From trains to tuk-tuks, buses to jeepneys, taking public transport is part of the travel adventure
Navigating your way around some of the biggest cities in the world can be a challenging experience. Trying to read the maps, making sure you don’t miss your stop, and figuring out which exit to take can be at times frustrating, but taking public transport is still the best way to really get a feel of a new place.
Some cities get it right, with near-perfect punctuality, high efficiency, conveniences like WiFi and comfortable seats. But some cities’ public transport systems leave you crowded, hot, late, and confused.
We’ve done the work for you in identifying 10 of the best public transport systems in the world, as well as 10 of the worst, so you can plan your next trip with ease.
20 (Great) Hong Kong - developed, clean, cheap and efficient
Public transport in Hong Kong is so well developed, clean, cheap and efficient that few people there even bother to think about owning a car, or getting a driver’s license. Public transport makes up 90% of all daily journeys, the highest in the world.
Trains are so frequent you don't even need a schedule, as one arrives almost every two minutes.
There are also double-decker buses, classic colonial street cars, and ferries to whisk you away to nearby islands. All public transport in Hong Kong is bilingual in English and Chinese, as well as equipped with WiFi, but one thing that tourists complain about is that there are no public toilets inside the MTR stations.
19 (Average at best) Jakarta - Meetings on the road are a creative solution
The traffic in this Indonesian capital is legendary, despite the existence of both a bus and commuter rail system. Due to infrequent schedules, most people are not willing to wait 30 minutes for a bus or train, and take a taxi instead.
With the city streets completely congested, nobody can get around, and according to TheRichest, many businesses have created ‘mobile offices’ – comfortable cars with WiFi and food in order to conduct meetings on the road.
Only the brave take a ‘ojek’, or motorcycle taxi. Be sure to wear a helmet. A new MRT is being built, but in the meantime, the people of Jakarta will have to keep finding ways to fight the traffic.
18 (Great) Tokyo - If the trains are late, it's newsworthy
The biggest city in the world always ranks up at the top, despite the insane crowds. The local trains that weave a web through Tokyo run to an accuracy of seconds, and if they don’t it makes the news.
Shinjuku Station has more than 3 million passengers every day, more than the population of many countries. Inside the stations you can always find something delicious to eat and drink.
Taking the legendary bullet train is an experience by itself - periodically a uniformed crew member enters, bows, and pushes a trolley through the cars, selling everything from sushi to cold drinks, so you can sit back and enjoy the view of Mt. Fuji.
Just be aware that in Japan, talking on your phone in a train is considered extremely rude, and if you ever find yourself squeezed in like a sardine during rush hour, the polite thing to do is not make eye contact with the person whose head is almost touching yours.
17 (Average at best) Atlanta - Transit takes just as long as driving in traffic
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect a developed American city to rank so low on a global list, but along with Dallas and Houston, Atlanta is one of the worst in the world according to an urban mobility index. The MARTA - Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority - is known for frequent delays that can leave passengers waiting for as long as 25 minutes during rush hour, as well as inconvenient schedules, and poor scope, not getting commuters to where they actually need to go.
Many have calculated that using MARTA can take just as long as driving through traffic, which makes many people avoid using public transport altogether.
16 (Great) Vienna - operates on an honor system
With an underground subway, local trains, street trams and buses, getting around in Vienna is fast and easy.
Vienna's transport operates on an honor system, meaning that there are no ticket barriers at stations, and no ticket checks on trains, trams or buses.
Cheap, frequent, fast, clean, efficient, relatively safe and rarely overcrowded, the Vienna transport system is a great option for tourists, and it is worth getting the multi-day tourist pass. From Vienna you can easily travel by train to explore other parts of beautiful Austria.
15 (Average at best) Bogota - Pickpocketing is rampant
The vast TransMilenio, Bogota’s urban bus service, is the largest BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system in the world, and has been described by Lonely Planet as a ‘bus system masquerading as a subway’.
With more than 2.2 million passengers daily it is bursting at the seams, and routes are hard to figure out, even for locals.
