Riding in Style: Public Transit for Tourists

A bus rumbles along the road, its passengers dozing quietly in their seats or standing and staring out the windows. There is normally little smiling or talking as the people grimly travel to work, intent only on the destination and not on the sights and fellow passengers around them. The scene is a stereotypical movie or television cliché, but using public transit is much more than just riding a bus to get from one place to another. Most mid-sized or large centres in Canada have transit systems including anything from the traditional diesel-powered buses to underground subway systems to electric trolleys. More than just a way to get from one place to another, they can contribute to the experience of being in a city.

The reasons for taking public transit are probably almost as varied as the passengers themselves. For long-term residents, it can be a convenient way to save money and to make the streets just a bit less crowded. The federal government is currently offering tax credits for regular transit use as well as promoting research into alternative fuel sources; soon transit may be one of the most environmentally-friendly transportation option. For tourists, taking buses or trains can be a good way to see a city from a local point of view while avoiding the hassle and expense of renting a car and trying to find parking in busy spots. Whatever the reason, taking public transit can give tourists an exceptional view of city life.

Transit systems can tell people a great deal about a city. A fairly limited transit system, for instance, often indicates a strong reliance on cars, while an extensive and inexpensive transit system could indicate a vibrant and active community or just a city too large and congested for individual vehicles. Toronto, for example, is sprawling and busy compared with many other cities, but the local transit system helps to accommodate the city’s special needs. Not only is transportation available on the subway, buses, or streetcars all over the city for the price of a single fare, but the city even has a late night service between 1:30 and 5:00 a.m. on many major routes. With the Blue Night Network, students can stay late at the university and shift workers can be assured of a ride home at any time of the day or night, and late-night social events need not be cut short. Vancouver’s transit system also reflects the city’s unique character in its links with the BC Ferries system, while Winnipeg Transit’s dedicated bus route from downtown to The Forks reflects a special connection with the shops and museums at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Each city’s transit system is unique and indicates something of what the local people value.

Taking public transit can be an interesting cultural experience, but visitors to a city should consider their options before deciding not to rent a car. Most large cities have fairly extensive transit systems, but smaller centres may have only a few limited routes. Buses and subways can be very crowded at peak hours of the day, while long waits may be inevitable at other times. In the last ten years, the amount of service in many cities has declined while transit use in Canada has increased, and this discrepancy shows in increased crowds. Cold, rain, and snow can make waiting uncomfortable, and transit stops and routes can sometimes be dangerous places, especially late at night. Learning as much as possible about potential problems will help tourists enjoy their experience.

Relying on public transit can enhance or limit travel. In Manitoba, for example, only Winnipeg and Brandon have major transit systems, while British Columbia’s roster is much more extensive, with over twenty-five transit systems. Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal have put the most money and effort into transit systems, with extensive service and plans for expansion to accommodate their large populations.

Transit in smaller cities like Winnipeg and Edmonton varies. While Winnipeg has only a traditional bus system, Edmonton is slowly expanding its Light Rail Transit system, the city’s version of a subway. Transit systems in smaller places like Steinbach, Manitoba or Squamish, British Columbia may be limited or non-existent, and it is best to check the city’s website before planning to rely on public transportation. Many cities, however, have some kind of Handi-Transit service available for those people who need it. Between cities there are usually services such as Greyhound buses, and travellers can also find day tours going to various locations to supplement their city visits. Sometimes, taking the bus is the best way to travel; at Edmonton’s Heritage Festival each summer, for example, cars are not allowed within the park where the festival is held. In cases like this, public transit may be the only option.

Cost is often a major consideration for tourists. Transit fares vary from city to city, and they are subject to frequent changes. However, most cities allow for transfers from one bus to another, and they often allow for fairly long stopovers at the destination spot. Sometimes, a single fare can take a traveller quite far.

If pressed to choose the best transit system in Canada, which one would most people select? Each one has its quirks, such as a differential payment system for travelling from one “zone” to another in Vancouver, a feature that might baffle newcomers to the city. Toronto’s system is extensive and efficient, but many other cities are trying to catch up. The three largest cities have the most extensive systems, and Ottawa also has a variety of choices for travellers. The smaller cities tend to be variable, with some excellent routes and others that would challenge the hardiest tourist.

Riders should be careful in planning their touring around bus schedules. Service changes can disrupt travel plans, and it is important to get current information. Libraries often have route maps, and city websites are normally a good source of information.

Despite the quirks, public transit systems give local residents and tourists alike the chance to experience the city without huge costs and give the freedom to visit places where vehicles are not allowed to go. For tourists willing to take the extra time and make the effort to use the bus or subway, public transit can be an inexpensive and exciting way to visit the cities of Canada.

Susan Huebert, Trail Canada

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