10 of the Strangest Public Transit Systems

Elevated trained over a city street
Photo: Rog01/Flickr

Public transit systems are usually quite predictable. Large cities generally have subways or elevated trains supplemented by bus service or street-level trams, while smaller metro areas rely on bus or streetcar networks (or both). In a few cities, however, public transportation does not take a typical form.

These unusual transportation networks can range from outdoor escalators to upside-down elevated trains to ski lifts in the middle of dense urban neighborhoods. You may even find yourself on a tiny train without a driver. Despite their uniqueness, these offbeat transit options usually reward people who take the time to figure them out because they are almost always the cheapest and easiest way to get around.

Here are several examples of unusual-but-useful public transportation systems.

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Norry (Cambodia’s bamboo train)

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Cambodia’s norry trains ride on rail tracks, but they are unlike any other passenger trains in the world. Most are merely raised platforms with train wheels. They do not look that different from hand cars featured in Old West movies. In fact, the original norries, which ran near the city of Battambang, were powered by hand. As they became more popular, however, the owners added motorcycle or tractor engines and drive belts, which they connected to the axles.

Norries, nicknamed "bamboo trains" because the platforms are made of bamboo, once provided public transportation for local people because the regular rail service was unreliable, and trains were often attacked by armed rebels. More recently, tourists have been attracted to the tracks near Battambang by the novelty. After the most accessible lines were shut down, several new routes sprung up near tourist attractions. The future of norries is unclear as Cambodia tries aggressively to modernize its rail service.

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Monte toboggan, Madeira

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Madeira is a Portuguese archipelago off the coast of West Africa. Besides being the birthplace of soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, the four-island chain is best known for its steep topography. Funchal, the largest city in the region, sits on the coast, but the historic town of Monte, though only three miles away, is 3,300 feet above sea level. Madeira has aerial trams and cable cars, but for more than a century, Monte’s residents (and now tourists) have been using a bizarre form of transport for the trip downhill to the provincial capital: wicker baskets with toboggan runners on them.

Today, locals rely on the bus line that runs between Funchal and Monte. Even with this more-modern (and safer) option, wicker sleds still ply the roads. The passengers these days are almost always tourists. Each sled has two drivers who use their weight and rubber-soled boots for steering and braking.

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Chiba Urban Monorail

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The Chiba Urban Monorail looks like it might belong in a sci-fi film. The train’s cars are attached to the monorail track from above, so they hang down with nothing between them and the ground below. Other hanging monorails exist, but this is the longest one in the world at 9.4 miles total. It has two lines and eighteen stops in all.

Chiba is a city of about 1 million in the seemingly-endless Tokyo metro area. The Urban Monorail sees about 50,000 passengers every day, but there are other train and bus public transit options in the area because one of Japan’s busiest airports, Tokyo Narita International, is located in Chiba. Though the monorail is accessible to anyone who is curious, it is not one of the transit options for people looking to get to Tokyo from the airport.

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Wuppertal suspended railway

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The Wuppertal suspension railway is another "upside-down" train. It runs for 8.3 miles past 20 stations. The Wuppertal might seem futuristic, but it is actually more than a century old. It was started 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, referred to in German as the Schwebebahn, are local commuters.

The age of the elevated structure once caused concern amongst experts. This worry led to a major modernization project, which took place in 2012 and 2013. The service was closed during most of the work. 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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Hong Kong outdoor escalators

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Hong Kong proves that escalators are not just for shopping malls. An outdoor escalator system stretches up some of the steepest hills on Hong Kong Island. The moving staircase rises approximately 500 feet in elevation and is 2,600 feet long. It is the longest outdoor escalator system in the world.

Does this really qualify as a form of public transport? Locals use the escalators 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., and then uphill for the rest of the day. CNN named it one of the world’s seven coolest commutes a few years ago. There are even bars and shops at the “stops” between escalator sections. Daily usage tops out at around 80,000 people.

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Metrocable Medellin

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Aerial trams, or gondolas, are common in mountain resort areas, at ski slopes and even at theme parks. They are rarely used as mass transit, except in Central and South America. One of the best examples of mass-transit aerial trams is in Medellin, Colombia. It was the first such gondola system built specifically for transit and operated on a fixed schedule. The system has been extremely popular with residents in the densely-populated hillside boroughs, who may wait in line for 30 minutes or more for a ride during rush hour.

The Metrocable has helped connect the informal hillside "barrios" with the city center. These neighborhoods were once extremely dangerous because of the drug trade, but they have improved in recent decades. Since the city bus system does not reach up the narrow roadways on the valley walls, the tram is the only non-private commuting option for residents.

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O-Bahn Busway

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How can you best describe Adelaide’s O-Bahn system? It is not a tramway or streetcar network, and it is not a dedicated "bus lane." The O-Bahn is a seven-mile “guided busway” track with three interchanges. Only specially modified buses can use the system. These vehicles have separate guide wheels in front of the regular wheels, The guides steer the bus when it is on the track. 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. Furthermore, the system allows buses to use natural gas and biodiesel instead of regular diesel. The O-Bahn has brought economic benefits as well. Commercial areas and major services such as hospitals have developed at its interchanges.

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Carmelit Railway

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Funicular railways are common in areas with extreme elevations changes. In Haifa, Israel, a funicular called the Carmelit climbs 900 feet up Mount Carmel. The route is only 1.1 miles long. 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. For tourists and locals alike, the train is quite practical because it allows them to avoid a strenuous climb up steep terrain.

This is an old system. It 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 only has two stations.

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Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit

Photo: Antony-22/Wikimedia Commons

Personal rapid transit features 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 has several dozen cars and connects the three University of West Virginia campuses and Downtown Morgantown. The system first went online in 1975, and it reached its current size in 1978. The PRT mainly serves the 30,000 students who study at WVU. The cars operate during the week and also occasionally on weekends during football games and other sports events.

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Terra Bus

Photo: Dene' Miles/Wikimedia Commons

Snow coaches are specialized buses that carry passengers over ice and snow in places without paved roads. They are mainly used in Canada. The first snow coaches were produced by airplane manufacturer Bombardier, but the latest versions, known as Terra buses, are made by a specialty company called Foremost.

The highest concentration of Terra buses is in the Columbia Icefield in Alberta. These vehicles transport passengers, 56 at a time, to sites such as the Athabasca Glacier. Operators keep the tires at low pressure so that they can grip slippery surfaces. Terra buses might look powerful, but they are quite slow. Though they usually only drive at 10 to 25 miles per hour, they rarely get stuck.