My Totally Unscientific Ranking of Public Transit Systems

Heavy traffic on an expressway as seen from above
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The first time my grandma got behind the wheel of a car was the day she took her driving test. After she finished, the instructor said, “You’re the worst driver I’ve ever seen. But I’ll give you the license because you’re cute.” Driving is terrifying. You’re in a death machine whizzing around other death machines. You should need a degree for that kind of thing. So I use public transit basically wherever I go. As a result, I’ve become something of a public transit connoisseur. I’ve taken trains and buses in dozens of cities on five continents. I've used public transit throughout New York, Barcelona, Quito, Marrakesh, Jerusalem, and plenty of other places. So today, I’m going to rank the public transit systems I’m best acquainted with (ones I've used on a regular basis for at least a couple months) from worst to best.

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The Los Angeles Metro

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Oh Los Angeles, you mealy tomato of transit systems. The sages whisper that L.A. used to have a great public transit system. As legend has it, auto manufacturers talked some politicians into destroying it to make way for cars and, well, it stayed destroyed. L.A. missed the boat on investing in trains, so public transit there is mostly about sluggish buses that lurch to a halt basically every block for some reason. Even when you count the other not-so-connected bus systems, like the Big Blue Bus and the Culver City Bus, transportation in the city doesn’t add up to much. Part of the problem is that L.A. is so spread out, which isn’t L.A.’s fault. Unless of course, it’s spread out BECAUSE it’s designed for cars. (Dun dun dun ...) That being said, public transit in L.A. isn’t as bad as people think. It actually does cover a lot of ground, and the buses are safe and clean. It’s also been getting a lot better over the past decade. While some lines are about as reliable as the stock market, others are surprisingly consistent. I commuted to my internship on the 720 express bus, which came every five minutes during rush hour and stopped zero times between my house and my office. My commute was eight minutes. For L.A., that’s friggin amazing, whether or not you have a car. And that was five years ago. I visited recently, and the buses seem to have gotten more reliable. Plus, you can take the train all the way to the beach now, which is a miracle no one believed could happen a few years back. Can you get around without a car? Kind of. I mean, I did it for six months, but getting from place to place was basically its own part-time job. It’s doable, but only if you’re poor, you’re rich (and Uber everywhere), you can’t or won’t drive, you’re a serious bicyclist, or you’re reeeeally into sustainability.

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The Chicago “L”

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You can get everywhere in Chicago with a combination of trains and buses. The train line is largely eLevated (thus the name) meaning you might get stuck shivering on an unshielded outdoor platform during a freezing Chicago winter like some orphan out of a Dickens novel. There aren’t a ton of station clocks, so you never really know when your train will show up. Five minutes? 30? Your guess is as good as the conductor’s. Really, a lot depends on where you live and where you need to go. If you mainly need to get from your home to your job near the city center, the L usually works just fine. Moving between neighborhoods is significantly harder. Granted, that’s true of just about every transit system, but it’s especially pronounced in Chicago, where all lines lead to the awkwardly not-so-central Loop. Can you get around without a car? Yes, but you’re much better off with one.

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Israel’s Egged and Dan buses

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I’ve lived for a combined seven months between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and a small town near Haifa, so in theory, I should rank these places separately. But I didn’t notice much of a difference between the transit in each city. Israeli transit is much more connected than American transit, and the city lines operate in conjunction with the national ones. That’s probably because Israel is the size of New Jersey, and its entire population is smaller than that of New York City. So I’m lumping the whole country together. Deal with it. Like L.A. transit, Israeli transit is more about buses than trains. Unlike L.A. buses, Israeli buses are fast and come regularly. You can be standing out on some lonely stop in the middle of a wheat field, and you can still count on a bus chugging along to pick you up. One of the main perks of Israeli public transit is that cities are well connected. Buses run between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv every 20 minutes or so. You don’t need to preorder a ticket or anything for these longer journeys; long distance buses operate pretty much just like city buses. Still, buses are almost always worse than trains — they have to compete with other cars; there’s just no getting around it. Like in Chicago, you might end up waiting at an Israeli bus stop for forever. Luckily, it never gets too cold on the Mediterranean. Can you get around without a car? Yes.

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The Washington Metro

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Every Metro station in D.C. is warm, reasonably clean, and has a clock telling you exactly when your train is coming. You can get around the whole city on the system, and transfers are thoughtfully organized. Furthermore, the Metro is really user-friendly; somebody put some UX design into the signs. Politicians and tourists alike get around quickly and dependably. The biggest drawback is that the Metro usually stops running at midnight, which is admittedly kind of a bummer. The main reason I’m not giving Washington the gold is that the city is pretty tiny, so it’s not really fair to compare it to a city like Chicago or L.A. that has to serve way more people over way more space. But I don’t have any real complaints. Every problem that Washingtonians complain about (say, the red line being down again) is far worse in other cities. It’s a plucky little system that does the job. Can you get around without a car? Yes.

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The New York City subway

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The New York subway has a ton of problems, as every New Yorker will tell you while watching rats make sweet love in the tracks. When I first came to New York, I was on a Q train when an announcement came over the speaker: “This Q train is now becoming an M train.” It provided no further explanation. Just, “By the way, the train you are currently on is now a totally different train. We’re gonna drop you off at a surprise location. Good luck!” And the weird thing was, no one on the train even reacted. As I’ve since learned, that kind of thing is normal. You never really know what lines will be closed or when your train will barrel into a black hole. So why am I ranking the New York Subway so highly? Because it efficiently transports nearly 9 million people every day, and it chugs along 24/7. Trains run basically every minute during rush hour. They can get you just about ANYWHERE in the largest city in the U.S.; NYC city buses are efficient but largely optional for many people. The system has about a million lines and a billion stations (more than any other city in the world), most of which I’ve never been to, despite living in the city for years. The Subway is a mess, but it’s a really, really hot mess. And no matter how much everybody complains about it, they all use it —because it works. Can you get around without a car? Yes. A lot of New Yorkers don't even own cars. I know a guy who basically gave his car away when he moved to New York because he couldn’t afford the parking space.