When I was younger, buses and trains meant the freedom to get out and see the world before I had a car of my own. Though I’ve now had a reliable vehicle for many years, I still think it’s exciting to be in the passenger seat without the hassles of driving and parking.
Yes, renting a car gives you more independence, and flights and private taxis get you to places faster, but there are lots of reasons to consider seeing the world through a bus or train if your destination allows it.
Here are my top five reasons why you should use public transportation when you travel:
1. You get to meet real people
Buses and trains are one of the places where you are very likely to meet people who live in the city/country you are visiting. Too often when visiting a new place, I feel like I get caught up talking to other travelers I meet at my hostel or hotel. That’s great of course, but to learn about a place you need to meet locals too, and it’s really easy to strike up a conversation on a bus or subway.
Also, maybe it’s just me, but I think that people are friendlier on buses and trains than they are on planes. The whole process of flying today is so exhausting that by the time I board, I’m a zombie, ready to tune out everyone around me, and lose myself in my “portable electronic device” just as soon as they allow it. It’s probably just me. I hate flying, lately!
2. The views are better. And you get to sit down!
Oftentimes, the bus or surface rail lines will connect the major sights of the cities and allow you to get the lay of the land before you set out to explore the neighborhoods within. (As much as I love subterranean subways, they don’t get points for this because you can’t see anything)
Plus, you don’t have to log as many miles or walk up as many hills, which is a bonus in cities like Lisbon and San Francisco!
3. Quirky drivers and decor
Lots of time, bus drivers (particularly in areas where buses are independently owned) will show their personality in the vehicle. The buses may be creatively painted with bright colors on the outside, and the driver’s space will be all decked out as his/her home away from home. I’ve seen velour curtains lining the drivers area, altars set up to honor the Virgin Mary or Buddha, family photos, and safety amulets of all sorts (including a dried chicken leg, hanging from the driver’s rear-view mirror in Mexico). If you sit up front, the drivers are often happy to talk to you to break up the monotony of their route, and will make sure you get off at the right stop.
4. It’s how the rest of the world travels
Especially if you live in a very car-centered culture like the United States, it’s good to remember sometimes that most people in the world will never be able to afford to own a personal vehicle. Buses and trains are the way that people generally get to where they need to go, both at home and abroad.
5. It helps to make cities better places
Now this one comes from my perspective as an urban planner and environmentalist, so pardon the nerdiness. Using public transportation reduces the number of private vehicles on the roads, leading to reduced traffic and air pollution, both of which make cities nicer places to visit for travelers, and to live in for the community you’re visiting. Paying the fees to use municipal public transportation lines are a vote to support system expansion — if no one uses the system, no legislator is going to vote to fund improvements!