Friday, December 21, 2007


I love trams. Love them! It's one of my absolute favorite things about living in Zurich. When I first moved here I found myself thinking a lot about my years in San Francisco. Partly because I was also in school in SF, and partly because SF is such a european-y city (for an American city), but mostly, it was the trams. I love them so much more than buses, I think because the ride is smoother. I love how the whole street rumbles when they pass by. I love them for their more mundane aspects, such as the fact that trams always stop at every stop (unlike buses which usually stop only on demand), meaning that if you are in a new city (or even a new part of your own city) you can count stops to figure out when it's time to get off. OK, the squealing on corners? That I don't love so much.

On my ride home last night, as almost every night, the overhead announcement came on with the familiar [ding, dong] Information der Zuri Linien... announcing a collision or malfunction or anything else that causes sections of the track to be closed and the trams rerouted. The pair of chimes that open these announcements used to strike fear into my heart when I first moved here and couldn't decipher them. Now, despite my poor and uneven German, I understand almost everything in the announcements, probably because they use a ritualized (and tiny) subset of words in these things. I'm always amazed at how fast they organize buses out to the affected stretches, and municipal employees to the larger stops to make announcements and answer confused rider's questions.

Which brings me to a bizarre confession. I have some kind of deep, secret love for municipal logistics. The public transit systems, the garbage and recycling trucks, traffic control, newspaper delivery. I just find them totally fascinating. They are so unsexy, so dirty (although that's kind of sexy), so necessary and overlooked, but almost graceful in a weird, truckish kind of way. I think there is also some strange uniform fetish bleedover--not that tram uniforms do much for me, but more the institutional background implied by uniforms, which must be part of their appeal. I'm very neurotic and rigid do well in structured environments, so institutions draw me towards them with some neuroticmagnetic pull.

Speaking of traffic control, for many years I've had a theory about a pair of traffic phenomena. One is the expanding nature of traffic jams, which I always thought was driven primarily by over-braking. The idea is the person in front of me taps their brakes, I see the red light come on but right at first I can't tell how much they are braking, so I step on my brakes, perhaps a hair harder than they did (err on the side of caution!). If everyone behind me does the same thing before you know it traffic is at a standstill. For a while I got into the habit of slowing down via downshifting, trying to do my part to stop the chain reaction. I'm not so sure that's such a great idea, because if it turns out people behind me really do need to break, then they need the indicator of my taillights. Turns out my theory was right! The other theoretical traffic control issue I've often pondered is what I like to call "line compaction", which happens in long lines or stand-still traffic jams, where people just like the sensation that they are moving, even if there are still the same number of people ahead of them in line, so everyone keeps inching forward, compacting the line while getting to fool themselves into thinking it's helping. Like pushing the elevator button a couple extra times...



Blogger Chris said...

Oh, I've seen those traffic models before. One dog sitting at the side of the road leading to one gawker slowdown, and in a few miles/minutes, you have a massive traffic slowdown.

Blogger Midsummer night's knitter said...

When I was in Zurich the first time I just had to take a photo of the trams. They were so, well, friendly looking ;0)
But I also worry about those anouncements!

Blogger Too Little Time said...

I too love public transit (ie metro, subway, etc). In Michigan there is no such thing as a modern public transit system and never will be as we sell cars. Someday I would love to live in Chicago, DC, NY City somwhere where I can enjoy public transit :) Merry Christmas Elf - karrie


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