Ticket to Ride

A public-transportation primer.

Illustration by Kelly

Like any young love, a first car is easy to romanticize. Mine was all white and so smooth, a Nissan Maxima with a sunroof and speakers that shook the whole thing if I tuned in to the local rap station. With it came big ideas about getting away and going wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted–I was 26 with nowhere I really needed to be, but having the option to be anywhere felt important.

In reality, owning an escape-mobile can be as much of a burden as it is a privilege. There’s an age requirement to get a license and so many rules to remember (like exactly how far away you need to park from that fire hydrant). Cars are expensive and, yeah, driving can be dangerous: you have to keep your eyes and your mind on a hundred things at once, especially while looking out for other wild drivers, while music and passengers (like the siblings your parents expect you to cart around) provide constant distractions. Then there’s gas money, traffic, tolls, and parking to contend with.

But there is another way. When I moved from the suburban wasteland of Orlando, Florida, to New York City, I left my car behind like a high school crush and experienced the wonders of public transportation. I fell in love again, and never looked back (sorry, first car).

Buses and trains don’t require a driver’s test or a bank account, and they can just as easily get you where you’re going as they can carry you away on an aimless, day-long adventure. With someone else doing the navigating, you’re free to sit back and take in a view, get lost in a book, play air drums, zone out, do a crossword puzzle, compose a text message, or just eavesdrop and people-watch. But it’s also a game to be mastered, with its own set of rules, cheat codes, and competing players. Here’s a primer.

Buy a ticket.
You’ll need one. Most payments on public transportation are made through automated machines, but if there’s a booth, try to talk to a human. They’ll make sure you have the card or token or ticket that you need to ride, and they can point you in the right direction. Keep in mind that student discounts exist–you’ll probably need to fill out an application or go through your school in order to get one, but in some cities, you can save up to 50 percent of the fare this way, so it’s totally worth it.

Depending on how much you’ll be traveling, weekly or monthly cards can save you money, too, and if you’re a regular passenger, it’s never a bad idea to buy extra rides so you never end up stranded. Paying once you’re onboard is often possible, but don’t assume it’s allowed, and in any case, it will probably cost more. Buses often require EXACT change (and sometimes it has to be in coins), so be prepared, and if you find yourself counting quarters, step inside the bus, explain to the driver that you are getting your money together, and let the other passengers board. And don’t even think about jumping turnstiles or sneaking on to save a few bucks, because if you get caught (and at some point you will), the penalty will cost you about 10 times what you would have normally paid. It’s just not worth it.

If you use a machine, credit cards are usually the easiest option, and crisp dollar bills are best if you’re paying in cash. Warning: if you use a big bill for a $2.50 ride, expect to get a bunch of one-dollar coins in change, and expect those to sit in your drawer for the rest of time.

Ask questions.
Don’t hesitate to consult drivers, conductors, station agents, or other passengers if you’re lost or confused. Is this train going in the direction you want? How many more stops until you reach your destination? What time does the last bus leave? Can you please move that bag so I can sit down? (OK, that last one is just a matter of manners.) But don’t keep these worries to yourself! There’s almost always someone who is happy to help, you just have to let them know what you need.

Consult a map.
Get acquainted with the routes you’ll be using. Everything is likely to be numbered, color-coded, and covered in symbols, so study up. The relevant maps are likely to be posted on the wall somewhere in the station, as well as inside cars and buses, but you can probably get a pamphlet or pocket-size copy of the city’s transit lines from a station agent or local tourist shop.

There are also tons of websites, apps, and other technological thingamabobs that will get you where you’re going. Every city has an official page from the transit authority that will have directions, times, and info about service changes, but other sites are even more advanced: Google Maps has an awesome “public transit” option for giving directions, and it’s even built in on a lot of smartphones (although it’s unlikely to work underground). HopStop is a great site/app that will tell you exactly where to get on, transfer, and get off, along with estimates of what time the next ride is coming and how long your trip will take.

Bus routes can be more complicated than trains, because there are more paths to take, but the good news is there’s cellphone service, so if you have the option, follow along on a map as you move. Buses will also sometimes skip a stop if no one needs it, so make sure to hit the button or pull the cord when you want to get off. If you’re at all unsure about where you’re going, grab a seat by the driver and ask him or her.

