On a standard weekday in Chicago, for example, 1.6 million public transit rides are taken. And on a great many of these rides, passengers encounter unexpected situations which range from the mildly amusing to the downright dangerous.

Taking a bus, train, or subway ride in most major cities can be a bit of a gamble, because you truly never know what you’re going to get each time you step aboard. Even urban public transit pros are sometimes confounded by what they experience, and even they can benefit from these tips that will increase their safety and enjoyment of public transportation.

Track Your Ride

CityMapper mobile app

Even if taking public transit is old hat for you at this point, you still need to take all possible precautions to avoid unnecessary risk.  That starts with waiting for your bus or train to arrive, especially at times with low traffic. Whenever possible, try to minimize the time you spend waiting because standing alone on a street corner or platform could make you an easy target.

Use City Mapper or other mobile apps that allow you to track buses and trains in real time, so you can arrive moments before it’s time to board. Check out the various options available in your city, and try a few different tools to determine what works best for your specific commute.

Get Organized

Before you leave your home or office, make sure everything you need is within reach so that you don’t have to dig through your pockets, wallet or bag to find your transit card, phone or anything else you might use. It’s a good idea to keep your transit card separate from your wallet so that you don’t end up dropping cash or valuable cards while rushing through a turnstile. Plus, distractedly searching through a bag while walking in a crowded place could result in a serious accident.

Steer Clear of Sketchy

While it’s true that the majority of public transit passengers are kind, sane people like you and me, there are just enough sketchy characters out there to make vigilance a necessity. Know the warning signs of someone whom you wouldn’t want to tangle with and do not engage. If an individual or group seems dangerous or threatening in any way, use these tips to avoid them:

  • Do not make eye contact.
  • Move as far away from them as possible.
  • Stand near the driver.
  • Do not respond if they initiate conversation, even if it’s rude.
  • Remain standing so you can move away easily.

Look Busy

Chicago L by Graham Garfield

You may be one of the few urbanites who view their bus or el rides as an opportunity to strike up conversation with charming strangers, but you’re probably one of the masses who prefers a peaceful, solitary ride. If that’s the case, be ready to look busy, even if you aren’t. You might just want to zone out while staring out the window, but have a backup plan that will make you appear to be immersed in a pressing matter if someone tries to become your new best friend, preach the gospel or just tell you about the voices inside their head.

Courtesy is Key

In many ways, riding the public bus, subway or tram is an every-man-for-himself game, but for public transportation to work, every man (and woman) also has to be courteous and considerate to fellow riders. There are a few non-negotiables if you want to be a decent human being and not incite conflict or dirty looks:

  • Offer your seat to senior citizens, the disabled or injured, pregnant women, parents with babies or small children, or anyone who seems like they need it more than you do.
  • Don’t take up more than one seat with your body or belongings.
  • Don’t lean against a pole – it’s made for several people’s hands, not your entire body.
  • Don’t play music so loud that it can be heard by those around you.
  • Don’t have long, loud conversations on your cell phone.
  • Let riders exit the bus or train before you board.

Hold on Tight

Bus and train accidents are more common than you may think – even the professional drivers and conductors make mistakes.  Regardless of how often you use public transportation or how steady you are on your feet, always hold on to a handle or pole while standing. You never know when the bus or train will swerve or stop suddenly, which could easily send you flying and result in serious injury.

Seat Sleuth

There are certain times when trying to find a seat on a city bus or train is a fool’s errand – you’re sometimes just lucky to find enough space to stand.  But, when it’s slightly less than packed wall-to-wall, there is hope for you.  If you’re committed to sitting, you’ll have to make it your mission.  That means you have to give seat-searching your full attention.

First, look for people who appear to be preparing to get off:  those who are folding up newspapers, zipping up bags, and putting away phones.  Once you see these signs, go stand near them so you’re ready to slide in as soon as they stand.  If you’re approaching a stop that you know to be a popular exit point, position yourself in the center of the aisle instead of near the doors.  This way, you can nab a seat right away instead of waiting until everyone clears out. Lastly, be prepared to be assertive if someone’s taking up 2 seats.  Most riders will just roll their eyes and stay silent, but if you really want a seat, step up and tell the greedy seat hog to make room.

One warning about seats:  If there’s an empty one in a packed bus or train, there’s probably a reason for that, and that reason isn’t that it’s your lucky day. The seat is either dirty or next to someone who all the other passengers deem too undesirable to have as a seat neighbor.

Public transit - Los Angeles Gold LIne by LA Times

Keep it Clean

Public buses and trains are breeding grounds for germs – I know you don’t really want to think about that while you’re riding, but you should keep it in mind.  You can’t avoid touching things entirely, but you can minimize the things you touch if you’re intentional about it.  As a safeguard, make it a habit to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer immediately after getting off of a bus or train.  By the same token, take great care to cover your sneezes and coughs while you’re aboard.

Stay Alert

It’s easy to go on auto-pilot on your daily commute, but it’s important to always stay alert on all parts of your ride.  I’m not saying you can’t read a book or play a game on your phone, but remember to look up and around every couple of minutes.  If you ever feel unsafe, put away your phone or any valuables and be ready to react.  Lots of dangerous incidents and accidents could easily be avoided by simply paying attention to your surroundings.

Public transportation is an everyday reality for most urban dwellers.  And as much as we might complain about our city’s transport quirks and issues, we’re lucky to have such a large and comprehensive system at our disposal.

As convenient and efficient as our buses and trains can be, however, they can also present significant dangers and annoyances.  That’s why public transit passengers have to be street smart and savvy every single time they set out on a journey across their great city.

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Jay Deratany


Chicago, IL

Jay Deratany is the founding member of The Deratany Firm and is a top personal injury lawyer in Chicago. His passion for helping people extends beyond the firm and into his extensive pro bono work and personal philanthropy as well.

All posts by Jay Deratany

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