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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Navigate Public Transportation like a Boss

Alisha McDarris

Public Transportation. For those of us who grew up in small towns in middle America where buses were scarce, trains nonexistent and if you didn't have a car you didn't have a life, it remains a mystery. Seriously, though, I still haven't been able to wrap my head around it. I consider myself a relatively intelligent individual, but hand me a bus schedule and drop me in the middle of a strange city and I will lose my mind. No joke. It's happened before. On multiple occasions. You probably think I'm joking.

But as I write this I've only just completed my most recent bumbling trip through the city. Melbourne, Australia, to be precise. It was a trip that involved dead phone batteries, no wifi, a train, trams, and a long ride in the wrong direction. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. It's pretty ridiculous. See, for the life of us we can't seem to figure out how to properly navigate public transportation. All the trains in all the stations and so many lines on one platform and buses quite often on a side of the road we're not used to and numbers and timetables and numbers! Hard as we try we rarely get it right.

Take our day trip to Washington D.C., for example. Since we went into the city from the last train station on the line, we erroneously assumed it would be just as easy to get out of the city as it was to get in. The silver line is the silver line, right? Wrong. We got on and off not one, not two, but three trains that night in an attempt to get back to where we had started that morning. We did eventually make it back...an hour and a half after we would have had we managed to get on the right train the first time.

In Melbourne we rode a tram 30 minutes in the wrong direction, only realizing our error when we arrived at the last stop and we weren't where we were supposed to be. In London we ended up walking a mile in the rain because we didn't feel confident trying to navigate the bus system. In Edinburgh we missed trains because we couldn't find the platform. The only subway on which we didn't get completely mixed up was London's Underground. We've hopped on and immediately off buses because we realized we were on the wrong one. We've gotten up to check maps on the walls a hundred times a journey to make sure we know where we're headed. We nervously wring maps in our sweaty palms as we anticipate the worst.

In a nutshell, we're bad at this. And I'm sure all you big city dwellers out there will have a good laugh at us, but that's OK. I mean, sometimes you just have to be able to laugh at yourself. We do on a regular basis. But we don't want them laughing at you, so in the spirit of helpfulness, here are a few tips for navigating public transportation in any city.


  • Get a map. As in a map of the city and a map of the subway/train/tram/bus routes you anticipate using. Digital maps on your phone are all well and good until your battery dies or you run out of data and can't find a cafe with free wifi. Having some good ol' paper maps will come in handy when you need to identify where the nearest station or stop is and what line you need to get to the contemporary art gallery on the other side of town.
  • Download an app. Most cities have an app that will show you maps, give real time data, and help you plan your journey. Download one for wherever you happen to be before your first trip and get to know it intimately.
  • Get a pass. Most big cities use card passes instead of paper tickets these days (like Sydney's Opal card). Cities that do still have paper tickets sometimes charge more for them, so it's often worth getting a card just to save a few bucks. Find out before you go because most bus drivers don't appreciate passengers who want to pay in cash as they get on. Check into week passes if you'll be on and off a lot in a short amount of time as they might save you a few bucks.
  • Plan ahead. If you can help it don't wait until you're in the middle of the city to look up where your bus stop is. It will likely cause frustration and yelling at your travel buddy. Before you head out, know where you're headed and what your transport options are. Most cities have a website to help you plan your journey, so use it!
  • Take notes. That said, grab some paper and take notes. I always keep a small notebook and pen in my pack for when we hit the city. In it I keep the names and addresses of the places we're headed (places I've circled on my paper maps) and very specific instructions on what train/bus/tram to take and when (Central Station, platform 1, Eltham line to Rosanna, 4:18) 
  • Calculate time for screw ups. It happens. Especially in a new city. So if you have a time sensitive appointment like a dinner reservation or a sunset viewing, leave plenty early and if you arrive early and without incident, well, you're a better man than I and you just earned yourself a little browsing around time at your destination.
  • Relax. If you miss your train or get on the wrong tram, don't freak out. Just get off at the next stop, take a breath, and if all else fails, ask a local. And instead of worrying, think of it as an unexpected adventure to see and explore an area you might not have seem otherwise. Plus, it often makes a pretty good story.
Have any other tips for using public transportation? Add them below!

Alisha McDarris / Author & Editor

Alisha has been a writer and photographer forever. OK, maybe not forever, but at least for more of her 20-something years than she hasn’t been those things... [Read More]

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