Pickpocketing is rampant, and a 2014 report found that Bogota is the worst transport system in the world for female passengers.
14 (Great) Zurich - no need to leave the party early
Ranked second only behind Hong Kong for sustainable mobility, Switzerland’s largest city is easy to navigate. There are bus and tram stops every 300 metres inside the city centre, and on Friday nights the trains stay open from 1am to 9am, which means you don’t have to leave the party to ‘catch the last train’. With the Zürich Card you enjoy free travel within the city, including tram, bus, rail and cable car trips. And from Zurich, it is easy to get to neighbouring European countries via train.
13 (Average at best) Bolivia - transport for the more adventurous travellers
Described as generally safe but tricky, confusing, chaotic, and at times eventful, public transport in Bolivia is truly for adventurous travellers. Timetables are not available online and all information is in Spanish, so if you cannot habla Espanol, you’re going to need help.
Travel between cities can often mean bus rides on unpaved roads, which makes for a bumpy ride, and when buses stop at terminals it is common for vendors to come on board selling hot meals and cold drinks.
One of Bolivia’s most beautiful public transport systems is the Teleferico in La Paz, or cable car, which is the highest in the world, at 13,000 feet above sea levels. But the real claim to fame is the Yungas Road, or Death Road, which due to its narrowness can only accommodate one vehicle at a time, and many fall off into the cliffs below. As a result, the road is dotted with crosses, marking where people fell during the journey.
12 (Great) New York - An american icon
The gritty, graffiti-infused underground train system of New York is a cultural icon for the US, and holds the title of being the biggest in the world.
With 468 stations, 24 lines and 24 hour service, this behemoth of public transport always makes the list. Despite its rough edges, it is efficient, with trains coming every two to five minutes, taking you across this huge city.
If riding public transport in New York, be sure to visit the incredible and beautiful Grand Central Station, a popular site for photographers and camera crews, and a frequent film location.
11 (Average at best) Lagos - unsafe and unreliable
If you ever happen to be in the largest city in Nigeria, use these two words - personal driver. This massive urban centre has very poor transport infrastructure which has left the roads choked with traffic and pollution. While they are building a mass transit railway to alleviate the problem, in the meantime people rely on taxis, overcrowded buses, and motorcycle taxis known as ‘okadas’, all of which were described by ExpatArrivals as ‘generally unsafe and unreliable due to poorly maintained vehicles and reckless drivers’.
A private car is the way to go, and if you are heading to the airport, be sure to budget in some time for traffic.
10 (Great) Dubai - Overground with great views
While public transport has not been around for very long in Dubai, it has been growing rapidly, with modern, ornate subway stations that look more like the lobby of a grand hotel than a metro line. This newcomer to the world scene is fully-automated and driverless, and also offers women-only cars.
Built mostly aboveground, it’s a scenic ride, with views of the Burj Al Arab, Burj Khalifa, and skyscrapers of downtown, plus the ocean and the desert. You can ride the Monorail to The Palm, one of Dubai’s incredible artificial islands, and crossing the Dubai Creek on a dhow or abra boat is a must-do.
One complaint from tourists in Dubai is that the metro stations don’t exactly take you where you want to go, meaning you might still need to catch a taxi when you exit the station in order to reach your final destination.
9 (Average at best) Mumbai - There's just too many people
Travellers in India often find public transport in Mumbai terrifying, and with good reason. India’s most populated city cannot cope with the sheer number of people trying to ride the trains, and according to The Guardian, 10-12 people are fatal victims every day from accidents.
For tourists, this can be overwhelming and intimidating, so many travel websites recommend taking a taxi, or better yet, hiring a private car for the day to safely get you around the city. Just beware of the traffic jams!
8 (Great) London - Think london, think 'the tube'
‘The Tube’ was the first underground metro system in the world, and compared to all the big, shiny, new stations being built all over Asia, it seems small, cramped and outdated. Nonetheless, it still remains the arteries of the city, and gets you everywhere you want to go.
The Tube is so beloved and such an icon of the city that it is frequently used as a film location for movies and advertisements, which often surprises and delights commuters.
