From Bangkok to Buenos Aires, For the Love of Public Transport

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.

Buenos Aires Colectivo (Bus) - Argentina
Buenos Aires Colectivo. Best way to see the city?

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.

1. 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.”

Chicken Bus Vendors - Copan, Honduras
People on the bus in Honduras.

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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

View of Old Bangkok - Bangkok, Thailand
Boat Transport Along Chao Phraya in Bangkok. Great way to get around the city.

5. Safety

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.

6. 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.

Budapest Tram - Hungary
Tram travel in Budapest, Hungary.

7. 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.

Enjoy this?

Then sign up for more travel wisdom & inspiration from 7+ years of traveling the world.

Comments

  1. says

    I agree completely. Public transport is the best way to go. Although, it is a little difficult in Buenos Aires sometimes due to the lack of change.

  2. says

    @Kyle: The Buenos Aires transit authority would do well by installing card machines on buses. I’m laughing as I stare at cup full of coins that we’ve so diligently hoarded. The other day, I received change of 4 pesos in coins; it was like winning the lottery. A friend of ours suggested the shortage was due to a Chinese coin mafia smuggling the coins for their metal content. Regardless, from the sounds of it, the situation is improving.

  3. Agne says

    Great article; and I agree with you 100%!

    I love public transport. Yes, sometimes it’s not the most comfortable and pleasant way of travelling, but I still like it. I don’t even have a driving license, and if someone asks me why, I say – I am for ecology.

    And when I am abroad, I like to take a public transport too. Sometimes just for fun, beceause in Vilnius we don’t have trams or metro, and it’s nice to experience another way of getting from point A to B.

    The most remarkable public transport for me is in Berlin . They have a great system! I think most of Berliners are taking S-Bahn rahter than a car. It’s fast, always on time, and very clean.

    A.

  4. says

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more with you that public transport is the best way to go when travelling. I’ve always found that it’s a great way to experience local culture and meet people, not to mention a good way to be environmentally friendlier than taking private transport.

  5. says

    @Daniel: I heard from Portenos that for a short time there was a card system in place, but then it was removed again. I’ve also heard the Chinese mafia story as well. I kind of assume that both of them are rumors and that there is probably a more mundane reason behind it all. That said, BA has an excellent bus system and there is a great pocket bus map that can tell you how to get to/from any two points in the city that we got a lot of use out of.

  6. says

    @Agne: Good to know that not everyone thinks we are crazy. And yes, Berlin’s public transport system rocks. The thing that makes it so unique is the meeting of old Soviet systems in East Berlin with the systems of West Berlin.

    @Kyle: So they did have a card system! We figured the coin system was keeping somebody in business…that’s usually the reason old systems stick around so long. We have one of the Buenos Aires pocket guides for the bus. The only problem with it is that it gives the location of the stop in a grid, in a vicinity, but it doesn’t indicate the exact location of the stop. Is that standard? We’ve become big fans of Como Viajo and their Buenos Aires trip planning tool:
    http://www2.comoviajo.com/website3/Monitor/Consultar.aspx?func=5

  7. Georg says

    In Buenos Aires traveling by bus [Colectivo] is quite safe other than pickpockets, and there’s one almost in every few blocks, nevertheless, BA is very walkable, so i usually walk everywhere!.

    Also Argentina does have an excellent, affordable and comfortable long distance bus network to all parts of the country, with movies and food & beverages served by a steward and stewardess!

  8. says

    @Georg: We are with you — we love walking the streets of Buenos Aires. They are some of the most walkable so far on our travels in Latin America. However, when distances are beyond a mile or two, then it’s usually time for us to consider the bus or Subte, particularly when it’s pushing 40C outside.
    Long distance buses across Argentina are pure luxury, but you might get some arguments about how affordable Argentina’s buses are compared to its neighbors to the north. Argentina’s buses are beautiful, but they are up to 5 times more expensive than what you’d find in Ecuador, Peru, or Bolivia. However, we do like the idea of being served champagne on a bus (Puerto Iguazu to Buenos Aires):
    http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2009/12/speed-eating-argentina-style/

  9. says

    Getting accustomed to a city’s public transportation system is one of the best ways to increase your comfort level in that city. I’ve found that once I’ve got the tube and bus schedules down pat that the city feels much more approachable and “mine.” Great post.

