Cars are popular in Portugal and, unless you live in the city centre of Lisbon, you could hardly do without. The daily influx of cars from the suburbs into Lisbon cause heavy congestions every day, but the city would not be the same without the endless orchestra of claxons. Today, I am trying to figure out if and how people avoid getting struck in traffic.
In spite of heavy congestion, many people still choose to use the car when getting to work in the city. Very few people came to the idea of accessing Portugal by motorcycle or scooter. Families typically have one or two cars available for commuting. Sharing cars, walking and cycling are not very popular. Walking because it`s slow, cycling because there are too many hills and traffic is too dense. The Portuguese do like cycling, but as a sport rather than a method of transportation.
`I always use the car to get to work`
Cars in Lisbon
Ana (31, photo) tells me that she always uses the car to get to work. Using public transportation would require her to change two or three times, as she does not live in Lisbon but in the suburbs. Her job is in another suburb, and there is no direct connection between the two.
People who do choose to access Lisbon by car should consider the reduced mobility during rush hours, as well as a serious lack of parking space. Companies and affluent residents of the city centre usually have access to private parking space, while all others need to fight for some space along the pavement. Moreover, parking can be a very expensive hobby. Ana only takes the car to Lisbon during the weekends, because that is when parking is free.
Rui (27) is from the Algarve region. He came to Lisbon by car to catch a flight to the United States. He left his car at a friend`s car park near Lisbon. Now on the way back home, he is taking a bus, since his sister has picked up the car while he was away. Rui emphasises that cars are necessary for those live anywhere out of the main urban areas. Fortunately, it is very easy to get a driver`s license. Many pass their driving test when they are 18. It usually only takes four weeks to obtain a license and enjoy seemingly unlimited mobility throughout the rural areas of Portugal. Losing a license is also fairly easy though: if you are involved in three traffic offenses classified as risky you will have to hand it in to the police. Initially for one year, at later instances possibly for ever.
Public transportation in the city
For commuters to and from central Lisbon, the metro system is quite convenient. It has 4 lines within the city borders, and a set of commuter trains coming in from the suburbs. While the city metro passes mostly underground, the suburban trains have blinded windows to keep passengers from melting during the hot summer months. Seeing outside the train is hardly possible, forcing people to rely on the voice over that announces the upcoming stations and transfer options.
On street level, a small number of trams serve the tourist areas, while city buses filled with old people connect the other parts of town. Ana tells me that the bus network is not known for its un-time performance. Old people prefer to use the bus system, as it saves them the walk up and down the stairs. Frequent delays give them sufficient time to socialise with fellow elderly.
Whichever way of public transportation you choose, your trip risks being troubled by fellow travelers. First of all because they are so numerous. Secondly because your steps are being observed by active gangs of mostly Eastern European pickpockets who will be happy to entrust themselves with your equipment or pocket money. Some stations have a particularly bad name: Reboleira and Amadora are two stations that even locals like to avoid.
Taxis and ferries complete the range of public transportation. Ferries connect Lisbon to the suburbs across the wide Tejo estuary. Taxis, coloured in German cream-white, provide door-to-door transportation within the city centre and to the airport. Compared to other European cities, they are fairly cheap. For Portuguese standards, they are not. As a result, taxis are mostly used by business people or tourists, or in case somebody needs to go to hospital.
The further away from Lisbon, the less dense the transportation system gets. Traveling to other major cities, like Porto in the North or Faro in the South, is easy and services run frequently. Choices vary from buses (cheap and high frequency), trains (comfortable and quick, but less frequent) or obviously cars. Drivers traveling via A-type motorways will have to pay toll, while the national network of IP roads is free of charge. The IP-roads are obviously not in the same good condition as the A-roads, leading to more road accidents and consequently higher death tolls.
Travelling between cities in the Eastern part of the country is difficult. The next big city may not be reachable without passing through the West. Both bus and train connections have irregular schedules and inconvenient times. The very few that may run during the day will stop in every single settlement along the way, making the car an inevitable device in the countryside.
The Euro 2006 football tournament brought big improvements to infrastructure in the western part of the country. Porto has seen its airport and metro station renewed, while motorways and junctions have been modernised to meet the latest standards. The European Union is co-funding many of many projects that continue to improve interconnections between the different Portuguese regions.
Portugal`s geographical position isolates it from the centre of Europe. Increasing numbers of flight destinations have made Portugal more accessible to outsiders, and the rest of Europe more accessible to the Portuguese. Porto Airport, a favourite with discount airlines, still has sufficient space to grow. Lisbon is less lucky, the airport is close to meeting its maximum capacity. The airport is located almost in the middle of the city and expansion is not an option. Plans to open a new airport by 2012 are on the way, but the location has not been decided on. Options include Alcochete and Ota, both much further away from the city centre than the current airport. No decision has been taken to date, but the subject is not very popular. Most people think that the need for a new airport has more to do with political prestige than anything else.
The same applies to the high speed train network that is under discussion. It should bring down travel times between Porto and Lisbon, and Lisbon and Madrid. While many people would consider the last option useful, they do not see the need for a faster connection between Porto and Lisbon. The general opinion is that Portugal is too small for high-speed travel.
Global warming and rising oil prices do provide an incentive to consider alternatives for car travel. If only the privatised public transportation companies would not increase its prices three times a year, people might start to think of other options. For now, almost anybody over 25 and under 65 heavily relies on their own automotive vehicles: for going to work, shopping, family visits, Sunday excursions and almost everything else you can think of.
photo | Link
to this article