London's iconic red double decker buses are easy to use and navigate, and people can also ride the River Bus which runs on the Thames.
7 (Average at best) Trinidad and Tobago - traffic standstills throughout the day
This beautiful Caribbean twin-island state has an underdeveloped public transport system, with infrequent buses, no railway, and few taxis.
Fast driving striped minibuses called 'maxi-taxis' ply the roads, but as a tourist, you won't know the hand signals to figure out where they are going.
Many people offer unlicensed rides in their cars, in so-called ‘private taxis’, which is not advisable for tourists. With so many cars on the roads, traffic brings the country to a standstill throughout the day. Visitors will need to rent a car or hire a private driver if they want to explore, and budget extra time when going to the airport to catch a flight.
If you find yourself stuck somewhere in rush hour, best to pull over to a nearby restaurant or bar and 'lime', or hang out for an hour or two, until the traffic is gone (but don't drink and drive).
6 (Great) Paris - the best way around the city
It might be a bit old, and the stairwells may smell, but the Metro in Paris remains the best way to get around this beautiful city. Look out for the stylish ‘Metropolitain’ signs on the sidewalks which look more like an entrance to an underground cafe rather than a train station.
There are also buses and suburban street trams, and the 'Batobus' or river bus is a scenic way to get to attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Louvre, and Champs-Elysées, even if it is a bit slower.
5 (Average at best) Manila - impossible to get on board
The bustling capital of the Philippines has an elevated light rail transit and a metro rail transit, both of which are known for being infrequent or impossible to get on board, with hour-long lines and crowded trains.
As a result of this inefficiency, locals prefer to take motorized tricycles, minivans, and the colourful Jeepneys which are hard to navigate, frequently veer off-route, and pick up people constantly. If travelling around Manila, it is worth it to hire a private driver for the day and make your life easy.
4 (Great) Seoul - virtual stores inside the stations
Seoul is a city on the go. As a result, its public transport is fast, super clean, and easy to use, because time is very precious in a country which consistently ranks as having the longest work hours in the world.
Seoul’s transport system made headlines a few years ago when popular food chain Tesco created an awesome virtual store inside the subway station, so that busy commuters waiting for a train could pull out their mobile phones, scan the grocery items they need, and get it delivered to their home that same day. Incredibly cool!
3 (Average at best) Kathmandu, Nepal - Get on that bus, any way you can
It’s everything you don’t want public transport to be - slow, congested, overcrowded, and dirty. The biggest city in Nepal lacks a metro or subway line, and as a result the streets are full of taxis, motorbikes, three-wheelers called ‘tempos’, buses and mini buses.
Don’t be alarmed if people frequently hold on to the side of the bus, or even climb on top for the ride, as this is sometimes the only way for people to ensure they get a ‘spot’.
Tourists are frequently advised to hire a private driver to take them around while sightseeing.
2 (Great) Singapore - getting around the island is a breeze
A country known for being super clean and super safe does not disappoint when it comes to public transport. Its train lines are comfortable, bright, and trilingual, and makes getting around this small island nation a breeze. You can get to almost all of Singapore’s tourist attractions by public transport, and buy a multi-day tourist pass which is good for both the train and the buses. The railway is accessible both to wheelchairs and strollers too.
If you want a bit more interactive transportation, try out the rickshaw rides which were once common here, but now are mostly for tourists. Just remember, no gum!
1 (Average at best) Bangkok - You could literally walk faster than the traffic
Although the capital city of Thailand has a clean, modern Sky Train which gets you close enough to the main sites and attractions, it ranks as one of the worst public transport systems in the world due to overcrowded trains, long wait times at platforms, not enough trains at rush hour, and poor access (think hundreds of steps to get up and down from the station to street level). But still, the Sky Train (or BTS) is the best and only way to get above Bangkok’s unrelenting traffic, with taxis, buses and tuk-tuks jamming every single lane on every single road.
You could literally walk faster than the traffic on the roads, so get yourself a day pass and explore the city, despite the Sky Train’s reputation.
Sources: Arcadis, Forbes, Expat Arrivals, The Richest, The Guardian