Getting there from here: public transport around the world

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As I was waiting for my work shuttle this morning in Kendall Square, I noticed a family asking the driver of the “hop on/hop off” sightseeing trolley for advice on getting to Harvard Square. He pointed them to the subway station across the street, a sensible suggestion as Harvard is a short two-stop ride from Kendall.

I watched the family follow his directions, cross the street and head into the subway, wondering what they would think of our old “T”—perhaps unfortunately during rush hour. It made me think of all the public transportation systems we’ve been on in other cities we’ve visited.

Our first visit to London, in 1998, we were eager to ride the Tube, and delighted at hearing the “Mind the gap!” recordings as we got on and off. We soon realized that you could walk what felt like miles underground making connections between stations, sometimes being carried along by your fellow commuters down one tunnel or another if you accidentally picked the wrong time of day to travel.

Subsequent visits made us realize the bus system, while a bit difficult to master at first, is a nice mode of transportation if you want to get in a bit of sightseeing as well. Plus, who doesn’t want to ride one of those red double-deckers at least once in their lives?

As deep as some of those Tube stations in London are, nothing compares to the Dupont Circle station in Washington DC, in my memory as one of the longest and steepest escalators I’ve ever seen, especially when viewed from the top.

Other than one ride on the monorail to get up to the vintage 50s era Riviera Hotel for a show, we walked everywhere in Las Vegas. Ditto for San Diego, and Baltimore, though we did ride the light rail from Hunt Valley into Baltimore the one time we attended Balticon (to see the inimitable Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman).

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The quaint above-ground wooden trolley in Budapest that we rode to the Szechenyi baths reminded me a bit of the streetcars in New Orleans, both an essential ride for any visitor. But the view you get from the funicular that leads up to Budapest Castle, of the Chain Bridge, the Danube river, and the Pest side of the city, really is spectacular, even on a chilly, drizzly grey day.

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The few days I was able to spend in San Francisco while Rob was at a conference was a nice treat, and the trolley along the Embarcadero was a charming way to get a view of Coit Tower and winding, hilly Lombard Street.

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One of my favorite public transportation systems anywhere–so far–is the Metro in Paris, each station uniquely different from the rest, and Evian vending machines on the platforms. Among my favorites is the Abbesses station with its gorgeous Art Nouveau entrance. Unlike here, I have never heard someone’s conversation on the Paris Metro, especially when they are speaking on a mobile phone. It’s not uncommon to see someone cupping a hand over their phone so as not to disturb anyone around them. On the other hand, you may very well see a young couple kissing with abandon. Eh bien, c’est Paris.

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After arriving at this cool subway station at Puerta del Sol, we walked mostly everywhere in Madrid during our too-short three-day visit in 2009.  My most vivid memory of the subway was getting on it to head back to the airport on the morning of January 1, along with all of the Madrileños who were just heading home after a night of revelry in the square.

One of the most unique public transport experiences, one that I desperately want to ride again some day, is the traghetto: a stand-up gondola, taking you from one side to the other of the Grand Canal in Venice. Requiring a bit of skill and balance, it’s an inexpensive and very convenient method of travel when you are not near one of the only three bridges that cross the canal. You may think of any gondola as elegant and romantic, but perhaps the locals find them so ordinary they need to jazz things up a bit for their wedding, like this bride we saw on Murano.

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And finally, what has to be the most harrowing of all our subway experiences: Kolkata. I’ve truly never seen anything like the mad rush of people trying to get on or off at each stop. I don’t know how people aren’t hurt. But everyone appears to know the rules: the train stops, and if you are on the platform needing to get on, or on the train trying to get off, everyone simply throws their body in the direction they need to go—shoving, leaping, pushing into the crowded car.

From inside the train, midway between two exits, we watched this scene several times with increasing alarm. We had gotten on near the beginning of the line, with few passengers. Luckily, by the time we arrived at our stop, the crowd had thinned and we managed to emerge unscathed.

My thoughts go back to the family from this morning; as they passed me, speaking a different language, I realized they were from India. I suspect they’ll be just fine on the Red Line.

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