Ticket to Ride

A public-transportation primer.

Survey the seats.
Maybe you’re some kind of superhero and don’t mind standing for extended periods of time. Or maybe you’re lazy like me and want to slump over in a chair any time one’s available. Picking a seat on public transit can be tricky–there are a lot of people vying for only a few spots. No one likes the stealth and/or aggressive seat-grabber, so be courteous but assertive.

On a bus, the front provides a better view of what streets are coming up, as well as access to the driver, while the seat with the wheel-hump is often available if you can deal with minimal leg room (taking the seat NEXT to the wheel-hump is your best bet if you want to discourage someone else from sitting next to you, but there are no guarantees). On a train, the front and back cars are usually more empty, but keep an eye out for space while you’re waiting for it to pull into the station. Avoid standing in a spot with a big crowd. Pick the compartment with a conductor if you have are nervous or have any questions or concerns.

Should you get stuck standing but want to sit, anticipate the movement of other passengers. If someone is gathering their things or otherwise stirring, move in that direction and get ready to plunk down. And no matter where you end up, don’t sprawl out, put your feet up, or take up extra room with a bag. You know you’d resent it if another passenger did that.

Stay alert.
Seat-dancing to Beyoncé or relaxing with a magazine is nice, but it’s not worth missing your stop or being unable to notice what’s going on around you. Taking a nap can be dangerous (yet so tempting!). If you feel yourself fading, try setting an alarm on your phone so it rings every few minutes.

While public transit makes the (totally necessary) existence of a designated driver irrelevant, a late-night ride carries its own risks. Always hold your bag tight, and don’t flaunt cellphones, iPads, or expensive gadgetry. Granted, these devices are ESSENTIAL in these times of transit, but with so many people coming and going, they’re also easy to snatch, especially if you’re sitting by a door that provides a fast getaway.

None of which is to say you can’t have fun while passing the time! Try making playlists that fit perfectly within the time of your journey—I recommend starting with something inspiring, like Florence and the Machine or “Edge of Seventeen,” and ending on a triumphant note, with something by Bruce Springsteen or Prince. Books on tape or podcasts like Radiolab also make commutes go by faster.

Embrace the weirdos (to a point).
In the perfect Seinfeld episode “The Subway,” Jerry, Elaine, and George take separate trains for various wacky reasons, and while they don’t exactly reach their destinations easily, they do encounter a lively bunch of subway-types, including a nudist, an undercover cop posing as a blind violinist, and a con woman (oh George). It’s not exactly an exaggeration; in fact, it’s part of the fun. The guy who puts his pet rat in his mouth is legendary in New York, as are certain break-dancers, opera singers, and Improv Everywhere’s no-pants subway ride. I’ve seen people eat full meals, clip their fingernails, and make out like they were home alone on their couch.

But there are also the bad kinds of weirdos. Don’t put up with them! There’s no telling who’s going to cross the line, so keep an eye on other passengers and trust your instincts. If a fellow rider appears aggressive or drunk or makes you uncomfortable in any way, it’s your right to move seats, switch cars, alert a conductor, or get off entirely.

A lot of people will be crammed into small spaces, and there is going to be some accidental bumping, but if you feel like your personal space is being violated or someone is taking advantage of the forced closeness, do your best to get away. Go ahead and yell if anyone touches you inappropriately. Shout loud, humiliate them, swing your bag, and go find help.

Take a joyride.
Traveling doesn’t have to be practical. Like hopping in the car just to get some space, boarding a train or bus without a destination is a great way to relax and see places that you might’ve missed in your structured daily life. In the corny-but-sorta-lovable movie 40 Days and 40 Nights, Josh Hartnett’s character takes his date on an all-day bus ride. Look, I’m just saying.

Be courteous.
People use public transportation to get places, possibly in a hurry. Keep in mind some basic manners, like standing to one side on an escalator so that other people can walk if they choose to. Don’t pause on the steps or entrance to the station to look at a map or chat or text–move out of the way so people who know where they are going can pass. And not that you would EVER, but don’t hog the pole, block the doors, blast your music (even on headphones), have a loud phone chat, or eat smelly food. Give up your seat for elderly people, people using crutches or canes, pregnant people, and anybody else who might need it more than you. Tip the girl with the ukulele, if you can. (Buskers and other entertainers will be plentiful, and sometimes unwelcome and discouraged, but if one happens to move you, let them know.) Leave your personal bubble every now and then to smile at a fellow passenger, maybe someone you see every day on your route, just to increase the positive vibes. Take your trash with you. And thank your driver for getting you there, wherever that is. ♦


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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.