A Tale of Two Cities [L’viv, Ukraine and Krakow, Poland]
I had the good fortune to recently spend two weeks in L’viv, Ukraine with a side trip to Krakow, Poland (and cooled my heels for almost four hours to cross the border). I met wonderful people (especially in L’viv where I spent the majority of my time). Although I had sporadic internet access, the relative isolation from the political discussions in Washington was frankly a welcome balm to my psyche.
This is literally the best of times and maybe, the worst of times, depending on which side of the border you reside. Ukraine and Poland look quite different today than twenty or so years when they emerged from the dark days of communism. The Poland I observed looked, well, genuinely prosperous. The change began at the border. Roads were well-maintained, infrastructure had been rebuilt and the villages on the road to Krakow bustled with activity. Krakow, Poland (population- 750,000, second largest in Poland) was a gleaming city, with a comprehensive transit system blanketing the region with fast, frequent service employing a variety of modes. The tram system, the backbone of the public transportation network, has been completely rebuilt and extended with new and used trams from the West placed into service.
A Polish-built Konstal 105N tram provides fast service on a busy arterial near the Old City in Krakow, Poland (July, 2011)
A new Fast Tram service (KST) was inaugurated in 2008 which provides direct access to the town’s main train station through a tunnel originally started in 1974. I saw interconnected public transit that gave access to all corners of the city, fares that encouraged ridership, while generally providing the glue that makes cities economically viable, attractive to live in and certainly to visit. Membership in the European Union certainly has provided advantages and Poland has played those advantages magnificently.
In sharp contrast, L’viv, Ukraine (population- also about 750,000) still reflects the chronic lack of money dating from Soviet times needed to maintain and improve the city’s infrastructure. The good news is that change is coming (slowly) and the city is working to upgrade the public transportation system (as well other services and infrastructure) in anticipation of jointly hosting the Euro Soccer Tournament with neighboring Poland in the summer, 2012. Like Krakow, the backbone of L’viv’s transit system is the tram (at least in the center city and environs- outlying areas with blocks of Soviet-era apartment buildings are served by a large, sprawling network of trolleybuses and buses).
An aging Czech-built Tatra T-4 bogie tram, vintage 1977, trundles through an older part of L’viv on a wet day in July 2010 (this section currently closed for a complete rebuild of the street infrastructure, including new track)
The meter gauge system provides intensive service with a mixture of old and second-hand Tatra-built trams. Fares are also cheap (about 12¢ a ride). New rolling stock may be years away although Koncar of Croatia recently reached agreement with a Ukrainian bus manufacturer LAZ (located in L’viv) to build low floor trams. L’viv would certainly provide a ready local market. If Ukraine’s current drive to join the European Union remains on course, perhaps a Poland-like future is in the offing. Ukraine’s geographic location is not its greatest asset, however, and it will need to proceed cautiously to avoid unnecessarily arousing its sometimes fulsome eastern neighbor.
There was one thing that I noticed about both cities. Getting around town is easy. Squads of minibuses (locally called Marschrulkys charging a premium fare of 25¢) prowl the side streets of L’viv, ably augmenting the trams and the trolleybuses. Krakow maintains a high level of service on all modes throughout the day. I also noticed new diesel articulated buses carrying crush loads at most times of the day in both cities. While car ownership is exploding in both Poland and Ukraine, city officials in Krakow and L’viv clearly recognize that in the competition for public road space, public transportation must prevail. Now there’s a refreshing point of view that we could take to heart (and to town) here in America.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation