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Why Prague Has One of the Best Tram Systems in the World

Improving public transit, whether it’s for subways, buses, light rail or trolleys, is very tricky. But some enhancements turn out to be surprisingly simple. Here’s what we can learn from one of the best transit systems.

Prague,Street
A tram on the streets of Prague, Czech Republic. Frequent service, numerous lines and a well-designed fare system are the hallmarks of one of the best-run tram systems in Europe and the world.
(Adisa/Shutterstock)
I boarded a tram this morning here in my new adopted city of Prague and, as usual, it carried me swiftly and promptly to my end point.

I did some advance work. After leaving my apartment, I opened up my smartphone and typed in the destination. There were trams from three different lines coming soon to a stop near me. In two minutes, I had boarded my chosen tram.

No turnstile or fare checker slowed down my entrance. I had already bought an annual pass which cost me 1280 Czech koruna, or crowns, or only about $65, roughly a third of the regular price of $165, because I was what you might call “Senior light,” between the ages of 60 and 65. Students ages 15-26 pay the same price I paid for an annual pass, while those younger than 15 and older than 65 travel free.

If you want to purchase a single ride, you can buy a ticket with a credit card from a small machine hanging from a pole in the aisle of the tram. Those are $1.50 for a 30-minute ticket; $2 for a 40-minute ticket and $6 for a 24-hour one. You can also buy them on your phone. These individual ticket prices are pretty steep for a city where the standard of living is about half of ours.

Prague is doing something cities in the U.S. should have done long ago, making it easy and cheap to get a long-term pass, while pricing single-fare or short-term passes much higher. By doing this, the city is getting more money from its huge volume of tourists, who, after spending thousands on plane fare and hotels, don’t really care how much a tram ticket is costing them. And more importantly, it is pushing the local population to think long-term, which helps the transit network and cuts down on excessive car trips.

The system basically operates on the Ronald Reagan system of “Trust, but Verify.” An inspector with little visible marking will occasionally board a tram and check to see if everyone has a pass or a ticket. If you don’t, the smiling inspector will tell you that you can pay 1000 Czech crowns — about $50 — right then, or pay later by mail which will cost 1500 crowns, or $75. This happened to someone I know here, who was trying to squeeze one more ride out of a 30-minute ticket. She paid the 1000 crown fine on the spot.

All this is a prelude to saying Prague has the best city tram system I have experienced. Many European and Asian cities have them, and certainly other good ones exist. But Prague makes it onto several lists of the best overall transit systems in the world. It’s clear the city is working hard to improve and keep current a system that dates back to the 19th century.

What makes the Prague system so good? Well, to start with, there are plenty of lines with plenty of trains that come frequently and reliably. It has 26 lines running during the day and nine all night. During the morning rush hour, it has more than 400 trams operating, reportedly the most in Europe.

That’s the hardware advantage. But the operating procedures, the software, is just as important. The no-check boarding and the cheap long-term passes speed up the trams and integrate them into citizens’ lives. I don’t see any reason why our cities can’t do this.

The trams do have one downside. Prague has few bike lanes of any kind, and all the tram tracks create slots between track and pavement that can catch a bike wheel and throw a rider down. I do see people on bikes, but not that many. I don’t know if there’s an easy answer here.

Besides the trams, Prague has buses and an excellent metro-subway system, built by the Soviets in the 1970s. Prague Public Transit operates everything, and one fare or pass covers it all. Within the central city, I personally don’t use these deep-tunnel subways much, because the tram network is so good. It appears to me that the metro system, similar to Washington, D.C.’s, functions more like a commuter rail service, with individual stops farther apart, carrying people from the suburbs inward and outward.

Mass transportation is a lot like health care. Its institutions vary tremendously because each has been shaped by a country or city’s own unique history.

Here in the Czech Republic, the Prague Public Transit Company dates back to 1897, when it was an enterprise under the “Royal Capital City of Prague,” then part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. The trams kept running through the Nazi occupation that began in 1939, and the Communist-Soviet era from 1948 to 1989. For a while under the Soviets, the same company was handling trams, subways and freight and passenger shipping by water.

The present excellent tram system is in part an inadvertent gift from the Soviets. Central Europe under communism was economically stagnant, and so the system was left in place, while other cities ripped theirs out or shrunk them to make way for more private cars. When the Soviets left after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the tram system was there, ready to be modernized. European Union money helped with this in the ensuing decades. Since 2007, the Czech Republic has been a member of the Schengen area, the 26 countries in the EU with no border controls between them. The Czech Republic still retains its own currency.

There’s no real technical distinction between a streetcar, tram or light rail system, though there tend to be stylistic ones. But whatever name we use, these trains carry me swiftly where I want to go, while blending in well with streets and sidewalks. I suggest we learn from them.
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at amcities@gmail.com or on Twitter at @Amcities.
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