How to have a more tolerable public transit experience

Have you heard this saying that when you have a good experience, you tell 10 people; but when you have a bad experience, you tell 100 people? This was drilled into my head when I worked in the restaurant industry,  and it was why everyone always tried so hard not to make any mistakes. I mean, you just never know when an undercooked steak will get you the “TAKE THIS STEAK OFF THE BILL OR I WILL TELL EVERYONE IN MY TOWN AND WRITE THE WORST YELP REVIEW YOU’LL EVER SEE!!!” threat.

It seems that public transit suffers from the “one bad experience tell 100 people” conundrum. Living in Boston, I have yet to meet a real person who regularly declares their love for the MBTA (T for short). To illustrate, a quick search on Twitter led me to the following:

You see, Bostonians (myself included) looooove to hate on the T, and dare I say…for good reasons… sometimes…? Yes the T is smelly (at times); it’s slow (at times); it’s got crazy people on board (at times). But, news flash! We. need. public. transit, now more than ever. Not only does it offer numerous environmental advantages over driving, mass transit also advances public health goals, promotes social equity, and generates enormous economic benefits by widening the labor market, increasing information exchange, and facilitating industrial specialization. A 2013 study estimates that these “hidden” economic value of public transit could be worth anywhere between $1.5 million to $1.8 billion a year, depending on the size of the city. 

So how do we support more and better transit? Well, unless you are a city planner or a transit advocate, one of the easiest and most helpful thing you can do is to use the public transit system you’ve already got! Across the country, ridership is declining, and that’s bad news: the less you ride the bus, the less frequently the bus is going to come, which makes you want to ride the bus even less, and no transit authority will keep a bus route for just 3 passengers…you get my point. Of course, using public transit can definitely be a drag sometimes, and wanting to support it doesn’t make it less so. So I present you: six tips to make your transit experience more tolerable.

Image credit: Jed Dela Cruz via Unsplash

Know your why

Why do you work out? To lose weight? To reduce stress? To improve flexility? Just like knowing your motivation might help you hit the gym more often, thinking through why I choose public transit has helped me a lot mentally to deal with the annoyance that comes with using public transit. 

Environmental reasons aside, cost is a big factor for me. The American Automobile Association estimates that the cost of car ownership is $9,000 per year. In contrast, the cost of a year of MBTA monthly passes are $1080. Even the most expensive commuter rail passes cap at $5112 per year, and that is not counting the tax deduction one can take for using public transit in Massachusetts.

But more importantly, I rely on public transit because I can’t drive! I know, I know…I have a license, and my partner has a car, but driving just isn’t my thing ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So every time I feel like I’m about to lose my mind over the delays or the crowd, I gently remind myself: “it costs you $2.40 for a ride to work (as opposed to $30 for a Uber), and you can’t drive, what are you so mad about?”

Check the schedule, but still leave early

Public transit has come a long way from its foldout paper schedule days. Nowadays, most major cities have public transit system apps that make it easy to track the schedule; some are even based on real time data. If your city doesn’t have one, apps like Moveit or Google Maps could be helpful.

Needless to say, no system is perfectly timed, and it always takes more time than you think to get out the door, so leave early! (Note to self: “leaving early” is probably just a good life motto in general.)

Image credit: Jack Lyons via Pexels

Stay productive while on board

One of the best things about public transit is that you are not the one driving it! This frees up time, your hands, and your mind to get a few productive things done while en route. Depending on how long your commute is and whether you have good cell service, being on public transit could be an excellent opportunity to: 

  • Make a to-do list for the day
  • Respond to the texts/emails you’ve ignored
  • Call your mother
  • Skim through daily newsletters
  • Catch up on podcasts, audiobooks and music
  • Work on crossword puzzles, or read a book/magazine (though this is easier if you have a seat)

Learn to be oblivious, or not

Maybe because we are in such close proximity (read, literally touching/hugging/breathing on each other during rush hours), people are so easily irritable on public transit. Gosh, who has private phone calls on the train? Why is she so freaking loud?! *eyeroll*, does his bag need a seat? Ugh, the crazy guy trying to sell bibles is on the train again! GAH how hard is it for the assholes in the back to move all the way in?

Breath, my friend, breath. We are all just rushing to make it to work on time or eager to get home. Getting furious over things we have no control helps exactly nobody. If you need someone to take off their backpack, move their grocery off the spare seat, have a quieter phone conversation, just ask. We are adults! And practice the skills to be more oblivious; headphones also really help.

Now, if you don’t want to plug in and zone out on the train, that’s ok too. I’ve occasionally had great conversations with strangers on the train, including a befuddled physics PhD student from China who told me his life story and ranted all about his funding troubles (I did say the T is slow sometimes). Not everyone wants to talk on the train, but if you spot a friendly lad eager to chat, Lifehacker has some excellent advice on how to turn small talk into a conversation.

Prepare for exit

Don’t push through crowds to get to the door, just don’t. Instead, slowly wiggle your way out as you approach your destination. This seems like a no brainer, but I see plenty of riders do this, and it is just not nice for anybody. I perfected my wiggling skills in China, where inching towards the door before your stop is common and expected.

If riders in China can make their way to the door amidst this crowd, you can too. Image credit: Andy Wong/AP via My Overthinking

Don’t be a free rider

Things that all good transit systems have in common: they are clean, come frequently and consistently, have AC to keep you comfortable…and what’s needed to make these things happen? $$$$$$. Public transit needs and deserves our financial support, as it is up against cheap gas, easy financing terms for cars, and in many parts of the country underpriced parking, and roads that are either free or only have a small toll. To encourage ridership, fares are kept low, which is why nearly all public transit systems in the US lose money. See chart below. So pay your fare – I’m looking at you, people who squeeze through the back door on the Green Line – because the MBTA is counting on your and everyone else’s $2.40!

How much money US transit systems lose per ride. Image credit: Brookings.

What tips do you have to have a more enjoyable public transit experience?