Monday, December 27, 2004

Mass transit could save business travelers big bucks
By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY

New Yorkers call it the subway, Bostonians the T and Washingtonians the Metro. Whatever the vernacular, relatively few business travelers follow the lead of local residents and use big cities' heavy rail systems. (Related story: How to get around crazy cities)

Business travelers such as Steven Daris, the San Diego-based CEO of dk Holdings, an Internet media company, say subways and over-ground rail systems where he visits are "sometimes hard to figure out quickly." Daris, who grew up in the country, says he would use them more if he better understood them.

But for those travelers who take the time to learn how to navigate, say, the New York subway, the payoff can be substantial. Such transit systems are often faster than a taxi, and much cheaper. They're also reliable.

"Taking a taxi or even a bus in Manhattan isn't practical," says Michael Sommer, a technology consultant in Jacksonville who travels to New York about every six weeks with a subway map in his personal planner. "After you take the subway a few times, you realize it's the only way to effectively get around."

Known as subways, rapid-rail systems, elevated or metropolitan railways, there are 14 heavy-rail systems in 11 U.S. cities. Each was designed to move a large volume of passengers through a city center and outlying areas.

Unlike commuter rail, which feeds suburban passengers into one or two stations in a central business district, heavy rail has many inner-city stations and usually operates on rights-of-way that exclude other vehicles and pedestrians. Of 2,100 miles of track operated by the nation's 14 heavy-rail systems, about 36% is underground, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Some business travelers don't use heavy rail because trains can be crowded, and some older stations dingy. Jumping into a taxi might avoid any confusion about navigating through a rail system and can be faster to some destinations.

William Middleton, author of Metropolitan Railways, says perceived complexity is a major problem for public transit systems. "They have intimidating procedures, and people don't know how they work."

To help business travelers, USA TODAY gathered data on all the U.S. heavy-rail systems. They combined to carry about 2.7 billion passengers last year, APTA data show.

The most extensive heavy rail network is in New York, which has three systems. The largest unit, operated by MTA New York City Transit, has 25 train lines, 468 stations and 835 miles of track in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. At three Manhattan stations, it connects with the Port Authority Trans-Hudson system, which serves New Jersey. A third operates on Staten Island.

Washington, Chicago and San Francisco also have large systems, each with more than 200 miles of track.

Rail experts say heavy-rail systems have made substantial improvements to make them more consumer friendly in recent years. Such improvements have included better signs, maps, timetables and Web site information. Here's information that might be valuable for prospective heavy-rail users.

  • Hours of operation. The New York City Transit system never closes. All other heavy-rail systems begin by 5 a.m. on most days and run until at least midnight. Washington's Metro operates until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
  • Method of payment. New York's system once was renowned for its token machines, but those days are gone. New York and most cities use fare cards that can be bought at stations and other sites, including newsstands and retail shops. Exact change is often needed, but some systems, such as Miami's Metrorail, have change machines at stations. Some systems, including New York and Baltimore, charge the same fare regardless of the destination. Others, such as San Francisco and Washington, base the price on the distance traveled.
  • Best deal. Compared with taxi fares, every heavy-rail system can be a bargain for a business traveler on a tight budget. The cheapest fare is $1.25 in Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Miami, and between some San Francisco stations. Daily passes are always the best option if you plan to travel frequently on a single day. The most expensive one-day pass is $7.50 for Boston's T. Weekly and monthly passes provide more savings.
  • Entering/exiting. Many systems require passengers to insert a fare card or ticket in a slot. Chicago offers a choice: inserting a fare card, tapping a Smart Card against a reader or putting coins into a turnstile. Washington's Metro and San Francisco's BART require passengers to insert the card or ticket again when exiting. Frequent traveler Sommer says he wasn't aware of this and threw away his ticket the first time he used the Metro. He had to seek assistance from a policeman and Metro personnel to exit.
  • Ridership information. Each city's transit authority has a Web site with detailed information about its heavy-rail system and other mass-transit options. APTA has a handy Internet link to all the heavy-rail systems: Every transit authority also has a consumer information phone hotline.

Most cities with heavy-rail systems have "horrendous" traffic and congestion that can ruin the workday of a business traveler sitting in a cab during a traffic jam, says APTA President William Millar. "Once you learn how to use the systems, you ask yourself: 'Why did I ever have to take a cab?' " he says.

Brian Cudahy, author of A Century of Subways, says heavy-rail systems are often the fastest way to travel, particularly during rush hours, between airports and the center of a city. He cites Atlanta and Cleveland as the best systems for airport-downtown travel.

There are other benefits of using heavy rail, says Clifton Hood, author of 722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York. "It forces you to better know the geography of a city and to interact with its residents," he says.

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