  10. says

    Very true. I also love taking public transit whenever I travel, because it’s a much better way to check out the local culture than in a taxi. In Lima, I was also pretty intimidated by the combi system because I didn’t think I could figure out where to go, but all of the ticket takers were happy to point me to the right bus line and tell me when my stop was coming up. Just another example of people looking out for travellers :)
    Another benefit to taking public transit in a new place that I’ve found is if you only have a short time in the city and want to see as much as possible – find a route that circumnavigates or cuts through the most interesting districts, and just hop on and enjoy the sights….that way, you have your own personal bus tour with no exorbitant tour prices included!

  11. says

    @Keith: Thanks. I like that concept…public transportation as a way to make a city “yours.” That, and a few good bites of street food and random conversations usually do it for us.

    @Naomi: Your Lima experience was quite similar to ours. We found it to be exceptionally friendly, too. Good thing because it’s a giant city. Once we figured it out, we managed to get from the airport all the way across the city to Miraflores/Barranco for about $1.00.
    Your suggestion of finding the public bus route that cuts through the most interesting districts couldn’t be more aptly put or more timely. We just took the #64 bus in Buenos Aires from Palermo / Recoleta to La Boca. Great architecture along the way. Of course, we crossed paths with the tourist bus a couple of times.

  12. says

    I love it!…and totally agree. We travel almost entirely by public transport, (and did so in 2009 from Shanghai to Seattle) — only trains, buses, boats, etc. The best part of your article, in my mind, is the “safety in numbers” concept, which is so true. I never felt unsafe on any public transport, but every time I get in a cab my stress-o-meter shoots into the red.

  13. says

    @lauren: We were wondering when and if someone would comment on the safety of public transport. Honestly, that value didn’t occur to us in Asia (relatively speaking, it was quite safe…even getting into unmarked taxis in Tashkent, Uzbekistan was OK.). But safety in taxis is a real issue throughout Central and South America. It’s a shame that your stress-o-meter heads off the charts, but we understand — besides the persistent issue of dubious cabbie honesty and unnecessarily long trips, you begin to wonder what else they might have in store.

  14. says

    I totally agree! We love it too!

    Our daughter who was 5 and had never been on a bus or subway when we began our world tour in 2006, now at 9 is an expert on mass transit in 32 countries! I’m pleased that it was not only in places like London, Turkey, Sweden and Morocco, but also to depressed places in Harlem, Brooklyn and Penn Station when we did a service project with thousands of disadvantaged school kids that followed us virtually. (Places few New Yorkers see).

    We use every type of transportation from cargo ships to camels, but we find the vast majority of our world travel is by foot, bike and mass transit because we like it slow and at ground level to connect deeply.

    As you know too, it is a lot cheaper & greener, but it is also so much more rewarding.

  15. says

    Whenever I arrive in a new place, I’ll often jump on a random local bus and just sit there until it reaches its final destination. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes, and once it took over 4 hours…but it almost always leads to some rewarding interactions with the people I’ve met and who repeatedly ask if I know where I’m going. If you’re in no rush, there is definitely no better method of moving around that public transport!

  16. says

    I’m really going to miss the Lima buses when we go back–I don’t think we’ve ever had to wait for more than 5 minutes at a bus stop before one came tearing around the corner and screeched to a stop. (In Seattle I’ve waited 30 minutes or more before I got fed up and just started walking.) Robert made a comment yesterday that if the Seattle bus drivers drove like the Lima ones, we wouldn’t have to worry about graffiti or harassment or any other delinquent activities: people would just be holding on for dear life.

  17. says

    @Soultravelers: Your comment about taking public transport in disadvantaged areas of New York reminds me of my experience taking the public bus to a usually avoided area of Washington, DC in order to get my camera cleaned (the only Nikon service place in the area was there). It was fascinating to see a completely different part of a city that I had lived near for so many years and to realize that regular families lived here trying to get by just like everyone else.

    @Jessie: After we figured it out, we loved Lima’s combi system and like you, we never had to wait for more than 5 minutes anywhere. Given the speed the combis drive, I’m not surprised there’s a video game! The description sounds awesome – will have to try and play. Thanks for sharing that with us!

  18. Hartini says

    I have always try public transportation wherever I go. This way, I can meet more people and have a better feeling about the city. Somehow, public transport and walking are my best tools to get to know new places, even if I don’t speak the language at all :):):). Safety should not be a problem as long as you are not too fancy (too much jewelry, expensive clothes and shoes). Yes, it can be crowded, so what. The most crowded metro system during weekend I know so far is in Delhi. :)

  19. says

    @Hartini: So you did take the metro in Delhi! That’s great. I’m sure it was an adventure :) We also find that public transport and walking are the best ways to discover a place – you are closer to the action!

