George Pyle: Public transit lines are the neural pathways of a great city

A woman walks away from Notting Hill underground station as snow falls in London Sunday, Dec.10, 2017. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

“Travel is fatal to prejudice.”

— Mark Twain

Training to become a London cab driver can take two years. Not, oddly, because they have to learn to drive on the left side of the road.

It takes that long to get the hang of what’s called The Knowledge because the city is such an incredible jumble of streets that turn, bend, loop and, even when they keep going in a straight line, can have one name on one side of the intersection and a totally different name on the other side.

Scientists studying London cabbies have noted that the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for remembering where you left your keys and where Trafalgar Square is — actually grows in those drivers at ages when most people’s brains have gone hard.

Thus does retiring in London, or in the equally higgledy-piggledy Edinburgh, seem even more attractive. Finding one’s way around from day to day could keep one’s brain malleable enough to ward off age-related dementia.

We didn’t have two years to learn our way around London. Or enough money to hire a cab for every move we made. So, during our recent trip to London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, we did what civilized people do. We rode public transit. The London Underground. The London North Eastern Railway. ScotRail. Lothian Transit (the bus system in Edinburgh, which runs huge buses down tiny streets in a way that must have inspired J.K. Rowling while she was sitting in local cafes writing Harry Potter novels.)

I should have taken that lesson and applied it to a recent excursion to Provo. I could have taken UTA’s FrontRunner and a bus to the place where I was giving an after-dinner speech. It would have prevented me from getting lost, both ways, in a city that, despite hosting the university named for him, does not appear to be based on Brigham Young’s useful street grid system.

But, after 13 years living in Salt Lake City, I haven’t developed the transit habit that I am able to pick up in an hour in cities I visit.

I blame the idea that, no matter where you live, other cities’ transit systems are exotic and one’s own is mundane — as when you make it a point to go to the theater when you are on vacation even if you almost never go at home. And a feeling, justified or not, that UTA services don’t run often enough or to enough places that I can count on them to get me there and back before they shut down for the night.

It’s also a matter of being utterly spoiled by spending only a few days in a truly transit-oriented city, where the Piccadilly Line comes every three minutes and if the 1:30 train from Edinburgh to London is canceled, you can just rebook for the 2:15 and listen to the announcement sincerely apologizing for the fact that the person who was supposed to push the tea trolley down the aisle was stranded in Newcastle. Because, apparently, her train was canceled.

So it’s not perfect. Even when everything runs as it is supposed to, Underground stations are such a maze of halls and stairs and escalators and lifts that sometimes you wonder if it would have been easier to walk.

In one station we had the kind assistance of a young local whose ability to navigate the system was enhanced not just by being native but by the fact that he was a graduate student in neuroscience. So he understood pathways.

Still, every trip to a city where public transit is key to survival for people of all classes can make a Salt Lake City resident jealous. We’ll never have an Underground. Even TRAX-style light rail is so freaking expensive that it is giving way to the Bus Rapid Transit model.

But clean buses — clean interiors and clean exhausts — that go lots more places a lot more often, with easy-to-navigate routes and payment systems, seem like the least a modern city should expect. It helps clean the air, unclog traffic and, according to a new study, goes a long way toward easing poverty in communities where getting to work or school on transit is easy and affordable.

It is a chicken-and-egg problem. The service won’t be there unless a lot of people develop the expectation and the habit. The expectation and the habit won’t be there without reliable, and frequent, service.

It’s the same with trains that would take us from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Six times a day. With a reliable tea trolley.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune staff. George Pyle.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, should admit that he would never have done any of this without his family’s urging. And his sons’ navigational skills. gpyle@sltrib.com

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