I often hear people, particularly those who have the privilege of owning their own vehicle, complain about crowded buses, dirty subway cars, and slow-moving-yet-overpriced trains. While I’ve had plenty of negative experiences with public transportation over the ten-plus years I have used it regularly, there are four reasons why it continues to be the best option for me as a traveler:
1. You get to meet a lot of weird and interesting people you otherwise would not meet.
My understanding of humanity would be entirely different had I been chauffeured in a limo my whole life and never stood, sat, or squished in next to a number of the millions of Americans who rely on public transportation. Riding on public buses, trains, and planes exposed me to such random comments as “you are a very handsome man” (coming from another, much older man) and “can you put your arm around me so I can rest my head on your chest?” (coming from a married woman).
Then there are the stories that never end, which help me either build Buddhist-like patience or practice teacher-like redirection that is appropriate for ill-mannered and possibly dangerous strangers. I have heard stories about misadventures, conspiracies, drug use, failed relationships, tragic accidents, robberies, abusive employers, and, yes, bad public transportation experiences — to name a few. Some stories are best told to a stranger on a crowded bus caught in traffic in the scorching heat when there is nothing else to do but talk.
2. It reminds you what less fortunate people have to deal with.
Taking public transit can be a very humbling experience. During a recent trip, I met a war veteran who was disabled due to a serious car accident that almost killed him and permanently crippled him. He was unaware that the bus he was on would not take him as far as his destination, so I helped him get onto another bus, which he only caught because I wheeled him at top speed to the bus depot. This was a man who was physically incapable of driving and could likely not afford an Uber every time he needed to pick up groceries or meet his caseworker. There are many people like him forced to rely on public transportation each day, and it puts my own life in perspective whenever I meet them.
3. It’s cheaper.
Clearly public transportation is not cheaper in all cases (just look at Amtrak prices) or when compared to walking or riding a bicycle, but cars are not only dangerous and bad for the environment when everyone and their mother drives two of them. They are also expensive to purchase, maintain, and repair. Plus in a lot of urban centers you have to pay for parking, which I hate more than just about anything in the world. Public transportation allows you to travel long distances on a smaller budget, and it’s remarkably affordable and efficient in places such as New York City, Hong Kong, Japan, Spain, and Turkey.
4. It’s better for the environment.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, motor vehicles cause half of all air pollution in the United States and 75 percent of all carbon monoxide emissions. This is not to mention the well known contribution of motor vehicles to climate change, which threatens the entire global population. I know I’m not the only one who laments the seemingly endless number of single-passenger cars on the road during each traffic-riddled commute and wonder why more people (myself included) aren’t riding on a bus or a train.