How To Use Public Transport Effectively

How To Use Public Transport Effectively

Public transport is generally cheaper than driving, frequently quicker and unquestionably better for the environment, but it poses its own challenges. From unpredictable schedules to maddening fellow passengers, it’s easy to lose your mind. Follow these tips to make public transport less of a hassle.

Picture by g_kat26

The dominant mode of public transport in Australia is buses. Major capital cities also have train networks, and there are other options depending on your location (ferries in Sydney and Brisbane, trams in Melbourne). Whatever the mode, however, the basic survival tricks are the same. The short version? Planning and politeness go a long way to making life easier for you and your fellow commuters. In this post, we’ll concentrate on using public transport in Australia, but the same basic rules apply everywhere.

Know Your Timetable And Routes

On a system like the London Underground, where the gap between trains is rarely longer than five minutes, you can simply rock up to the station and assume something will be along shortly. This doesn’t work so well in most parts of Australia, where service frequencies can often be every half an hour or less, especially outside peak hours and on weekends. Don’t leave it to chance; plan your journey in advance by checking the relevant web site. Here are the transport information sites for Australian capital cities, most of which feature handy point-to-point journey planners.

  • Sydney: TransportInfo
  • Melbourne: Public Transport Victoria
  • Brisbane: TransLink
  • Perth: Transperth
  • Adelaide: Adelaide Metro
  • Canberra: ACTION Buses
  • Hobart: Metro Tasmania
  • Darwin: Department Of Transport
  • As well, Google Maps incorporates public transport information for Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra and Cairns. (Brisbane and Melbourne need to get their act together.) As an added resource, you can search your favoured app store for public transport information for your city; these are rarely official but often very useful.

    Research is even more important when you’re travelling on an unfamiliar route. You can always ask for help, but driver friendliness varies hugely, so a little advance planning helps out.

    Find Out How To Pay

    Cities vary hugely in terms of ticketing systems and where you can purchase tickets. Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Canberra all have smart card systems, but the degree they impose these on visitors varies. Many Sydney buses require you to purchase tickets in advance before boarding. In Adelaide, the ticket machines are on trains rather than on platforms. We’re not going to detail all the variations here, but the basic point remains: check before you venture out.

    In an unfamiliar city, think carefully before buying a “tourist pass”: a regular rail ticket may be more flexible and substantially cheaper. (For airport public transport, check our detailed guide).

    The one rule that’s invariably true? Buses don’t have a lot of change. Pay for a ticket with anything bigger than a $10 note and you’re likely to be unpopular and/or booted off the bus by the driver.

    On The Ride: Keep Yourself Entertained


    Depending on your disposition, public transport can either be a great place to chat with strangers, or a horrifying social situation you have to navigate. For those who like to chat, public transportation is a good place to spark up a random conversation with a stranger (who can’t really walk away). If you’re struggling for conversation starters, we’ve talked before about turning small talk into a conversation. For the most part, this means keeping yourself engaged in the conversation by asking relevant questions, starting with small ideas, and being relatively honest about your own reactions. Just remember, not everyone is interested in talking.

    If keeping to yourself is more your thing, headphones are the easiest way to avoid unwanted interaction. There are also other tactics you can adopt, though you shouldn’t go so far as to stop someone accessing a needed seat.

    One of the great benefits of public transport (especially if you know the route) is that you can get other things done, whether that’s catching up on email on your phone, playing games, or reading a book (whether electronic or old-fashioned paperback). In the smartphone era, the only real reason you shouldn’t be entertained on public transport is if your device runs out of battery. Photo by Caitlin Regan. [clear]

    Remember Your Manners

    It’s easy to disappear into your phone when you’re on public transport, but that’s no excuse to be a jerk. If you see someone who could use your seat more than you (they’re sick, elderly, holding a tons of bags, etc), offer yours up. Slide over when the bus or train is full, and if someone needs a hand, help them out. Don’t worry! You can still disappear back into your crossword puzzle when you’re done. Also remember umbrella etiquette on rainy days.

    Finally, remember that people don’t want to hear your loud conversation on your mobile. If you have to make a call, keep it brief and as quiet as you can. If you’re lucky, everyone else will do the same (and at least the very least you won’t be the loud annoying person).


  • You might as well expunge Translink. Brisbane transport is very rarely cheaper or quicker than driving (though still better for the environment).

    BCC/Newman’s redneck pro-roads agenda has made Brisbane the 3rd most expensive in the world ( It’s almost always cheaper to pay for petrol and parking. I live 6k from the CBD, and it costs a small fortune for me and partner to do a return to the city. Every single new development in Brisbane is based around a car park (by BCC mandate), and BCC public transport and cycling budgets are routinely back-channelled into facilities for private cars. Finally, the Queensland government has just sacked most of its urban planning staff (they think all you need is engineers, which, if your plan is to funnel public money to corporate developer mates, is about right).

