Transit Prices Leading to Frustration–and Pollution

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Machines such as these are used to check in and out of train stations with the OV-Chipkaart.

Four times a week, Madelene Nieman drives from the Emerson College European Center in Well, Limburg to pick up faculty members at a local train station. She drives 20 minutes there and 20 minutes back in a car, when the faculty members could take the bus that runs the same route.

“I drive them because them because the school has deemed it more convenient, given the fact that Well is in the middle of nowhere,” she says.

This is not uncommon for the Netherlands. Many residents opt to take their cars to work as opposed to using transit services–which could cost a large sum of money.

Unlike many other countries and cities where a ride on public transportation costs a fixed rate, Dutch transportation prices range depending on how far one travels. For example, a tram ride from Amsterdam Centraal Station to Dam Square would cost €1.07 (€0.89 for a fixed boarding fee plus €0.154 per km), whereas a journey to Maastricht from Amsterdam would cost more like €34.

This system operates on the “OV-Chipkaart,” which is similar to London’s Oyster card or the Pay-Per-Ride system in New York. It is a wallet-sized card that can be bought at most train stations for €7.50, and is valid for 4-5 years. A maximum of €150 credit can be loaded on it at a time, which can be used up in just a week or many years, depending on the length and frequency of one’s travels.

The OV-Chipkaart has been in use since November 2011.

The idea behind this system was that shorter commutes would be more affordable for customers. If the flat rate was, say, €2 (comparable to other cities), someone going that route from Centraal Station to Dam Square would be paying extra money.

Unfortunately, this system also means that longer rides become way more expensive. This is why people are turning to other modes of transportation to get to their destination, and why Emerson College has students like Nieman pick up faculty members from the train station.

“It’s far more convenient for the faculty members to use this car service that the school pays for than pay for their own bus fare–which can add up over the course of a semester,” Nieman continues.

Now, although that distance from the train station to the school is relatively small, the pollution the car ride creates can add up. Currently, cars are responsible for roughly 12% of carbon dioxide emissions in the EU.

The Dutch government is aware of this. Karim Mostafi, spokesman of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, said that the government is always trying to encourage its citizens to take public transportation. “Not just because it’s beneficial for the environment, but also because it can relieve traffic congestion in other areas,” he says. “Buses, trams, and metros provide good and environmentally friendly alternatives for cars.”

Clearly, there are many benefits to taking public transportation. Yet why are there still so many cars on the road?

People like Elise Smit are why. When passing through the turnstiles in Amsterdam Centraal station, the Dutch resident noted that this act wasn’t something she frequently did–her car was just broken. “I usually take my car to work, but had to do this today.” When asked why she typically drives to work as opposed to take public transportation, she just said, “it’s cheaper.”

Therein lies the root of the issue. Amsterdam trams are far busier than buses out in the countryside. Yes, part of this is due to the fact that Amsterdam is a major city, but also because those who take Amsterdam trams tend to be going short distances–again, 1 to 2 km. When it comes down to it, most citizens simply aren’t willing to pay those steep prices to go long distances.

Buses, trains, and metros all use the OV-Chipkaart system

The Boston transportation system (MBTA), on the other hand, operates on a fixed rate. With a CharlieCard (another wallet-sized card available for purchase), a ride–going anywhere in the city–costs $2.25. Without a CharlieCard, it would cost $2.75. If Boston adopted this system of rates changing depending on the length of travel, many citizens’ commutes would become far more expensive, which could cause them to see a drop in business.

The current system, however, seems to be working just fine for the American city. According to Transportation for Massachusetts, the amount of people taking Boston transit from 2008 to 2014 increased more rapidly than any other of America’s top 10 transit cities.

If the Dutch government is truly trying to encourage people to utilize their transit more, perhaps they should consider adopting a price system similar to Boston’s.
The current system of paying steep prices for a longer transit ride is hurting not only its citizens’ wallets but also the environment. Moving to a flat rate system would lead more people to utilize public transit, in turn helping the pollution problem.

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