8 of the Strangest Public Transit Systems

Train car hanging upside down over waterway in Wuppertal, Germany
Wuppertal's strange suspended railway may look uber-modern, but it's actually been in operation for more than 100 years. ClaraNila / Getty Images

Public transit systems are typically quite predictable. Most large cities have an average metro network or elevated trains supplemented by a run-of-the-mill bus service or street-level trams. A few cities have gotten creative with their public transit offerings, though. The world's most unusual transportation networks range from outdoor escalators in Hong Kong to upside-down elevated trains in Germany and ski lifts, even, right in the middle of a dense urban neighborhood in Colombia. These offbeat transit options usually reward those who take the time to figure them out, as they are almost always the cheapest, easiest, and greenest way to get around.

Here are eight unusual-but-useful public transportation systems from around the world.

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Monte Toboggan

Two guides push couple in a toboggan down a hill

saiko3p / Shutterstock

Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago off the coast of West Africa known for its steep topography. The region has aerial trams and cable cars, but for more than a century, residents and visitors of Monte—a historic town 3,300 feet above sea level—have been using a bizarre form of transport for trips downhill to the provincial capital of Funchal: wicker baskets guided by toboggan runners. Each sled has two drivers who use their weight and rubber-soled boots to steer and slow the engineless vehicle. The exhilarating ride is a little over a mile long.

Today, there's a more practical bus line that runs between Funchal and Monte. Even with this more-modern (and safer) option, though, the wicker sleds—locally known as carros de cesto—still ply the roads. These days, tourists make up much of the clientele.

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Chiba Urban Monorail

Chiba monorail running over a busy street
Qju Creative / Getty Images

The Chiba Urban Monorail looks like it might belong in a sci-fi film. The train cars are attached to the monorail track from above, so they hang down and travel overhead of cars and pedestrians. Other hanging monorails exist, but this is the longest in the world, at 9.4 miles total. It has two lines and 18 stops in all.

Chiba is a city of about a million people in the seemingly endless Tokyo metro area. The Urban Monorail sees about 50,000 passengers daily, but there are other train and bus transit options in the area to accommodate travelers flying through Tokyo Narita International, one of Japan’s busiest airports. (The monorail does not run between Tokyo and NRT.)

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Wuppertal Suspended Railway

Overhead railway running over canal in Wuppertal, Germany
MarioGuti / Getty Images

The Wuppertal suspension railway is another "upside-down" train, this one located in Wuppertal, Germany. It runs for 8.3 miles past 20 stations. Although it might look futuristic, the Wuppertal opened more than a century ago, in 1901, in its namesake town in North Rhine-Westphalia. The system’s history and strange design make it a target for tourists, but many of the people who ride the railway, called Schwebebahn in German, are local commuters.

The age of the elevated structure once caused concern among experts, which led to a major modernization project (during which the service didn't run) from 2012 to 2013. The train cars themselves were updated in 2015 and 2016. A trip on the line from end to end takes about 30 minutes. The train passes over the River Wupper, a tributary of the Rhine and also over a roadway that runs along the floor of the river valley.

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Central–Mid-Levels Escalator

Rush hour on Hong Kong's outdoor escalators

Yun Huang Yong / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

An outdoor escalator system takes tens of thousands of people up some of Hong Kong Island's steepest hills—up to 2,600 feet long, rising approximately 500 feet in elevation—daily. Locals use the moving staircases to commute between the residential neighborhoods in the Mid-Levels and the business district known as Hong Kong Central. The system, which consists of 18 escalators and three moving walkways, runs downhill until 10 a.m., then uphill for the rest of the day. The outdoor escalators act as a sort of metro system—there are even bars and shops at the “stops” between escalator sections.

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Metrocable Medellin

Aerial tram car descending into Medellin, Colombia
EyesWideOpen / Getty Images

Aerial trams, or gondolas, are a common form of transportation at ski resorts and theme parks, but not usually in big cities. The Metrocable in Medellin, Colombia, is an exception. Although mass-transit aerial trams do appear throughout Central and South America, this is perhaps the best example because it was the first such gondola system built specifically for transit and operated on a fixed schedule. The system is so popular among residents that wait times can be 30 minutes or more during rush hour.

The Metrocable has helped connect the informal hillside "barrios" with the city center. Because the city bus system does not reach the narrow roadways on the valley walls, the tram is the only nonprivate commuting option for residents.

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O-Bahn Busway

Yellow O-Bahn bus traveling on the dedicated busway tracks

amophoto_au / Shutterstock

In Adelaide, Australia, the O-Bahn system is neither a tramway nor a streetcar network, nor is it a dedicated "bus lane." Rather, the O-Bahn is described as a seven-mile “guided busway” track with three interchanges. Only specially modified buses that have separate guide wheels in front of their regular wheels can use the system. Guides steer the bus when it is on the track, and once they leave the track, the buses can operate as normal city buses on standard roadways.

The O-Bahn is less intrusive than a dedicated rail network, and the track leaves space for tree planting projects and other conservation efforts. It has also brought economic benefits because it lacks construction complexity and can branch out into regular streets, eliminating the need for passenger transfers. Commercial areas and major services such as hospitals have developed at its interchanges.

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Carmelit Railway

Carmelit arriving at station with people waiting

Opachevsky Irina / Shutterstock

Funicular railways are common in areas with extreme elevation changes. In Haifa, Israel, a funicular called the Carmelit climbs 900 feet up Mount Carmel on a mile-long track. However, unlike most funiculars, which cling to tracks on the side of the hill, the Camelit is completely underground. Its relatively short length and small number of stations (six) make it one of the world’s most modest subways. Still, it provides a convenient alternative to climbing up steep and strenuous terrain.

Carmelit is an old system that was built in the 1950s, but it has been renovated several times, most recently in 2017 after a fire. A similar underground cable car, the F1, is in Istanbul, Turkey, but it has only two stations.

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Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit

WVU's Personal Rapit Transit car pulling up to station

Antony-22 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Personal rapid transit involves automated trams, usually only big enough for a few people, that run on rails. These autonomous train "pods" are popular in airports, but the largest and oldest PRT system in the world is in a rather unexpected place: Morgantown, West Virginia.

The 3.6-mile Morgantown PRT system, serving mostly West Virginia University students, includes several dozen cars and connects WVU's three campuses with downtown Morgantown. It first opened in 1975, and it reached its current size in 1978. The cars operate during the week and also occasionally on weekends during football games and other sporting events.