  20. Don says

    Beginning in 1886 they traveled throughout all neighborhoods of this northeastern Pennsylvania coaltown of Scranton. They were the electric trollies more commonly known by the average folk as the street car. They are only memories now but the challenges, fun and practical benefits of public transportation highlighted by Audrey and Dan reminded me of their heyday that lasted until 1954. To insure that they would never be returned in, perhaps a burst of common purpose sanity, the steel rails and the unique brick streets that framed many of them were quickly paved over. As if to fill a need for a quaint reminder of these simpler times, we occasionally find contemporary redevelopment projects installing – you guessed it – brick streets and walks.

    With few cars available in the first half century of the 1900’s they were the preferred choice for safe, inexpensive public transportation often serving as a common meeting ground for folks of all backgrounds. Versatility was also one of their features since they could be operated from either end simply by lowering and raising the arm that connected to their overhead power source. At 70,000 Scranton is now less than half of what it was then when it was a major landing point for European immigrant groups who were promptly channeled into the numerous area coal mines. They served a unique purpose and the charm that we lost in their passing can still be seen in the Scranton Trolley Museum where some have been restored and are now housed. They stand as a testament to all the good that public transportation represents everywhere.

  21. says

    I’d have to agree with what you said. While living in Rio the public bus was the only way to get around effectively, and bus drivers/ticket counters were always willing to help make sure you were on the right bus or got off at the right stop. The only time I didn’t take a bus was when traveling alone at night, which it is good to know how far from ‘home’ and what type of neighborhood the bus stop drops you off at. I only used taxis in Lima so I can’t speak on their bus system but then again had friends who let me tag along on all their trips.

    My only added advice would be that if you are going to be living in one of these places for a while, see if they have a bus card. It makes it much easier to whip out your bus card, rather than dig in your pockets searching through unfamiliar coins for the correct amount.

  22. says

    @Don: Whenever we see urban renewal projects re-installing bricks and nostalgic forms of public transport, we have mixed feelings. We are glad that they are being installed, but we have to wonder: why did they have to be removed in the first place? Nostalgia is just another word for “New isn’t always better.”
    @Cornelius: Good point about travel at night. We completely agree. It’s absolutely essential to know where you are headed after dark.

    Great suggestion on the bus card, so long as it’s an available option (which, unfortunately here in Buenos Aires it’s not…so it’s always a dig-through-the-pocket exercise).

  23. says

    Again, another great article. I also try to take public transportation as often as I can, especially when traveling. I have to admit there are times that I enjoy the sightseeing so much that I almost miss my stop. Here in Mexico City as in much of Central and South America I’ve found people to be extremely helpful, often times much more friendly than taxi drivers. I hope you don’t mind if I link to this article from my site. Cheers!

  24. says

    I hate driving and generally being in cars, so public transportation or walking is always my preference. And ten years living in NYC taught me that public is the way to go when navigating a big city. It is, as you say, faster, easier and far cheaper.

    As accustomed to bus and train as I am, I still found the bus system in Buenos Aires is daunting. I had my Guia T and studied it. Before each trip I would map out my route, plan the streets and while on the bus, I flipped from page to page of the guide to keep track of my whereabouts.

    But man, did I feel like I’d accomplished something by the end of it all.

    And yes, no better way to see a city.

  25. says

    @Laura: We love it when people link to our articles, so link away! Feel free to link to other pieces you like, too :)

    Our experiences with people on public transport in Central/South America mirror yours. We’ve had people almost hold our hands to make sure we get of the bus at the right spot. It’s a great experience.

    @Leigh: The buses in Buenos Aires are daunting at first and it does feel like a victory each time you successfully make a trip. I abandoned our Guia T in Buenos Aires after about a week and started using http://www.comoviajo.com to plan our route by bus. You insert a from address, a to address and how many blocks your willing to walk and it spits out your public transport options with a rough map. That said, I still have to rely on my map to figure out where we are once we’re on the bus. We usually end up in the right place…more or less.

  26. says

    @Steph: Thanks. Bangkok — and its traffic and transport systems — are easy to write about. There’s a lot of potential content — we just bite off a little piece.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current day month ye@r *