No matter the vehicle, be aware of signage. If you’re blasting your iPod or otherwise zoned out, you may miss signs and announcements about service changes. Also, learning the stops along your route will help you anticipate your next move. Eventually, it will be second nature. Then you can feel independent and pay it forward when someone else is lost and asks you for help.


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  • Blythe August 14th, 2012 7:11 PM

    Question: how do you politely ask for someone to give up their seat for you? I’m disabled, but I look totally healthy, and I don’t carry a cane or anything.

    • KateStella August 14th, 2012 9:26 PM

      I’m also curious about this. I have a limp, but if people weren’t watching me walk, they’d have no idea.

    • maddyr August 15th, 2012 12:35 PM

      And then there’s the awkwardness of people expecting you to give up your seat when someone who visibly needs to sit down approaches. I’ve gotten some “healthy young person” grumbles and I’m not about to announce to the whole train that I have a chronic illness and actually do need to sit.

      But as for asking someone to give up their seat, say something like, “I know I don’t look it, but I’m disabled/need to sit down for medical reasons – if it’s not too much trouble might I have your seat?” And then thank them profusely when they get up. We shouldn’t have to act like a person being a decent human being is some sort of heroism, but hearing “disabled” generally makes people freak out and not want to do the wrong thing, so if you act like they’re doing you a big favor they’ll probably give up their seat.

      • Blythe August 15th, 2012 3:57 PM

        Ooh yes, the guilt card–I use that a lot.

      • KateStella August 15th, 2012 8:56 PM

        Oh my gosh, I absolutely worry about the opposite scenario as well — just because I’m not in a wheelchair doesn’t mean I don’t need to sit. Glad to read that there are people on here who understand this situation! :)

      • maddyr August 15th, 2012 11:17 PM

        Heyyyy Rookie, you should have more disability content. Just sayin. I’m sure I’m not the only one around here who would be interested in writing about my experiences!

  • lylsoy August 14th, 2012 7:17 PM

    I’m on public transport all the time! :) It’s convenient and in so many cases cheaper than driving and also better for the environment :)

  • Bren August 14th, 2012 7:18 PM

    I moved to Mexico City 2 years ago, and I have become enamored with public transportation because of it, I’ve learned how to get a seat without any fuss, do transfers, and take a full 30 minute bus or metro rides without having to hold on to anything if the occasion arises.
    I just love the people watching and even though it drives my grandparents crazy, the fact that I don’t have to wait till someone has the time to drive me somewhere I need to go. It’s also just a good way for me to feel a connection to people, especially in a city where I don’t have friends.

    So yes, very big fan of public transport over here.

  • kendallakwia August 14th, 2012 7:20 PM

    Great article! I live in Seattle and I’m forced to take the bus everywhere. It’s tiring, but nice knowing I won’t have to spend a lot on gas or find parking or give other people rides. Plus, you’ll probably have to walk and walking is always good. Public transportation definitely allows you to experience the would more than you do inside a car.

    • lelelikeukulele August 24th, 2012 4:47 AM

      i’m a public transportation junkie in Seattle, too! You can usually find me on the 3 or 4 bus between Capitol Hill and downtown :)

  • Tyknos93 August 14th, 2012 7:23 PM

    I started riding the train when I was 11. I pretty much had a mental map of the city and I felt so independent and familiar with public transit that I never asked for a car. I want one now like years after my peers. I don’t NEED a car and some of my best stories come from public transit. The early morning rides at like 5 am when the whole city is in a blue sleepy haze were some of the most zen moments ever. High-ass bus fares are not so cool though :(

    • Tyknos93 August 14th, 2012 7:26 PM

      Also I’m probably that weirdo eating a full meal on the train…

  • firstcomestherain August 14th, 2012 7:45 PM

    ‘m on public transit a lot. It’s great for the enviorment and really convenient.

  • NotReallyChristian August 14th, 2012 7:53 PM

    Guys, definitely as the questions! I had a go-anywhere bus pass for my city for a few years which meant I never had to buy a ticket, and as a result jumped on the wrong bus ALL THE DAMN TIME and never asked where it was going because I wanted to be cool and pretend I knew all the bus routes by heart. This was doubly a bad idea for me because I am terrible at routes and directions, which meant that I never realised I was on the wrong bus till I’d been sat there for a LONG time without going anywhere near my destination.

