Skip to main content
Camel sitting in sand against night sky.
Main content

Exploring the world through public transit

A subway platform where many people wait for trains
Getty Images

If you live in certain areas of the U.S., you probably use public transit every day, or at least every week. Certain pockets of the U.S. have great public transportation options for residents and visitors through subways, buses, and streetcars. But much of the rest of the country doesn’t have extensive public transit, and it can be hard to move between cities or states if you don’t have a car. Buses and trains, such as Greyhound and Amtrak, are options, but can be expensive and take much longer than driving. All this begs the question: what is public transportation like in other parts of the world? How do people move across their cities, to other regions of their country, and even to other countries?

Europe and Asia stand out for their extensive transit options, both within individual countries and across the continents. According to CityLab, while the U.S. and Canada combined see an average of 3.7 million passengers a year on metro networks, Europe sees over 10.7 million passengers annually; in Asia, that number is 26.7 million. Those comparisons are also reflected in the numbers of stations and amount of track across each region: in the U.S., passengers had access to 1,270 metro stations; in Europe, that number rises to 2,950, and 5,200 in Asia.

If you’re looking for a place to travel to where the cost of getting around is cheap, Asia is your best bet: four of the top five cheapest countries for public transit are in South and Southeast Asia, with commutes ranging from $5 to $9 a month. For comparison, some of the most expensive commutes are in Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Different places also have different ideas about etiquette and accepted behavior. Where in some countries the expectation is that no one talks while riding (Paris, Japan), in others it’s not uncommon for conversations to be happening while buskers or street performers put on a show between stops (New York, Italy). Likewise, in many places, it’s perfectly normal to crowd onto cars until riders are practically (or literally!) on top of each other; in other countries, not so much. This largely (though not always) reflects that culture’s ideas about personal space. Thanking your bus driver, eating on the subway, women-only cars: every country and city has its own approach to etiquette and how riders are expected to act. 

Are you looking for a unique public transit experience to tell your friends about? Business Insider highlighted a few of them worth seeking out:

  • In the Philippines, “jeepneys” are fashioned from Willy Jeeps, but with added seats and a roof in order to more closely resemble a bus. What makes them stand out the most, however, are the uniquely colorful paint jobs that adorn each one.
  • In Wuppertal, Germany, riders can experience a monorail that utilizes a suspension railway that gives it an illusion of gliding through the air rather than coasting on tracks.
  • The Maglev in Shanghai is famous for its magnetic levitation technology, which allows it to levitate or hover over the tracks and move at incredible speeds—up to 267 mph!

No matter where you travel, if there is an option for public transportation, use it! Not only are you more likely to save money, but it's the best way to explore a new place. Take an afternoon to ride the metro to a section of the city you've never been to, or a weekend to visit an entirely different country via train. Hop on the bus and watch the neighborhoods pass by, and pick out a few shops or restaurants to come back to. Notice how people conduct themselves while on public transit: do they talk with one another, or quietly keep to themselves? If you're in a place where it's considered acceptable to have conversations on the train or bus, consider striking up a conversation with someone to find out what they like to do around town. Public transportation is a place where people of all backgrounds come together in order to get to their various destinations, and you can learn a lot about the nuances of a city's or region's culture by taking full advantage of it. 

Where have you traveled, and has the public transit system there stood out to you? Did you use rail, tram, or bus? Was it easy to figure out? Tell us about your experiences on Twitter or Facebook, or blog about it right here on CultureReady.

Fish kites blowing in wind against blue sky.