An Idiot’s Guide to Public Transportation in 6 Tips

Moving for college? Campus bussing helps, but you’ll need to master real public transportation if you ever want to navigate the city smoothly.

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Moving for college? Campus bussing helps, but you’ll need to master real public transportation if you ever want to navigate the city smoothly.

An Idiot's Guide to Public Transportation

Buses, Trains and Escalator Rules

Moving for college? Campus bussing helps, but you’ll need to master real public transportation if you ever want to navigate the city smoothly.

By Jesse Sisler, DePaul University


You’re experiencing city life for the first time either as a student or a new transplant.

The transition is daunting. Where will you eat? Where will you drink, socialize, listen to music? Will the people be welcoming?

None of these questions really matter if you don’t know how to get places properly.

I’m talking about public transportation; real public transportation, not the campus bussing system with five stops scattered around town for drunk students craving burritos and street food.

An Idiot's Guide to Public Transportation

If you don’t know how to navigate the public transportation—and I don’t mean in the sense of where to go, but rather how to go—city life can be miserable. Just ask Los Angelinos who find themselves sitting in traffic for two hours just to get to Target and back how miserable it is not to be able to utilize a decent public transportation system.

From how to use the escalator, to who to sit down next to, and everything in between, here are some tips to make your publically transported life easier.

1. Always Have Money on Your Transit Card

I cannot stress this enough. Assuming your preferred method of travel has been updated to fit twenty-first century living patterns, you’re going to need an electronic transit card. Whether you’re running out to get groceries or heading out for a night of music and dancing, make sure you have money on the card.

If you’re in a shadier area, you’re not going to want to spend more than five minutes uploading fare. If you’re in a group, good luck getting antsy twenty-somethings to wait for you while you press buttons on a machine with a Windows Vista-like reaction time.

If you’re drunk, you’re just going to end up getting robbed or uploading like $600 worth of rides. Plus, public transit workers seem to hate it when people need to use the machines, so make their lives easier by making sure in advance that you have enough to get around.

2. Use Proper Escalator Etiquette

Even at non-elevated train or bus stations, you’ll probably come across an escalator or two. If you don’t mind eye rolls and nasty comments whispered under the breaths of businessmen, students, and locals, remember: the right lane is for standing in place, the left lane is for walking.

Do not violate this rule.

Even in Chicago, a city full of “nice” Midwesterners, you will get pushed and cursed at. Honestly, you probably deserve it. City-sponsored trains and buses arrive at ridiculously unpredictable intervals, and if your lazy ass makes someone miss their ride…Well, you’ve been warned.

3. Let People off First!

This is such a problem that Chicago has put up ads informing people how to correctly let people off at their stop. Don’t hop on the train as soon as it comes to a halt.

It’s rude, it’s an emergency hazard, and it’s a sign you’ve either never ridden a train before or you’re a total douche.

It also makes for insanely awkward eye contact, and unnecessary body contact. The train is not a Who concert. It’s a train. Don’t trap people—especially old people and children!

4. Know the Difference Between the Homeless and Hustlers

This is not just a rule of thumb for trains and buses, but also for city life in general. Note: two guys in jackets passing out “fliers” for their youth basketball team with “signatures” on them are not collecting money so they can stay off the street. They’re hustling you.

Solicitation is not legal on public transit, so they are definitely not legitimate.

Those people that announce to the train their life story as if they’ve rehearsed it a hundred times? Probably not legit either.

The perfect litmus test for these people: Offer them food and see if they take it. If they’re actually hungry, they’ll take it every time. If not, they want money, usually for drugs. But again, I come back to the basketball flier guys. Ever noticed how they all look the same? Isn’t it odd that every kid plays for the same basketball team? Aren’t basketball teams made up of twelve kids?

If you want to donate to a youth org, go ahead. That would be awesome! But I guarantee you there’s a reason these guys want cash on the spot: tax purposes.

5. KYP: Know Your Personnel

When it comes to sitting down next to people, know your personnel. The lady with three kids and a stroller? Give her some space. The tiny old man built like Mr. Burns? Sure, have a seat next to him. (But with older people, be prepared to chat.)

Always offer your seat to people with children, old people and if you’re especially kind, veterans. If you don’t want people sitting next to you, sit at the end of the train car/bus, or pretend you’re asleep and lean into the next seat.

6. Know Who to Talk to and What to Talk About

Never, I repeat, Never, talk to people with headphones on. This is the clearest indication they do not want to be bothered, no matter how interesting your opinion on the music industry is.

Talking to tourists is usually fun, but be sure not to strike up a conversation until your stop is near, unless you’re willing to talk for an hour about tourist attractions.

Talking to people you’re attracted to is risky, but not as risky as it seems. Most people will just give you one word answers and other indications they’re not interested. Harmless, right?

Others, though, might call you out. Remember: just because they’re not wearing a ring does not mean they’re single or interested! Generally, the rule of avoiding politics and religion is true. That said, there are some really fascinating people that live in the city, and you might learn a thing or two.

Best case, you’ll hear a crazy person rant about abortion and you’ll have a scene to include in that book you’re working on.

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