Comparing Public Transportation Systems

I’m a nascent transit geek, so one of the coolest things for me about visiting so many cities around the continent was comparing the transit systems in each. I’ll attempt to give a brief overview here of my thoughts on each.

New York City

The only transit I took in New York was the subway which I’ve taken multiple times before. Judgment is always clouded by familiarity, but generally the New York subway works pretty well. Trains come pretty regularly (though occasionally I’ve had to wait longer than I’d like) and the fare system makes sense to me. In case you’ve never used it, New York has these paper “Metrocard” tickets, which you swipe upon entering the turnstiles. The one complaint I have about the New York subway is that it’s dirty and smelly and noisy. The stations are kind of icky to wait in. But considering how well the system works otherwise, I really don’t mind. Slightly more frequent trains are the only other suggestion I have.

Washington, DC

From my previous visits to the capital, I had positive impressions of the metro there. This time, though, I had a lot of confusion buying my ticket from the machines. DC has a paper ticket system similar to New York, though apparently it also has the “proximity cards” I’m familiar with from Boston. According to Wikipedia, the Washington Metro is the second busiest in the country after New York. I believe, though, that the New York system only requires swiping upon initial entry, whereas the DC system requires swiping upon exit as well. It’s more convenient to only have to swipe once, but other than that, I think the Washington Metro is pretty good.


Pittsburgh has no subway system, instead relying heavily on buses. You pay in cash, mostly, and the fare is based on how far you are going (how many zones you’re traveling through). Some times of day you pay when boarding the bus, other times you pay when getting off. I figured it out eventually, but this sort of system is one of the most difficult for visitors to decipher, I believe.


The L in Chicago is the second-largest rapid transit system in the country, and has similar efficiency and ease to #1, New York. Downtown many of the lines are elevated, hence “The L”. While it’s necessary to switch lines to get to some of the close suburbs during much of the day (I was going to and from Evanston), the stations are very clean, and the day passes I used worked just fine. Upon first entering an L station, I was confused about how to proceed, but a very friendly transit worker helped me out, telling me where I could buy day passes at a nearby convenience store. One trip I took from Hyde Park back to Evanston late one night took well in excess of an hour, but that’s to be expected going from one side of a city to the other on multiple lines. And it’s great that the L has good late-night coverage.

Vancouver, BC

I only took one bus in Vancouver, though that one was very clean and intuitive (if late), and had many easily-recognizable sheltered bus stops. What impressed me the most about Vancouver was its infrastructure for bicycles. There are bike lanes on the majority of roads, and one of the primary tourist attractions (which I enthusiastically engaged in) is circumnavigating the bike path around Stanley Park. The coolest thing, though, is that Vancouver has streets that are designated as bike routes, and on these streets bicycles are the primary vehicle, with the few cars driving slowly and giving bikes a wide berth. Just read this quote from the city government’s website:

Expanding the bicycle network is an important strategy in the City’s effort to reduce traffic congestion and support a clean, green and healthy mode of transportation that can be an everyday choice for our citizens. Over the past 10 years, our bicycle network has more than doubled in size, and cycling is the fastest-growing type of transportation in the city.

They’re great. Enough said.


I had trouble in Seattle. There is no subway, only buses which go underground in parts of downtown. There was no ticket vending machine on the platform I was catching the bus from; you purchase your ticket upstairs and outside before coming down the escalator. The vending machine itself was confusing, and the only option I could fine for the buses was to buy the five dollar Orca Card (similar to Boston’s CharlieCard). Then, because I was unsure and wanted to check my balance, I tapped the card on one of the kiosks scattered everywhere on the platform, thinking of the swipey machines in New York where you can check your Metrocard value. Unfortunately, these unlabeled machines deducted money from your card for the light rail system, which was also being heavily pushed in the interface of the ticket vending machines. I was flustered and displeased. After that initial trouble, the buses were all right, though. It would just be nice if such a sprawling city had something faster (like a subway) connecting it with its close suburbs.

Portland, OR

Portland’s city planning is three decades ahead of most other American cities, due to the power of its “Metro” planning board and the urban growth boundary mandated by the state. The ticket vending machine I used near the train station was incredibly intuitive and easy, and while I had to wait a bit for the buses, the entire time I was there they worked quite well. I wish I’d had reason to ride the MAX, Portland’s clean-looking light rail, but it was never the best way to get where I was going.

San Francisco

The Bay Area has several disjointed transit systems: the BART (subway), AC Transit & Muni (buses), and CalTrain (light rail). The biggest issue is that they’re all operated independently, meaning they aren’t synchronized and you can’t buy tickets or get information about all of them from the same place. Other than that, though, they all work all right. San Francisco is a big city, and the bus rides across it take a while, as does the BART ride under the bay. The CalTrain only runs once an hour, doesn’t accept debit cards in its ticket machines, and gives change in dollar coins. But other than those quibbles, the transit in the Bay Area is one of the better systems I used.

I didn’t use the transit in Denver, so that’s the extent of my reviews! Do you have similar or different experiences with these transit systems? If you care to, leave your comments below!

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