Opinion, 06/08/2017

Ode to the Kharkiv Metro

Tom LEE

We’re led to believe there is an order of things. In the narrative we’re told, Ukraine is a less developed country, and the UK is a more developed country. While this may ring true for most people, and supported by economic statistics, I’ve noticed over my stay that there are some things Kharkiv does much better than England, one of them being the impressive public transport system.

Compared to the UK, public transport in Kharkiv is cheap, regular and comfortable. Compared to the London Underground or the New York Subway, The Metro in Kharkiv is by far a superior experience. Partially because of the cost, partially because there are less people, and partially because the carriages are generally in good condition — despite being quite old. To clarify, the price is lower comparatively, not just for traveling foreigners but as a percentage of local salary. If rail fares in the UK cost people 14 percent of their salary, the relative cost of travel in Kharkiv is quite low, estimated as about 2 percent of the average salary. Also, the unique design of each station means it’s actually pleasant to travel on. There are less people; it runs well, arrives regularly, despite that strange clock on every platform that, without explanation, runs up to ten minutes and back down again.

In each station, you can also find these machines where you can make various payments. Top up your phone or metro card; settle your utility bills with certain companies; even pay into your World of Tanks account. It might seem quirky, but it’s really ingenious, allowing a synthesis between the electronic age and a cash culture. It’s incredibly simple to use and makes dealing with these companies less stressful. The other day my phone’s internet ran out and instead of having to find the correct website page (troublesome in Ukrainian!) I merely strolled to the nearest station and inserted UAH 50 ($2). Each station is also packed full of food vendors and other small stalls, meaning that that space doesn’t go to waste. I’ve used these on occasion, and it’s convenient; although the reason I think it’s a benefit is it allows commuter traffic to support this ecosystem of microbusiness.

Of course, transport across the Ukraine is much more problematic, the countries’ interior is not exactly renowned for its infrastructure, and the main reason that the metro works well in Kharkiv is the low population density (when compared to London or New York). It’s not without faults, the recent increase in fare certainly caused a strain for many commuters, but, even with these factored in, I still think that Kharkiv is doing a better job than the UK.

Photo: mapio.net