suburb. Black people ride minivans that go from township to township. Not so useful unless you are prepared to get dropped off in, say, Mdantsane. (We stayed in a pleasant bed-and-breakfast there for a night, but it wasn’t in a location we would have wanted to walk to alone from the taxi stand as obviously wealthy white people. Don’t book township B & B’s without getting a reliable reference and being sure about transport.) The best value and comfort for the money for foreign tourists are often the buses operated by yet a third set of companies that mainly serve what used to be known as the “colored” and “Asian” communities, which are South Africa’s closest approach to a middle class.

The corollary of all this is that if you want to get information about public transit in a city where anyone who can afford to do so drives, you need to ask either transit professionals, people who can’t afford to drive, or people who can’t drive for some other reason.

The racers were relatively lucky to find people on the street who knew about either the express bus from Union Station or that there was some sort of connection from the Metrorail system to LAX. But they were lucky, and they were downtown. In most of L.A. other than downtown and a few specifically pedestrian areas, finding anyone walking on the sidewalk, if there is a sidewalk, can be a challenge. In L.A. or cities like it — São Paulo and Johannesburg, which are comparable to L.A. in so many other ways as well, come immediately to mind — it’s rare to see anyone white or wealthy and of driving age on the subways or the commuter trains, unless they have a disability that prevents them from driving.

Our instinct may be to ask someone on the street who seems less threatening because they look like us, and looks less likely to rob us because they look like they have enough money of their own. But for transit directions in such a place, that’s often a self-defeating strategy. You may get better results by asking the maid, the cleaner, or the security guard — someone paid too little to afford a car — for transit information, rather than the concierge or other guests at a hotel for the well-to-do who all have cars. (For more on the relationship of race, class, fear, and urban geography in São Paulo, and its lessons for L.A. and other cities, see the brilliant study by Brazilian-American sociologist Teresa P. R. Caldeira, City of Walls , perhaps the most insightful book I read after my last trip around the world.)

The racers weren’t going to Brazil, though, but to the opposite side of the Andes: Santiago, Chile. Santiago’s Metro system is more extensive than L.A.’s, but has its own gaps. The most interesting museum in Santiago is obscure not just because it memorializes a part of history some Chileans are as eager to forget as others are to remember, but also because it’s not within comfortable walking distance of any Metro line, and badly served even by buses.

Without my friend Wayne Bernhardson’s superlative Moon Handbooks Chile we never would have known of the existence of the Peace Park at Villa Grimaldi, where thousands of the “disappeared”, including Chile’s current President Michelle Bachelet and her mother, were detained and tortured during the years of US-backed dictatorship. Today, it’s collectively managed by the survivors and the families of the detainees, who give tours to groups but are also happy just to sit and talk (in Spanish — there’s little English) with individual visitors.

It’s worth the trek by Metro, bus, and foot, or the expense of a taxi to Villa Grimaldi, for a direct encounter with one of the most important currents beneath the surface of today’s Chilean society. But if you don’t have time for that, a much more elaborate Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos opened late last year closer to the city center and immediately above the Metro station at Quinta Normal.

The racers, not surprisingly, were given time for none of this, but took buses directly from Santiago airport to the port city of Valparaiso, without even changing buses in downtown Santiago. You can often get inter-city buses directly from major airports to secondary cities up to several hours away,without the need to take one bus to the city center and another back out to the airport. These include routes such as those in the USA between Rockford, Milwaukee, and Madison and O’Hare Airport, and the National Express coaches in the UK directly from Heathrow and Gatwick Airports to secondary cities throughout southern England.

Off to a good start, the racers spent the night in Valparaiso, one of my favorite small cities, about which I’ll have more to say next week.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 14 February 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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