Public Transit

You can learn a lot about a place from the public transit. You can tell what the city/state prioritizes, what areas have better funding, and how important tourism is vs how many locals rely on public transit.

Areas with a lot of tourism and an emphasis on that will have signs in multiple languages, or at least in the local language and English. There will be some sort of ‘tourist card’ or day/multi-day pass for sale. The main tourist lines will connect the primary sights and skip past the neighborhoods where people actually live; or they’ll start/end in those neighborhoods and serve tourists for only part of the route. The stops will be clearly announced, sometimes in multiple languages, and there will be signage. Measures will be in place to make the system legible to outsiders.

Vienna is very tourist-friendly. There are clear signs, clear announcements, a highly-promoted city card, and the main sights are cleanly linked. You can get around without seeing much of ‘real life’ if you choose. Of course locals also ride public transit, and it gives easy access to the city center and business district, but the system welcomes outsiders. Travel a bit outside the tourist area and signage becomes slightly less frequent, and the trains and trams get a bit older and a little less tidy.

Morocco, at least the area I visited, is more local-focused. Tourism is very important, but the infrastructure hasn’t quite caught up. Signs are mostly in Arabic, bus stops are not clearly marked, most of the bus riders are locals heading to/from the markets, and the system can be a bit opaque without a local guide. To get to the airport in Agadir from Taghazout by bus, you have to hail a bus outside town on the main road at a roundabout, bribe the driver, get off at one of the two bus stations in Agadir, make your way across the city (probably in a taxi), and board a different bus at the other bus station to complete the trip.

Schedules are non-existent or meaningless. The bus comes when it comes, “maybe twice per hour, during the daylight”. To get on the bus at a station you must buy an official ticket; it doesn’t matter much where you plan to get off, you’re charged for the full journey that the bus will make. If you want to board the bus mid-journey, you flag it down and haggle with the driver, who is happy for the extra cash (no official bus tickets are sold en route, whether by agency policy or unofficial driver policy).

The buses are old and bare metal/plastic inside, and the drivers drive as if they’re possessed. By Morocco road rules, the biggest vehicle has the right of way (except for taxis, so if you’re driving in Morocco and you see a bus coming… yield. I didn’t see the usual signs on board warning passengers to hold on, but you get the idea pretty quickly, or you’ll crack your head on the floor finding out. On the plus side, the journeys don’t take very long!

In Budapest the transit system is well-developed and civilized, but fairly local-centric rather than tourist-centric. There are subways, trams, buses, and trains, and they’re all interconnected very reasonably, color-coded, and clearly marked on maps. The stops are announced in Hungarian by a pleasant-voiced robot and with electronic displays, even on rural buses, and transit stops on the streets are clearly signed.

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Budapest bus stop

If you still manage to get off at the wrong stop, as I did several times because Hungarian is difficult, there will be another bus/tram/train very soon (usually between 3-10 minutes during the day for trams and subway, ~20 minutes for buses), or an alternate route available. Trams and some buses run all night, though less frequently, so you won’t be stranded. The buses are used mostly by locals, and are the least reliable as they get stuck in traffic, but all transit options are clean and well-maintained. The subways are the oldest, and quite charming:

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Budapest metro
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Budapest metro car

The subway stations have charming tile and old wooden ticket booths, and a mysterious tiny secret door:

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Budapest metro station

An exciting quirk: the escalators stop when they’re not in use, but start again when someone steps on them (also true in Belgrade). It’s clever and efficient but startling if you’re not used to it. The fastest escalator I’ve ever encountered (and one of the longest) goes to the M3 subway (a particularly deep line) at Nyugati station. It’s terrifying — you almost have to get a run at it and you definitely want to hold on to the railing.

One mildly annoying thing about the Budapest transit system is that there are no transfers — you can buy a little book of 10 tickets for about $11, but each ride takes one ticket, which you validate as you board (and they do check). That means if you want to travel a moderate distance and need to transfer between the tram/subway/bus, you’ll need a separate ticket for each leg of the journey, which can add up quickly.

In Belgrade things are a little behind the EU, transit-wise, as you would expect for a country that’s recovering from recent wars and economic collapse. The train tracks and equipment are old and not well-maintained. Locals tend to avoid trains in favor of buses, in fact, as the buses are more reliable and significantly faster. When you cross the border from Hungary into Serbia on the train, it slows almost to a crawl, and a journey that takes maybe five hours by car takes up to twice that long by train.

Within the city, trams, buses, and minibuses (a separate phenomena that I don’t really understand yet) run very frequently, though on a rather haphazard schedule and subject to traffic. Signs exist, but only in Serbian, and not always clearly posted. It’s quite common to see a piece of paper with a handwritten route number taped to the window when the electric display is out:

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Belgrade bus with printed and handwritten route signs

Stops are not usually announced. Every bus and tram is different; a hodgepodge probably bought used from different places at different times. Some routes have newer trams and buses, but many look like they’re straight out of the socialist era:

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Belgrade bus with wooden seats
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Belgrade tram
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Belgrade tram

There’s a good transit app called Eway available that makes trip-planning easy, and bus tickets are available from the many kiosks. There is a short-term tourist pass, but it’s not a good value — better to buy a regular plastic card and load it with value. You can then reload it at any of the kiosks when you need to. Paying for your trip is surprisingly sophisticated, with electric tap-style card readers on the buses and trams (as opposed to the Hungarian system of manually punching a paper ticket in a machine that’s probably clogged with gum).

I’m excited for my trip to Montenegro next week aboard my first-ever sleeper train, and can’t wait to encounter more varieties of public transit later on down the line!

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