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I Love Transit Week essay: John Calimente on exploring cities via transit

For I Love Transit Week, I’m happy to present an essay from John Calimente, who writes the TransitFan column over at Regarding Place. It’s about tourism on transit — feel free to chime in via the comments with your own transit holiday experiences. And thanks so much to John for sharing this with us!

Transit is the best way to explore a city

by John Calimente

I’ve rarely rented a car when travelling. I’m an urban dweller and what I most enjoy is exploring cities by transit. Automobiles shield you from the true city experience. Adventures happen using transit.

A busy Metro train in Montreal.

A busy Metro train in Montreal. Photo by caribb via Flickr.

Montreal’s metro stations are each unique, covered in wild art from the 1960s, and made me want to go back in time to work at Expo 67. For some reason you feel like you’re travelling much faster than on the SkyTrain – probably because the train cars are on rubber wheels, increasing the noise level and the feeling of speed.

New York has a great subway system with clear maps and a logical fare system. I never tried the buses. When you’re above ground in Manhattan, you just want to walk to everything. As I was sitting in the Carnegie Deli eating a pastrami sandwich with my subway map laid out in front of me, I had no less than three people advise me on the quickest route to my destination. New Yorkers are very hospitable once you get to know them.

San Francisco has kept its streetcars, which make the city feel much more accessible. Besides the one and only cable cars, the F Line running along Market Street and the Embarcadero uses heritage streetcars, packed at most hours of the day by tourists. The BART system probably has the most complicated fare calculation system in the world. Little gatherings form around the fare machines composed of tourists who have no idea where to begin.

Berlin has both the S-Bahn, a rapid rail service similar in style to our SkyTrain, as well as the largest tram network in Europe. The trams are a subtle reminder of the wall that used to slash through the middle of the city – the East kept its trams, the West ditched them. Guess which side gets all the tourists these days? I almost had to pay a fine for buying the wrong ticket – luckily the fare inspector had been to Canada, and loved it! Fifteen minutes of talking about how beautiful the fall colours are in Ontario and I was off with a warning.

The Yamanote Line in Tokyo. Photo by <a href=>eerkmans via Flickr</a>.

The Yamanote Line in Tokyo. Photo by eerkmans via Flickr.

And Tokyo. Its transit system is rather daunting at first, but so user friendly that you’re an expert in a couple of days. Buy one stored fare card and you can sail through the system without thinking about how much from station A to station B. Ride the Yamanote Line that loops around Tokyo in 29 minutes flat. Listen to the motorman announce each of the stops. Yoyogi is my favourite for some reason. They always accentuate it a bit: Yo-yohhhhh-gi. How safe is Tokyo? My friend left a bag on the baggage rack on a Yamanote line train car. He managed to intercept the same train on the other side of the loop. The bag was untouched.

Here, I like talking with Vancouver’s bus drivers when it’s not crowded, especially the NightBuses. I hopped on the N16 late on a Wednesday to find myself one of only two passengers. The driver told me that people just don’t go out drinking in the middle of the week like they used to – 25 years ago the bus would have been packed with people. Vancouver’s habits have changed. But coyotes are still plentiful. We saw one sauntering across Nanaimo St. heading into Pandora Park. The driver said he sees one almost every night.

John Calimente is enrolled in the Master of Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University and writes the TransitFan column for re:place magazine.


  • By David Zeibin, February 25, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    I love Japan’s transit. Always on time, even the buses… A friend of mine lost a camera case in one part of the country on a shinkansen and was able to pick it up at the lost and found back in Tokyo, in perfect condition. Amazing.

  • By Eugene Wong, February 26, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    A Coastmountain bus route that I like is the C76, because it is slightly foreign to many people. Most of us live in suburb or urban settings. This bus route passes through rural areas.

    Instead of going for a Sunday drive, we could go for a Sunday ride. It’s not what I’d call a holiday, but it could be relaxing. :^)

  • By Eugene Wong, February 26, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    I forgot to mention a story about safety.

    I heard about a person who left a bag on the floor while standing in a line, in a shop, in Japan. I think that he came back later that day or the next, and the bag was still there, untouched. That’s remarkable.

    I’m also reminded of a BC Transit story. When our system was still run by BC Transit, I was on a bus [probably the #319]. Somebody dropped a wallet, and then a young person [probably a teenager] quickly picked it up and gave it to the owner. I thought that that was great, because it helped to disspell a couple of myths: “Teenagers are so bad!!!”; “Transit is so unsafe!”. :^)

  • By David, February 27, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    I haven’t been on BART since I was a child, but was back in SF a few years ago and got everywhere on transit. My wife and I rode modern Muni trains, the heritage lines, cable cars and trolley buses. Muni had a pass that allowed unlimited travel on three days of your choosing. Just scratch off the date you want to travel and you’re good to go. I recall it was a very good value, roughly the price of two cable car rides for the entire day.

    The only other system I have much experience with is the London Underground, a crowded, dirty system that is only now getting some of the things we take for granted like access for disabled people. If you leave a bag unattended in a tube station it’ll be stolen or grabbed by the bomb squad within minutes.

    I’ve also ridden LRT in Edmonton and subway in Toronto. When I was a student I spent three weeks in Germany where I rode the national rail system, Berlin S-bahn and U-bahn, Heidelberg tram, Stuttgart tram and Munich U-bahn.

    I was impressed with Stuttgart where they used three rails to run old narrow gauge trams and newer LRT cars on the same lines. At the LRT stations the platforms were divided into two sections: a sidewalk level section for the trams and a raised platform for the LRT cars.

    One of the things I like best about European systems is how connected they are to their environment. There are almost no fences to keep people off the tracks, yet nobody gets hit by the train or vandalizes the track. The Stuttgart trams run down the middle of their equivalent of Stanley Park and all that separates the trains from the grass, flowers and sidewalks is a decorative, white picket fence that’s so low any adult could simply step over it.

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