It is the first of my Christmas 2020 gifts I’m reviewing, even though I already read a few. And I must say 2020 has been awful in most respects, but I could not be happier about all the bookish gifts I got this year!
Let’s start with the title, as always a rough translation is I won’t make it (as in I won’t make the train/bus, etc.). It is a book about a phenomenon that is called transport disadvantage in English, but in Polish has a more radical name of transport exclusion. I saw many texts in English describing it as a combined thing ‘transport-related social exclusion’. I’ll follow the example of the publisher and start with some numbers. One in four villages in Poland has no public transport. Only one in eight Poles doesn’t own and does not plan to own a car. In 1989 Polish rail was used by a billion passengers a year, now then umber is down to 300K.
But the book is not about numbers it is about the human and social consequences of those numbers. Gitkiewicz starts with a rough history of urban and transport development, bringing up names of such famous opponents in this discussion as Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Describing in broad strokes the forces that got us into the cars and subsequently created the idea of living in a suburb, which is at the core of many current issues. I won’t go into the detail of it, as I mentioned a lot of those issues when reviewing Happy City and Streetfight, as well as Wanderlust.
From this foundation, we jump into specific stories. And this is the strongest part of the book. Gitkiewicz traveled across Poland using all sorts of public transport where possible to understand the experience of people she is talking to. She learned how to locate bus stops and stops where the vans redone to carry people stop. She learned to call local private transport companies to confirm the timetables. She learned that getting somewhere without a car can be a major challenge, requiring multiple changes and coordinating of many, often hard to find, timetables. During her research, she talked to many people and they have various strategies to deal with the scarcity of transportation in their areas. But the main result is that every single trip to the doctor changes into a logistical Russian roulette and they avoid it at all cost. People effectively become imprisoned in their villages.
The children lose access to better schools and they tend to flee as soon as possible. When she speaks to a group of teenagers in one of the villages they constantly use the words ‘get out’ to describe the process of traveling out of their place of residence. As if it was a prison. People lose their jobs or are constantly judged for being late because, for example, the only private bus driver decided on this day to watch a football game and not provide the service. There is a very tangible and large cost associated with the fact that central and local governments do not provide public transport. The idea of public transport cannot be to be profitable, because then the market works against those who already are at a disadvantage. The book shows very clearly why transport is not only an economic issue but a social one. It impacts everyone in those areas, starting with educational opportunities, through access to medical care and other services, to career opportunities. It forces families to separate or forgo the chances they are presented with. Effectively it often forces people either into isolation or to move away.
As you can see I became very passionate about the topic. But Gitkiewicz does not stop at the social and human cost she decides to add another layer: the railway. And this is where things go a bit south for the book’s coherence. The history of the Polish railway after 1990 is a fascinating topic, but it does not carry the same emotional weight as the middle part of the book. To sum up, after 1990 a centralized strategy has been implemented in Polish railways to discourage people from using connections that were deemed not profitable. Either by moving train times so that they make it impossible for people to get to work or by gradually cutting the service. Basically, the idea was to strangle out all minor connections. And as much as the strategy is being denied now, Gitkiewicz managed to track down a memorandum from 1994 where this strategy is explicitly spelled out. The changes in the Polish railway, splitting the central monopoly into a series of sister companies, who instead of cooperating compete with one another, the lack of central shared vision is a riveting story. But not for this book. Because here it feels as if we started talking to individual people only to step away in the middle of their sentence to look at the bigger picture. It may be necessary but it still feels rude.
I wish this book was split into two separate books one about the people and how they are impacted by the lack of public transport and another one about the railway, focused more on the political aspect. Nonetheless, it was a read great and made me remember how dependent on a car I was when living in Poland. Living in a suburb of Gdańsk and working in Gdynia, without a car the commute was taking me almost 1.5 hours one way, with the car it went down to 40 minutes. The problem was that I was one of those single people in a car always. So as much as I complain about the Tube in London I also have a huge appreciation for the public transport available here.
How do you get to work when you’re not working from home? Do you look forward to going back to your commuting routine?
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska