Public transportation

This article is about local travel. For information on long-distance trains and buses, see Rail travel and Bus travel. For rail transportation systems which are an attraction in their own right, See urban rail adventures.

Public transportation is organized passenger transportation. In big cities it is often provided by buses, different rail systems (such as metro, commuter rail and trams), and it may be provided also by funiculars, monorail, ferries and other more unusual modes of transport.

London Underground Overground DLR Crossrail map

Depending on the country, commuter rail can be virtually identical to longer-distance trains while mostly fulfilling an urban rail role. Ticketing can be integrated with railways (e.g. in Germany), with other local and regional transport, or separate (e.g. in the US).

While comfort and reliability vary a lot, in Europe and East Asia, it is usually the most practical way to get around in large cities.



Most urban rail systems are part of a government-subsidized public transport network and many carry large numbers of passengers, especially in larger cities; the Tokyo system averages over 8 million a day and Shanghai almost 7 million. These systems therefore almost always cost less than taxicabs and are often both faster than driving and cheaper than paying for parking. However, there are fairly often problems with overcrowding, especially at rush hours. So as the quotable late New York Yankees baseball player Yogi Berra used to say: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

With oil prices generally on the rise, and political concern for environmental protection and CO2 emissions becoming more and more important, almost all countries and cities that have rapid transit systems are in the process of upgrading, modernizing and expanding their networks sometimes very rapidly. Unfortunately, this can also mean construction sites that slow down traffic, and information about a public transit system can be outdated despite being only a few years or even months old.

The urban rail system is usually extended by buses, in some cases within the same ticket system. On the other hand most urban rail systems of more than token size serve the city's mainline train station(s) (often having a hub at one or several of them) and integrated tickets are becoming increasingly common. Sometimes a train ticket already includes one ride on the urban rail system of your departure and/or origin city to enable "door to door" travel. This is true for instance for all train tickets in Germany that have "+City" printed on them.

Some see the iconic maps of the New York Subway or London Underground for the first time and get intimidated. They see a mishmash of colors and can't make head or tail of it. But once it's explained to them, they get their head around it. Not only is it not that complicated, it's actually brilliant. Soon they'll be doing it like an expert, knowing where to switch lines in order to get from A to B.

Types of public transportation


Public transportation is provided by many types of vehicles:

  • Rail vehicles:
    • Rapid transit or metro is a local passenger rail network with grade separation from other traffic. The terms subway and underground indicate that many rapid transit lines go below ground. However, by no means all transit lines are underground (regardless of name); elevated and surface rail is widely used as well. Fully grade separated rail systems are the only ones to commonly be operated automatically.
      Double-decker tram in Hong Kong
    • Light rail typically moves at ground level, often with small vehicles of shorter range that are known as trams or streetcars: tracks can either be in the street, or on a separate trackbed. While the first trams in the early 19th century were horse-drawn or steam-powered, many cities worldwide either replaced them with electric streetcars or built new systems from scratch towards the end of the 19th century, but with the rise of the automobile many fell from favor and were either removed or left to disintegrate. Now, however, with the increased popularity of public transport in much of the world, many cities are re-instating and re-invigorating their tram systems for the 21st century. Some notable examples of cities with light rail networks are Barcelona, Cologne, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Sarajevo, Amsterdam, Denver, Vienna, Manchester, Melbourne, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Sydney, Toronto, New Orleans and Lisbon. In Belgium one single line connects the entire coast end to end. Streetcars experienced a renaissance starting in France in the 1970s and many cities in Europe now have comprehensive systems that are often not only the cheapest and most environmentally friendly but also the fastest way around town. Central and Eastern Europe also tend to have dense networks as they were slower to dismantle their streetcar systems and are almost universally reinvigorating and modernizing their systems, sometimes even building new lines that run on dedicated tracks.
    • Commuter trains are local passenger trains, either on the national rail network, or on dedicated regional networks. While commuter trains are usually part of the local transit ticket system, furnishing is minimal; toilets and refreshments are usually absent. The German term S-Bahn has spread to other German-speaking countries as well and inspired terms such as Esko (Prague) or S-Tog (Copenhagen). In North America commuter train systems are often known by the acronym of the governing authority, e.g. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in the San Francisco Bay Area and GO trains in the Toronto region.
      Wuppertal Suspension Railway
    • Unusual forms of rail are sometimes used, for single lines if not whole systems. For example,
      • Seattle built an elevated monorail line for the 1962 World's Fair that is still in service;
      • Chongqing has several monorail lines; Shanghai has a magnetic levitation line to Pudong Airport with speeds over 400 km/h (250 mph);
      • the German city of Wuppertal has had a suspension railway since 1901; and
      • Morgantown, West Virginia, USA, has a Personal Rapid Transit system.
    • Some very hilly cities and a number of cities in developing countries also use funicular railways to climb steep inclines.
  • Road vehicles:
    • Especially in suburbs and smaller cities, the public transit network is made up of buses. Some have double-decker buses, which can give a great view.
    • There are variants of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) where buses have dedicated infrastructure. Much of Ottawa's system uses buses on dedicated roads called the Transitway while cities such as Xiamen have Bus Rapid Transit using elevated bus-only roads. Other notable examples of BRT are found in Curitiba and Bogotá, which first brought BRT to the mainstream. BRT is distinguished from normal bus service by using dedicated lanes, traffic signal preemption, offboard fare collection, and stations with level boarding, and is often given distinctive branding. Proponents of BRT argue that it offers similar benefits to rail, at much lower cost, while being faster to implement. Not all such traffic runs on bus-only roads; often some lanes on normal roads are restricted to buses, at least during rush hours, and in some systems the core has special roads but out at the periphery the buses continue via normal roads. Given the inherent perception of the term, BRT is sometimes applied by local government or opponents of rail transit as a term for systems hardly distinct from regular bus systems. The Netherlands also has its form of BRT, mainly served by R-net.
    • Trolley-buses don't run on rails either but as their motive power is provided through overhead wires, their mobility is tied to a pre-built network much like that of systems running on rails. They were an important part of public transportation in the former eastern bloc and remain important in those countries as well as in Canada and Switzerland. The Dutch city of Arnhem is well known for its trolley buses, with "trolleystad" - meaning trolley city - being its nickname.
      CableBus system in Mexico City
  • Cable cars or aerial passenger tramways carry passengers high above crowded streets. While they often offer spectacular views and may be the only way to get up steep slopes, their maintenance may prove challenging. Cities with such systems include Dresden, Medellin, and Mexico City.
  • While escalators and elevators are usually set up for indoor transportation, they are part of the public transportation system (sometimes with a ticket required) in some hilly cities such as Hong Kong and Valletta.
  • Ferries are used for public transportation in waterfront locations, such as Venice, Lisbon, Sydney and the Stockholm archipelago. A variant of this form of transport is the river bus, which is a major backbone of the public transportation network in Bangkok.

Each of these methods is used in some cities, and it is fairly common for a single city to combine several. For example, Shanghai's system mainly uses underground rail lines downtown and elevated lines in the suburbs, and it also includes an extensive bus network, a fast magnetic levitation rail line to Pudong Airport and a tram system in one suburban neighborhood.

Nearly all such systems offer convenient connections to other transport. For local travel, most metro stations have bus or tram stops nearby, some have a major terminus for buses or trams, and many have a taxi stand. For long distance travel, nearly all rapid transit systems offer convenient connections to railway stations and airports. In London, for example, all the railway terminals and Heathrow Airport are on the underground, and the other airports can be reached by trains which depart from underground stations.

Get in

Now you can pay with a credit/debit card, or even with smartphone, when entering the New York City subway

There are various methods needed to get into public transportation systems in different cities. In many cases, some form of plastic card or paper ticket must be tapped, swiped, or inserted into a machine for riders to be able to enter the platform legally. In some cases there is even a physical barrier. Some systems use turnstiles as this barrier. Turnstiles come in different designs and constructions.

In other cases, it can be perfectly legal to access the platform without having first purchased a ticket, but riding the train without buying a ticket from a ticket machine on the platform and validating it by inserting it into another machine that stamps or perforates it could incur a heavy fine. This is called "honor system"; the perfect example of it is in the Prague system.

Honor and proof of payment systems are different. Some require validation of the ticket inside the vehicle, others require tickets to be validated outside the vehicle on the station. Hudson-Bergen Light Rail in New Jersey, Select Bus Service in New York City.

Some transportation systems require formal tickets, tokens, cards (magnetic or optical, specific for each system) for entry, while in some systems - paying cash (or changes) to drive is just fine. For example, in New York City - you can pay for a bus ride by MetroCard (special magnetic card for NYC Transit), bus transfers, by credit/debit card, by smartphone which is capable of payment methods, or simply by changes - to the driver. But you can't pay cash to the drivers on NYC buses. Other transportation do systems accept cash, but may not accept other methods.

Paying for a ride is diverse, and it varies from system to system. Also, you can pay just for one ride with a single ticket/token/card smartphone, or you can buy a pass for many rides, or even for unlimited transportation access within some amount of time like week, month, quarter, etc.

Get out


There are also different ways to leave the system. Some systems require riders to tap or insert a card or ticket into a machine before leaving the system, too, while others put no impediment whatsoever in the path of departing commuters or simply require them to walk through a door or turnstile. London and Washington, DC rapid transit are perfect examples of this options.

What riders may carry

Sign on Singapore MRT outlawing the very smelly durian fruit

There are all sorts of different regulations as to what you may or may not carry into a train or bus and whether it does or does not incur an additional charge. Many transportation systems allow riders to carry bicycles with them onto the vehicle, at least outside of rush hours, but it is not always free for your bicycle to ride with you. In Berlin, for example, bicycles are welcome anytime but require a separate bicycle ticket, on penalty of a large fine. Dangerous objects such as knives might be prohibited.

Singapore's MRT is one of several Southeast Asian transit systems that includes a sign showing a durian with a line through it, the quasi-international sign for "No durians allowed!" The fruit is quite tasty and is popular throughout the region, but it smells awful.

Public transportation systems often have harsher rules of order than other public areas, usually banning alcoholic beverages, but this varies between different systems. Travelling with pets may be restricted: for example, some systems such as New York's require all pets to be brought in carriers, rather than merely leashed or hand-held, though small dogs that can fit in a handbag are OK as long as they stay there. In German cities such as Berlin, however, a single ticket is specifically noted to be good for one person and one dog (extra reduced-fare tickets are needed for additional dogs), and dogs need only be leashed. Regulations for service animals are quite often more liberal than regulations for pets, and form part of the national and/or local policy on the rights of disabled people.



Urban rail

See Urban rail adventures for urban rail systems beyond the usual.
Art in Stockholm Metro, Kungsträdgården.

The oldest urban rail systems in the world (the London Underground, New York City Subway, Paris Metro, Berlin U-Bahn, Moscow Metro...) have many historical stations that are masterpieces of architecture and design in their own right. For example, Paris' famous Art Nouveau station entrances, London's Art Deco ticket halls and Moscow's cathedral-like platforms are seen as integral parts of their respective cities' heritage.

Some rapid transit systems, such as Moscow and New York City have public art on permanent display, making them interesting destinations in their own right. See Stockholm Metro for a presentation.

Some systems also display short poems or excerpts from longer poems and descriptive prose in train carriages, which was started by the London Tube as "Poems on the Underground", continued by the MTA as "Poetry in Motion" on New York's Subway and adopted by other mass transit systems around the world.

Riding on systems with elevated lines can be a cheap and cheerful way of seeing the sights of a city from a good vantage point instead of forking out for a costly open-top bus or river tour. Notable examples include much of Chicago's L system, lines 2 and 6 of the Paris Metro and the Docklands Light Railway in east London.

One inherent advantage of light rail/trams over underground systems is the better views, and there are often routes that are worth taking for the views alone. One of the most notable examples of this is Melbourne tram route 35 (City Circle tram), which is a free tourist tram that does a full loop of the city.

Express trains


Many express train routes run through spectacular countryside, including hills and beaches.




Musicians on the platform of the F subway train at Delancey Street station, New York

Some rapid transit systems are well known for buskers or more formally organized performances. Among the systems where you can hear some high-quality performances by buskers in corridors are the London Tube and the Paris Metro. New York City is one of the places where there is a formal system for selecting approved performers. Every year, there are auditions at Grand Central Terminal for Music Under New York, which gives artists a chance to perform on a regular schedule without hassles by the police, while they display the official logo of the program. The London Underground also has designated sites in prominent areas where licensed buskers can perform.

Stay safe


Traveling via public transportation is a practical and economical way to navigate cities and towns. Unfortunately, there remains a slight risk of encountering criminal activities during your journey. Implementing simple precautions and staying alert can greatly reduce these risks and ensure a safe and enjoyable ride.

Firstly, pay heed to your appearance and possessions. Blending in with locals and avoiding flashy clothing or accessories reduces the likelihood of drawing unnecessary attention from potential wrongdoers. Carrying only essential items and keeping them close to your person prevents losses due to pickpocketing or snatch-theft. Opt for front pants pockets, a purse kept firmly under your arm, or a concealed money belt to store valuable documents, electronics, and cash.

Secondly, plan your route ahead of time and select well-populated carriages or sections of public transport vehicles. Sitting near other passengers or staff members tends to deter criminals looking for easy targets. Remain cautious when traveling alone late at night, choosing routes serviced by frequent departures and brightly illuminated stops. Trust your instincts and switch seats or exit the vehicle if someone makes you feel uncomfortable.

Thirdly, practice situational awareness while riding public transportation. Stay tuned in to announcements, observe fellow passengers' behaviors, and identify escape routes or emergency call buttons in case of sudden danger. Avoid deep conversations with strangers that may distract you from observing suspicious activities occurring around you. If confronted by an assailant, refrain from resisting physically unless absolutely necessary, as injuries can worsen the situation. Instead, prioritize verbal de-escalation techniques and cooperate until help arrives.

Additionally, take note of the condition and cleanliness of public transportation vehicles and stations. Poorly-maintained infrastructure may indicate lax security protocols, attracting criminal elements. Similarly, overflowing trash bins, broken fixtures, and dim lighting suggest neglected premises, increasing vulnerability to theft and violence. Report any such observations to the appropriate authorities and seek alternative modes of transportation if required.

Finally, memorize emergency contacts and police hotline numbers specific to the region you are visiting. Save these digits on your phone or write them down on paper before embarking on your journey. Immediately notify law enforcement officials in case of witnessing or falling victim to robberies, assaults, or other serious crimes during your travels. Adhering to these guidelines can significantly decrease the chance of becoming involved in disturbing situations while utilizing public transportation systems.

Specific risks


Pickpocketing is common on public transportation. Follow the usual principles: Try to avoid displaying yourself as an out-of-town traveller, don't carry more baggage than you can keep track of, keep valuables near your body, and never put anything you don't want to lose in your back pants pockets or jacket pockets, only your front pants pockets or a money belt.

Another hazard of some rapid transit systems, especially in crowded trains, is molestation. It's to be expected that in very crowded systems during rush hour, people will be mashed against each other, but that is no excuse for someone to deliberately touch a stranger's private parts. Some rapid-transit systems, such as in Tokyo, Mexico City, Dubai and Delhi, have women-only areas. Others, like New York's, post and play announcements against molestation and advise victims not to remain silent. If you are being molested in a crowded metro car, speak up, and the rest of the passengers will generally support you.

An obvious danger is falling onto the tracks. These (or a third rail on the side) are often electrified, so touching them can be fatal. Additionally, being struck by a train is also likely considering the high frequency of services. If you accidentally drop anything onto the tracks, inform the station staff and make no attempt to retrieve the item yourself, no matter how valuable it is.

Many rapid transport systems have installed automatic doors between the platform and the tracks, such as in Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Singapore. This is done for general safety and also to prevent suicides. However, do not be surprised if some stations on a network lack such doors.

Generally speaking, if you get stuck in a train door owing to a crowded compartment, the train will not move and will open the door again. However, there have been cases, such as in Shanghai, when people have died after the train started to move whilst they were caught in the door, so you should not rely on such safety measures. This is especially important if you travel with children, whose limbs may be too thin to be detected by the system. In buses, the driver's view may be obstructed by the crowd so that a child is hard to see.

Crowding is a risk factor for all of the above. So if you have the chance, do yourself and everyone else a favor and avoid rides during rush hour (usually 07:00-09:00 and 16:00-18:00 on weekdays), or wait for a less crowded train.

Security routines on stations and on board are usually harsher than in other public places. In high-risk areas, ticket gates might have metal detectors or body searches. Staff might require ID from passengers, and forcefully eject (or even detain) passengers for intoxication, disorderly behavior, or for absence of a proper ticket.

The crowds on public transport create a risk for infectious diseases to spread through aerosols or physical contact. This has long been a concern in many countries in Asia, and became an international risk factor during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shutdowns can be done for various reasons: renovation, security incidents, crashes, strikes or severe weather. If you have time, read the local news, or the carrier's website, to learn about disruptions.


See also: Respect#Public transport

Etiquette for public transit systems varies from system to system. For instance, in non-pandemic times, while eating on the train is acceptable in London as long as you are not making a mess, consumption of food is prohibited on public transport in Hong Kong. Likewise, while it is common for people to talk on the phone in Chicago, talking on the phone is prohibited while on trains in Tokyo. Where phone calls are allowed, don't talk loudly on the phone.

Show consideration for your fellow passengers: don't block aisles or take up multiple seats. Don't listen to loud music, and if at any point you realise you don't know what to do or where to go, get out of the way of those who do.

Articles on public transit systems


Some large cities and countries have complex transportation systems described in a whole article.

See Rail travel for articles on rail travel by country

Museums covering urban rail

Map of Public transportation
Hanover Tramway Museum, partial view.
New York Transit museum causes all the history of New York City Subway.

Other options


Other options, such as cycling, taxis or guided tours may provide more comfort or flexibility.

This travel topic about Public transportation is a usable article. It touches on all the major areas of the topic. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.

Rapid transit