Millions of people, especially in big cities, use public transportation every day, be it by plane, train, bus, subway, ferry or monorail. They may commute to work from outside of a large city or within it. Either way, they rely on public transportation to get to work on time, do their shopping, meet with friends and explore where they live. Cost and reliability are the most important factors. Here’s a quick guide to making the most of public transportation to have as smooth and stress-free experience as possible.
Public transportation is almost always cheaper than driving a car, but it can take a lot longer if you’re not careful. Walking and bicycling are even cheaper, but also have their problems. Most North American cities, for example, sprawl too much for people to walk everywhere they need and still get anything done. Also, smaller towns, in particular, have few safe routes for pedestrians, with soft or nonexistent shoulders along local roads and few to no sidewalks. A similar problem exists for bicyclists, who can find both city and country drivers less than considerate. Bicyclists also have to deal with the initial cost of a decent bicycle, which can run to several hundred dollars.
Of public transportation options, the bus is usually the cheapest but least reliable timewise. Vancouver busses, for example, won’t wait for passengers, yet always seem to end up late. Trains are more expensive and limited in area. Their reliability depends on the area. In Europe, for example, train systems are spread all over the countryside, but their reliability varies considerably. Spain guarantees train arrivals within a minute of scheduled times; British trains can be hours late or may not come at all.
Most reliable are the subways and the more limited aboveground monorail systems. The subway systems in New York, London, Paris and Barcelona are noted for arriving frequently, going all over the city and being reasonably cheap. They can accomplish this because they can avoid traffic by going underground. Aboveground monorails like the system in Jacksonville, Florida or the Skytrain in Vancouver also arrive and depart frequently, but are more limited in area. They have to worry about sharing precious aboveground area with roads, buildings, train tracks and natural land features.
Things to keep in mind when you need to use public transportation frequently:
1. Use the most reliable public transportation system when you can. New Yorkers, for example, take the subway to work when they can, not the slower and less reliable busses.
2. Pick a place to live where you have easy access to a reliable system of public transportation. This can cut down on your commute considerably if you put a little forethought into where you live and where you work, shop and play.
3. Use the route with the fewest possible transfers, even if it adds some time to your trip. Transfers where you have to wait are the number one way to add time to your trip. The fewer the transfers, the fewer chances for wasted time.
4. Use the cheaper route only if it is reasonably fast and stress-free. You can take nine hours by train to go from Edinburgh to London, or you can take 30 hours by bus. The bus is cheaper, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s worth it.
5. Give yourself extra time for the trip, especially if it involves transfers. If you can, start the first leg of your trip so that you have time to catch the transfer before the one that you really need. This will give you some extra time in case the first bus/train is late and you miss the first transfer.
6. Make a plan. Have your route mapped out beforehand. It’s easier and less stressful to change a prearranged plan than to fly blind from the beginning. Try to bring a map of the system and of the area with you at all times, in case you need to make some unscheduled changes. Use trip planners for your particular public transportation network online. Be careful about relying on them too much, though, since they don’t always give you the fastest or most straightforward route.
7. Be productive. Lots of people bring music along for the ride, which helps pass the time. But it doesn’t help with that nasty feeling of wasted time en route. To combat this, try bringing along a book or educational tape/CD that you’ve been meaning to read or listen to but haven’t had the time. You’re a captive audience of your own brain; might as well use that. On the train, you could write in a notebook or use your laptop. If you feel that you’re doing something productive, you can make your commuting time feel more positive. Standing around waiting, feeling that time is slipping through your fingers, is one of the most stressful parts of using public transportation.
8. Be nice. Everybody that uses the public transportation system is in the same boat. “Excuse me”, “Please” and “Thank you” go a long way, even when you’re shouting them at people who seem absolutely determined not to move out of the way when you’re trying to get out the door of the subway train or bus at your stop. It also wouldn’t kill you to give up your seat for the very young, the very old, the very pregnant and the handicapped. And those in the former category can also be polite by not being rude or taking undue advantage of other people’s courtesy. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve given up my seat several places back to a mother and child while perfectly healthy people never budged from the places in the front reserved for that mother and child.
9. Get Zen. Speaking of stress, nothing in this modern world quite illustrates Jean Paul Sartre’s famous quote, “Hell is other people”, like public transportation. Overcrowded busses and trains, rude bus drivers, jerks on cell phones, complainers, drunks and bullies rate high on the stress meter for commuters. But you can use this to your advantage. Look at these distractions as opportunities to practice your patience, tolerance and conflict management skills, or at the very least, your ability to count silently to ten.
9. Finally, walk when you can. It’s good for you and can help you make a short cut between transport options. How far and long you’re willing to walk is up to you, but if you work it into your plan, you can get some needed exercise and fresh air while still arriving where you need to go in a reasonable amount of time.