Often Americans traveling internationally are amazed at the public transportation they encounter. From metro rail systems to street cars to modern bus fleets and even ferries it’s hard to believe how many cities have really impressive public transportation. With a few exceptions, Americans are just not accustomed to efficient, clean and economical public transportation. While there are explanations for what happened to American metropolitan transits systems, sadly it seems unlikely that the trend can be turned around in America any time soon.
As you travel internationally as an American, at the very least, you need to learn to embrace these great public transportation systems where ever they are available. The first advantage in using public transportation is you can save a lot of money over using taxis and shuttles. You can also often save time too and it can provide wonderful opportunities to meet local people.
If you are intimidated by the idea of using foreign metro systems, don’t be. Today virtually all of them use automated ticket vending systems with instructions available in a large number of languages. Many also have maps printed in a number of languages with station and lines color coded to match the maps displayed onboard trains and buses. A little research (this website is a good place to start) can supply good information on routes, getting to attractions, which tickets to buy and the availability of special tourist day passes. Below are some metropolitan systems of particular note and you can download good pdf maps by clicking on the map illustrations.
Singapore MTA – One of the worlds truly great subway systems is the Singapore MRT and it is a solid innovator. Many of their systems are recognized and implemented worldwide. If you are lucky enough to get to Singapore for a visit you must use the MRT to get around the city. From the time you arrive at the airport you can take advantage of this remarkable transportation system.
Here’s an additional map of Singapore that includes major bus routes of interest to visitors.
Hong Kong – If you’re visiting Hong Kong for a few days or visiting on a cruise don’t hesitate to take advantage of this cities fantastic metro system. It’s clean, easy to understand and most signage includes English. The people are also friendly and eager to offer assistance.
Sydney Australia – If you are planning a trip Down Under with some time in Sydney, you need to build your plans around their great public transportation. Like most large cities, buses are plentiful but Sydney also boasts a metro rail system and an express system called “Light Rail” that connects most major parts of the metropolitan area. There’s a regional conventional railroad network along with a fantastic ferry system criss-crossing Sydneys beautiful harbor. The metro and light rail boasts frequent service and cars that are modern, clean and comfortable.
Rome – There are a number of ways to get around Rome from regional and commuter trains that can get you to the airport and Rome’s seaport, to the cities Metro that cuts two paths across the central city. The Metro can get you quickly from St. Peters to the Piazza Spanga, The Spanish Steps, The Forum and the Colosseum with an inexpensive tourist pass.
Amsterdam – The central city is laid out with half-circles of canals radiating out from the Central Train Station. A light rail Tram system also begins at the Central Train Station and looks like spokes passing through the arcs of the canals. Tickets for trams and buses are by OV-chipcards loaded with money for timeframes. product. 1 hour for €3,20, 24 hours for €8.00 to 168 hours for €36,50. You can buy these from a machine at places like metro stations or a number of city shops.
Budapest – Budapest has a very efficient and inexpensive metropolitan transit system. The best option if you are going to be spending a few days in this city, is to get a Metro “day pass” which averages about $6.00 per person per day and is available in one, two and three day passes. A day pass operates on a 24-hour cycle so if you buy one at 10:00 am it can be used until 10:00 am the next day. While Budapest is a large city with streets that seem in a tangle the tram and subway routes are pretty easy to understand and once you orient the routes to the major sights Budapest is pretty easy to navigate. Because of the tangle of secondary streets going in all directions walking is a bigger problem and a map app on a cell phone is a must have.
Paris – While Paris boasts one of the worlds oldest and largest subway systems (Metro) that includes 14 city lines, 2 Tramways and 6 RER express lines it strikes most visitors as just overwhelming especially with the language barrier. If you focus on the Metro lines, where you want to go and eliminate the clutter of other lines it becomes more manageable. We provide a simplified map that helps better navigate the Paris subway systems.
What really happened to American public transportation?
In the 1930’s a General Motors subsidiary called National City Lines bought a number of municipal trolley car systems from cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore and Atlanta and before too many years, those street car operations were closed down. Initially most of those streetcars were replaced by metropolitan bus services because buses were much less expensive and more adaptable to changing route requirements. By the 1950’s most of those regional bus systems were thriving but there were ominous trends developing.
There are stories that suggest that GM and other car companies embarked on a plan to destroy mass transit in America in order to sell more automobiles, but that conspiracy is a bit too simplistic.
Suburban Expansion and Automobile ownership In post World War II America, returning G.I.s were finding unlimited opportunities and plenty of good paying jobs. A phenomenon known as suburban subdivisions were spreading across the American landscape and people were moving out of large cities into these new suburbs. In this explosive transition period metropolitan transit authorities were having difficulty figuring out how to expand service into the new suburbs while keeping up their city service. By 1960 the number of families that owned an automobile increased seven fold in just over a decade. Unlike the rest of the world America’s prosperity had everyone falling in love with automobiles.
Interstate Highway System
To exacerbate things even more the U.S. government embarked on a massive program to build a nationwide high-speed interstate highway system* and Americans took to those highways with a passion.
Europe didn’t see anything like what was happening in America. Instead of focusing resources and assets into expanding out of the cities, Europe was working at rebuilding and restoring the cities that were ravaged by the war. There were very little resources available outside of that goal. Probably because of this European effort to rebuild the cities, restoring and updating public transportation in metro areas was a key component. It is these differences that set Europe and America on completely different courses regarding public transportation evolution.
*While directing the war in Europe, General Eisenhower realized that moving armies across the countryside was a major problem caused by of a lack of good roads. Moving troops to set up defenses or attack a position was often a strategic nightmare. After returning to the United States and becoming President, Eisenhower pushed for the creation of an interstate highway system with the real goal of efficiently deploying military units in defending America. So while the average American was thrilled over travel on the new super highways, most people never realized the real reason behind the proposed system.