  • ravenflamingo August 14th, 2012 9:13 PM

    This is very helpful! Public transportation is a little stressful, sometimes gross, but convenient.

  • amythecat August 14th, 2012 10:12 PM

    Everytime I read about some awesome writer moving to New York my heart breaks a little more. Why is it so hard for me and so easy for everyone else?

  • yourface August 14th, 2012 10:13 PM

    I live in NYC and i have a on going love hate relationship with the MTA. Usually its a breeze and i take it everywhere! but some days… like today for instance. IT WAS HORRIBLE, hot, gross, and mean people! Also it doesn’t help that i was stalled in the tunnel for almost an hour!

  • BritishFish August 14th, 2012 10:32 PM

    Whenever I live out my dream of the Florida to New York move I will definitely keep this in mind. This is the part I’m most stressed about.

  • llamalina August 15th, 2012 12:51 AM

    I took a class at the college a town away this summer, and my friend and I took the bus to get there and back every day. The people-watching was the greatest part. Someone would always be having the funniest conversation too. Just the feeling of freedom was worth getting up early and the thirty-minute bus rides.

  • LeatherStuddedFae August 15th, 2012 12:52 AM

    Very helpful. I’m traveling the city soon so I’ll have to remember this for future reference. :)

  • azultardis August 15th, 2012 1:21 AM

    I love public transportation,I do have a car a herbie haha but there are times when I’m so tired that I don’t wanna ride,and I’ll prefer to take a bus instead of driving,or in the mornings I’d rather sleep on the bus to uni instead of driving,,

  • streaked lights August 15th, 2012 3:51 AM

    I moved into the city this summer, and I’m really excited to start using the bus. Before, the only way I could get around town was if my mom or dad drove me there. Not a lot of freedom. >.>
    Once I get my all-year pass (with student discount, woohoo!) I can stop by all the thrift stores I want on my way home from class. Yay!

  • Helenus August 15th, 2012 4:52 AM

    She’s got a ticket to ri-ide, she’s got a ticket to ri-iiii-iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide!

    I’ve used public transport my whole life. It’s fine for the most part, except the damn buses are usually late. Or early. Never on time, though.

  • elise August 15th, 2012 12:51 PM

    I can’t even tell you how much I love public transportation! My friends always tease me about it, but it’s truly wonderful. It’s cheap, air-conditioned, and often entertaining.

    A good tip about the MetroCard is that if you take a bus, and take the subway or a different bus within around an hour, it will count as a free transfer! There’s something so satisfying about seeing the words “1 Xfer OK” pop up, it’s like, Yussss free ride.

    • resonance August 25th, 2012 1:47 AM

      It’s actually a two-hour time frame for the free transfer. Even better, right? :)

  • Lucille August 15th, 2012 1:34 PM

    This is awesome, thank you!
    I’ve started traveling with bus by myself a year and a half ago, not for so long now, but I just looove talking with people and being on my own and I loooove traveling too!

  • Daria Black August 15th, 2012 2:33 PM

    I live in Moscow and use public transportation all by myself every day since I’m seven years old. I take a metro every morning to get to school(it’s exhausting but my school is awesome so I don’t care). Just like everyone else I know, although there’s a car or two in every family.
    The article is so strange to read for me.

  • HollinsCollins August 15th, 2012 3:59 PM

    JOE! You’re brilliant!
    This is just what I needed (even though I’m only 13, I’ve been wondering about this).
    And I adore Florence + the Machine and Seinfeld :D The Subway is hilarious XD
    Thankyouthankyouthankyou <333

  • connie. August 16th, 2012 2:07 AM

    This came just in time! I’d been hoping to start using public transportation in my town this summer (although I haven’t quite gotten to start yet, haha) , so thank you for this article!

  • meels August 17th, 2012 1:15 PM

    Haha I even read this on public transport, living in London my whole life I’ve kind of got it down but cool article

  • rookips August 19th, 2012 12:52 PM

    a good tip for NYC visitors/dwellers is to get an unlimited MetroCard if you’re going to be out and about every day. the 7 day and monthly unlimited passes always end up saving you a ton of money. C:

    • resonance August 25th, 2012 1:49 AM

      Yes! I love having a monthly MetroCard because it’s like being totally free to go anywhere without having to worry about running out of money like I would with a pay-per-ride.