The Best Way To See A New City? Try Public Transit


Never be afraid to try public transportation when you visit a new city.

Never be afraid to try public transportation when you visit a new city.

By Micheline Maynard

Curbing Cars hasn’t spent much time bringing you stories about travel. But this weekend, our research director Rick Meier and I decided it’s a subject we should be writing about, for this reason.

When you visit a new city, the best way to see it is often the same way its residents get around: by public transit. In fact, that’s the advice I gave Christopher Elliott, the veteran traveler advocate, for his new series called The World’s Smartest Traveler.

It was flattering to be invited to take part — and I also welcome the idea of helping people feel comfortable when they’re away from home. I don’t think visitors should confine themselves just to rental cars and taxi cabs. Travelers ought to be able to get out and about, in an affordable and environmentally friendly fashion.

But, what’s the best way to feel secure getting on an unfamiliar transit system? Ah, I thought you might ask that. So, here are four tips so that you can get the most out of public transit when you’re on the road.

Do Your Homework. Many people never see a map of the city they’re visiting until they ask for one at the front desk of their hotel. I suggest that you plot some trial runs to places you’ll visit, even before you get on the plane.

Google Maps has an excellent feature that allows you to select driving, walking or public transit from point A to point B. Likewise, a number of city transit systems have a similar “plan a trip” feature. You input the address of your location, and then add your destination.

Many of these apps store your starting point, which allows you to get back from another spot around town. Here’s a map for the Chicago Transit Authority to give you an idea, and here’s one for the MBTA in Boston.

Ask Your Friends And Colleagues. If you’re going for business, or even for pleasure, you’re bound to know somebody in town who uses the bus, subway, or streetcar. And even if you don’t think to ask before you leave, you can certainly pick their brains when you get there, or when you have a lull in a meeting.

When I lived in Tokyo, I pelted my friends and contacts for tips on using the subway and JR surface rail. One key bit of advice: always ask which exit to use. Many Tokyo subway stops have multiple exits, as many as nine or 10, and if  you head in the wrong direction, you might end up blocks away.

This is especially important in Tokyo, because there are very few street signs. A mishap happened to me leaving the Azuba Juban station, where I emerged in a completely unfamiliar part of town. It turned out I was across the street from where I needed to be, and if I’d asked for the right exit, I wouldn’t have been confused.

Ask The Driver — Or Your Fellow Passengers. Of course, in rush hour, bus drivers don’t have time for chit-chat. But at less busy times, they’re more than happy to let you know the correct stop to use. Drivers in Montreal were especially nice to me (perhaps taking pity on me because of my American-accented French).

Or, if you have to move in because of crowding, ask people around you. I almost missed a stop on the bullet train until I asked the lady next to me whether we were coming into Hiroshima. She nodded vigorously, and I got off the train in time.

Expect To Get Lost, And Don’t Panic When You Do. I have been riding public transportation since I was about six years old. Whenever I’m in New York, my mental subway map clicks into place, and the aroma of the Paris Metro instantly brings back memories of my first visit when I was 16. But, I also get lost at least once on any trip.

It happened this past October, when I was in Toronto and Montreal. In each instance, I read the app wrong and went in the exact opposite direction of where I wanted to go. Each time, I just got off the bus, crossed the street, and went the other way. It’s a little embarrassing, and yet, it’s sort of fun to be able to recover.

Just don’t panic. Even residents get lost. And you might discover a coffee shop, or museum, or a neighborhood that you weren’t intending to see. When I was in Montreal, I got off a bus too early and wasn’t able to make it to a restaurant in time before the lunch hour ended. But my phone charger had died, and I spied a telecom shop that sold the type I needed.

No matter where you go, don’t be scared, and don’t be shy. Worst come to worst, you can always jump in a taxi. (That’s my secret weapon, in case I’ve run out of public transit enthusiasm.)

Do you have any suggestions for visitors using public transit in your town?

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