  • I use public transport as much as I can and, at least for Sydney buses, knowing your timetables really doesn’t matter. You basically rock up and hope that your bus will be there soon – whatever the timetable says is a very rough guide and pretty much useful for knowing the rough frequencies of bus departures and which routes go through that location.

  • If you’re taking a train on the Queensland Rail network, I always try and take the train thats earlier than the one I’m meant to take. Whilst QR claim an average 98% on time running time during peak hours, I can assure you its anything but that outside of the get to/get home from work rush. Or maybe I’m just lucky that of the 10 or so trips I do a week, 8 or so of those trains are late.

    • To further my comment, last night is a perfect example. The WHOLE network had delays ranging between 20 minutes to over an hour.

      And yes, I acknowledge that certain things are out of QR’s control, but if one station goes down, the whole network shouldn’t have to. And even if it did (which was the case), there should be contingency plans in place. All too many times have I been stuck at stations, waiting for trains that are late or just don’t ever come.

  • How to use public transport effectively: Move to the USA, Canada, or Europe where public transport is cheap, efficient, on time, 24 hours a day, to every suburb in most cities. Australia is just abysmal in comparison and has been for thirty years.

    • +1 million

      The first two days I was in London, I kept thinking that I was just incredibly lucky that I was arriving on the platform just in time to catch the train lol

    • LOL @ “every suburb in most cities”

      The suburbs and cities a tourist might be most interested in, maybe. But seriously, try visiting some reasonably sized cities in the Midwestern USA. You’ll be lucky if there is anything more than a single bus route down the main drag.

  • 5 – If you’re at Perth station, and the train is 4 or 6 carriages, MOVE DOWN THE PLATFORM!!!!! The number of times I see people crowding the “convenient” carriages of the train while leaving the very front and/or back cars empty is ridiculous. Happened today on the Royal Show express.

    • Oh god The Royal Show with idiots holding up people on SmartRider barriers. I mean that happens often enough but with all the works going on plus the holds ups at the barriers it is quite irritating. But that is a great hack you mentioned and is quite easy; want to board the train with ease, esp. on Midland, Armadale/Thornie and Freo lines? Move to the far side of the platform and enjoy some peace and quiet!

      Some tips:

      1) Buses have two lines that usually form. Those for SmartRider holders and those who wish to buy tickets. If you see that you’re not going to get a seat and have a long trip, get a cash ticket. I dodge the line when going to and from UWA; it can be a nightmare sometimes.

      2) If getting a cash ticket, sometimes you can get away with asking for a concession. I’ve been caught out with not much change and just had enough for concession. If they ask, who cares? Just say you forgot your Health Care Card or “whoops, it’s expired!” and get an adult fare.

      3) Google Transit is your friend, and without it I wouldn’t catch public transport as much as I do. A quick check for multiple transfers for an area you seldom hit is pretty difficult using paper timetables or the shit journey planner.

      4) Extend the utilisation of public transport by using a folding bicycle. The rules for a folding bike under Transperth to take on buses are truly restrictive (compared to bike friendly cities such as San Fran or London) but as long as it is a Brompton or something not much bigger you’d be fine. I sometimes get asked to cover my Brompton on the bus with a bike bag but that is very rare. The added benefit is the ability to bring one on the train during peak. Cover it an no one is the wiser.

  • If you are taking a bus try signalling the driver, I know several bus drivers and they say it’s impossible to know whether to stop or not if the passengers don’t signal, especially at stops that service several routes. Murphy’s law they stop and then no one wants to get on. They don’t and they get the finger.

  • If you’re relying on TransPerth, I highly recommend you have a timetable on you. My buses are every couple of hours, if that 😛 The trains are a little bit better though, you can usually just rock up and one will be there within 15 minutes (unless it’s the middle of the night).

    • Not to mention the schedule start/stop times. Most routes start early in the morning, but they can finish anywhere between 6pm and 2am. And don’t try a journey that involves more than one bus on a sunday, your trip will stretch out to multiple hours.

      The trains are pretty decent, except for the fact we don’t have enough of them. I’ll vote for any party that runs on a platform of installing train tracks until they’re bankrupt.

  • Have to defend translink a little, the student pricing is pretty reasonable, and if you live on/close to a busway (unlikely but the busway is pretty long) transport is reliable.

    Anyways a few tips.

    Board at the front exit at the back! people who dont do this really screw up the flow

    Put your smart card underneath your phone case – then you can just take out your phone and tap when going on the bus instead of holding people up.

  • I have to say, Perth public transport is not so bad (unless you live fairly far out). It’s probably not as cheap as it could be, but we’re probably supplementing school kids fares and uni students fares.

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