In Lviv’s Pivalna Street close to the Korniakt Tower there is a historic tram. This is the Just Lviv It! tourist information center and souvenir shop. The tram looks to be from the pre-World War II years. It has a nice paint job with a bright shine and looks quite welcoming. The shop inside is neat and tidy, filled with knick knacks sure to get tourists loosening their wallets. This warm and inviting atmosphere is something visitors do not get as often when they ride the 10 different tram lines that weave through the city along 75 kilometers of rails. The Lviv tram system is efficient and reliable as far as timeliness goes, but the experience itself can test the nerves of the uninitiated. Last autumn I picked up Line 7 at the Pidvalna tram stop and rode it ten stops down the line to Yanivskyi Cemetery. The price is so cheap, at 2 hryvna per ride, that only an extreme miser would not use it. The problem is that at certain times of day the tram can be packed. I thought that noontime on a Sunday would see few tram riders, I was wrong.
The Anti -“Romantic” Lviv Tram
The tram I took on Line 7 was older, probably from the 1960’s. One of the most endearing and enduring qualities of Lviv’s trams concerns their Soviet aesthetics. Most of them have the look and feel of a workhouse. This is truly mass transportation in the truest sense. The trams are meant to do one thing, move lots of people from place to place. Comfort is lacking. As the tram approached my heart sank. I could see that it was old, rickety and over-packed. When the doors opened a crush of people spilled out. This was followed by a crowd of people entering. Jostling my way into this mass of overheated humanity took a high degree of finesse. Purchasing tickets from the driver and then getting the ticket punched was a paradoxical experience, taking both patience and pushiness. Unfortunately I ended up beside the ticket punch, never where you want to be in an overcrowded tram. At each stop a mélange of arms, elbows and hands came close to assaulting me. Ten stops on Line #7 was ten too many on this day. I have never felt so close to Lvivians in my life. I was within kissing distance of three people at any one time. Perhaps this was what was meant by the so called “romantic” Lviv tram.
Even though it was not inordinately warm outside, the tram felt positively tropical. The smell of humanity was pervasive. Soon the tram got caught up in the snarl of traffic, or more precisely it contributed to that snarl. We inched along. I stared longingly at the mindless, blissful pedestrians who were enjoying fresh air and free space as they strode along sidewalks. There was a considerable temptation to get off at the next stop and walk. I practiced stoicism in an attempt to ignore the hot breath and penetrating stares of my fellow passengers. The idea of personal space had evaporated. Acts of movement were akin to wrestling. When the tram would suddenly break free of traffic, propelling forward at what seemed to be a thousand miles an hour for a few ecstatic seconds, I felt a sense of liberation. This was followed by the screech of brakes and bone rattling jolts. Another stoppage was at hand, but never lasted long enough to get comfortable. The Lviv Trams look like fun, until you get on one at the wrong time. Was this experience really what the Austro-Hungarian administrators had in mind when they made Lviv the first city in the empire to have an electric tram?
From Innovation To Degeneration – The Persistence of Lviv’s Trams
The electric tram came to Lviv in 1894, four years before it was introduced to the imperial capital of Vienna. The arrival of this transport innovation in the largest city of the Empire’s poorest province was not coincidental. It was unveiled while the National Trade Fair took place in the city. The fair was a showcase of the newest scientific and engineering achievements. The first electric tram line went from the main railway station to Lychakivska. By the turn of the century Lviv had three electric tram lines, but the new did not entirely trump the old. For the first decade and a half of its existence the electric trams and the old horse drawn trams both functioned. Natural horsepower was finally phased out in 1912. It has taken even longer for Lviv to phase out its old electric trams. The city still owns several pre-World War I trams that are used for maintenance purposes.
It seems that when it comes to Lviv’s trams the new can never quite replace the old. This really is living history, with an added modern feature of several hundred thousand more passengers. There have been two changes of late that have increased the comfort of Lviv’s tram rides. One is the replacement of several trams with the sleek Electron trams. There are few things as mesmerizing as watching one of these trams snake its way through the cobblestoned Old City. Renaissance, Baroque and Space Age styles interact and intersect all at the same time. There has also been the rising use of the automobile in Lviv. Tram usage has dropped by over 40% since 1991. Still, 60 million people use the trams on average each year. On Line 7 traveling towards Yanivskyi, I felt the weight of those numbers. I shuttered to think how crowded the tram was during the Soviet era. That was mass movement.
From Luxury to Necessity – A Truer Form of Travel
There comes a point in any less than desirable travel experience that one begins to question why they are doing it in the first place. Was Yanivskyi really going to be worth the bother? Why was I putting myself through this discomfort to visit a cemetery? That question turned out to be beside the point, since what I was really questioning was myself. What was I doing on this damn tram? I could have walked, taken a taxi or skipped the whole thing. In truth as intolerable as the situation was, I think this is what I really wanted. It is what I have always wanted. Travel for me is not supposed to be fair or comfortable or even fun. It enforces tolerance, patience and dealing with an endless litany of minor frustrations. It is a challenge, an affront to my personality. There is something pseudo-sadistic about this form of travel, but it almost always turns out to be enlightening.
I was able to experience Lviv like a local. Life is not easy for those who call the city home. The tram is a necessity rather than a luxury. The one I rode on was also someone else’s car filled with 40 passengers, it was progress inching forward. It was the world of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s stuck on repeat. It was the future that had barely left the station. It was an experience that was anything, but romantic and for me that made it all the more memorable. When the tram stopped at Yanivskyi, I exploded out the door and into the street. Finally I had arrived. I looked back at the tram, at the mass of humanity squeezed inside and thought to myself, now that was a trip.