You took the San Martin city train? Foreigners usually just take taxis here.
– A local porteño, eyes wide, expresses shock at our opting to take one of Buenos Aires’ grittier public transport lines during our first week in town.
Taxi cabs are easy: they get you from point A to B directly and with relative efficiency. In a taxi you don’t have to deal with people leaning on you and accidentally hitting your head with a shopping bag; there are no unnecessary pauses, no large-crowd odor issues, and no long waits at stops.
But inter-city public transport does have its advantages. More often than not, we choose it over taxis whenever we have the chance.
We confess: we have a love affair with public transport. And here’s why.
See the People
If your aim is to truly grok a place and its people, there’s no better opening move than hopping a local bus. Public transport – the bus in particular – can very quickly expose you to a city’s cultural and socioeconomic spectrum: from grandmothers and giddy teenagers to construction workers and serious men in business suits.
This even applies in the United States. Ben, a lawyer friend who takes MetroBus in Alexandria, Virginia instead of driving to work in Washington, D.C. explains: “I like the encounters that public transportation effects — you see people and neighborhoods that you might otherwise not see.”
It’s easy to look at the public bus as home to scary characters. But take one and you just might find that people on public transport will go out of their way to help you if you are lost. For example, in Asuncion, Paraguay, as the bus driver whipped around corner after corner, we appeared lost, obviously looking around for our stop. One person offered help, but he was getting off the bus just before we were, so he alerted the couple behind us as to where we were going. They took the responsibility baton and made sure to tap us when we needed to get off.
If we had a nickel for every time that happened on our journey, we just might be rich.
See the City
It’s impossible to explore every corner of a city on a short visit, but take enough buses, trams and trains and you’ll naturally cover a lot of ground. We don’t take buses just for the sake of sightseeing, but we do keep our eyes open when we’re on them. We’ve discovered countless new neighborhoods, sights and restaurants that we otherwise wouldn’t have.
For example, the other day we took the Buenos Aires urban San Martin train (not the Subte) to Villa del Parque – a suburban residential neighborhood in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. On the way, the train passed through a strip of shantytowns like the ones we had become accustomed to seeing in other cities throughout Latin America. The journey served as a reminder that Buenos Aires is not as universally hip and upscale as the Palermo and Recoleta neighborhoods might lead the average visitor to believe.
Building Confidence, Testing Courage
Some public transport systems feature easy-to-read maps with color-coded routes and well-marked stops. Then there are others whose clouds of buses and minibuses ply ill-marked routes.
The micro-buses in Lima, Peru fall into the latter category. The speed at which they glide past stops and disgorge is only outdone by the rapid-fire delivery of upcoming destinations by ticket-takers. It’s enough to intimidate even the most travel stout among us. (Full disclosure: we took a taxi our first time out.)
When we took the plunge, the ticket guy made certain we got on the right bus and that we got off at the right spot. In a matter of a few days, we could get ourselves across Lima without problem –- no small feat.
Save Your Sanity
Many large cities are racked with traffic, smog and mayhem. Bangkok is just one example.
Travel in Bangkok by the polluted air filth of a tuk-tuk and you may never want to leave your hotel room ever again. At rush hour, taxis – a more lung-friendly option – might leave you stuck at one of Bangkok’s major traffic circles quite literally for hours.
But navigate Bangkok by river boat, canal boat or the Sky Train and you’ll be left with a different impression of the city altogether as you move around and above the traffic in surprisingly fresh air.
On public transport, there’s safety in numbers.
Some may disagree with this premise, but throughout the world, reports of “tourist gets held up in a taxi with a knife and driven around town to ATM machines while taxi driver empties tourist’s bank account ” vastly outnumber reports of “tourist faces armed robbery on a city bus.” While it is true that pickpocket gangs very effectively work public transport systems, the steps you can take to protect your belongings against them are easier than those you might take to fend off a taxi driver’s co-conspirator angling at you with a knife or gun.
Reduce your Carbon Footprint
Interested in reducing your carbon footprint while you travel? Consider public transport as one of your efforts.
For the devil’s advocates out there who say, “the taxi exhaust is cleaner than the wheezing, diesel-belching relic buses trundling the developing world,” we agree if you compare the two side by side. But when you consider that there are 50 people on the bus and 3 people in the taxi, the bus likely becomes the less polluting transport option, net-to-net. Not to mention that there are trains and electric trams; they do use energy, but are otherwise relatively clean when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Save Some Cash
The value of public transport is hard to beat. For example, take the cost of a bus across town in Buenos Aires to get to a restaurant (1.20 pesos/$0.30) and compare that to the cost of a taxi to go the same distance (30 pesos/$8).
Your savings: another 400 gram steak.
So next time you arrive in a new city, don’t let the public transport system frighten you. Look at it not only as an adventure but as an essential element of your exploration of the city and its people.
Do your research, ask the locals for help, and enjoy the ride.