Getting Around - Transportation

Getting Around

Local Public


If you live in an urban or suburban area, find out about the public transportation services before you settle on a job or long-term residence. Even if you have a car, convenient public transportation can make a huge difference in your life.

To find out about your area’s public transit system, google “Public transit,” plus your city or town.

Many transit systems post their contact information, both Web site and phone number, on their buses and trains. Most public transit systems offer trip-planning help and information about their services, such as maps, timetables, and fares.

Trip Planning

Trip planning is usually in the form of an online or telephone service that tells you how to get from one place to another by public transportation, and what it costs. The phone contact or Web site will ask
  • where you are leaving from;
  • where you are going;
  • the time of day you will be traveling, and
  • when you want to reach your destination.
Often, the system will list more than one choice, including earlier and later travel times, or different routes to bring you to your destination.
When you are using trip planning, note that
  • Trip planners seldom tell you how to know when you are approaching your stop. To get this information, you can
    • Check a map.
    • Ask a knowledgeable-looking passenger.


    • If you are on a bus, ask the driver to alert you when your stop is coming up.
  • Trip planning is based on official schedules, not on actual traveling conditions. Buses may run on time, but they often don’t.
  • The trip plan may include very short rides. You might be able to simplify your trip by walking a few blocks rather than waiting for a bus.
For these reasons, it’s a good idea to check the transportation system’s maps.

Public Transit Maps

Maps and timetables are usually available online and in print.
  • Most public transit maps show only main streets and intersections. The exact stop you are looking for may not be named on the map.
  • To fill in the gaps, check information from the trip planner against detailed maps on sites such as, Google, or Yahoo maps online; or look at printed maps of your area in the local library (the reference librarian will help with this). Doing this will give you a better idea of where you are actually going.
Maps may not be totally accurate, but for the most part they will be accurate enough to give you a general idea about the area you are looking for.
  • Sometimes maps are out of date, showing streets or bridges that have been closed, or not showing streets that have been built since the maps were produced.
  • Maps may not indicate one-way streets, or streets with temporarily restricted access.
  • They may show streets that are on a plan, but not yet built.


Timetables may not show all the stops on a city route, but they will tell you when a bus or train is scheduled to arrive at major stops. To use the timetable successfully, you may have to figure out which stops are nearest yours. To read a timetable,
  1. Find the direction you want to travel and the day and time of travel. Schedules may be different on weekends and at different times of day.
  2. Find the heading for the stop nearest you.
  3. Look down the column below that stop to find the times the train or bus arrives there.
  4. To see how long a trip might take, locate the heading for your destination stop and read across from a departure time to the arrival time.
  5. If you need to transfer from one bus to another to reach your destination, follow the same steps for the second route. (Your destination stop on the first route will be your departure stop on the second route.)
If you need to reach a destination by a specific time, it may be easier to work backward. Find the arrival time you want for your destination first; then reverse the process to find the time you should be at the first stop to begin your trip.

If you are going to make a particular trip regularly, or if it is important to be on time, such as for a job interview, take a test trip at the actual time you will have to make the trip on the day of the week you will be using it. And remember:
  • Buses are often late, especially during times of heavy traffic.
  • But if buses get to a stop earlier than scheduled, they don’t usually wait until the scheduled time.
  • Allow plenty of time for mishaps if you have scheduled an appointment. It’s better to arrive half an hour early for a job interview than five minutes late.


Transit systems may have complicated fare structures. Charges may vary based on
  • distance you are traveling,
  • time of day,
  • prepaid passes or discount fares, and
  • whether or not you transfer.
Small children may ride free up to a given age (5 years old in Los Angeles, 3 years old in New York) or size (short enough to fit under the turnstile).

If you are going to use public transit often, you may be able to get prepaid passes with bargain rates.
  • Check out the possibilities, either online at the transportation company’s Web site or by phone.
  • In addition to learning about possible discounts or other useful deals, remember to find out where you can get the passes, tickets, or tokens you will need and when these sales centers are open.
To ride the bus, you will probably need to have the exact fare or a prepaid pass because bus drivers seldom make change these days.

Help with Fare Costs

If you are staying in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing, you may be able to get tokens or passes through the agency that is housing you. Ask about this if you are in need.

If you have a medical condition that meets the agencies’ requirements for the service, you may also be able to get taxi vouchers or bus passes from the medical agency that is treating you.


There are likely to be times when the public transit system just won’t work—if you need to get a sick child to the doctor; or if you must travel with heavy bags of groceries, or to a place or at a time the transit system doesn’t go. At times like these, consider taking a taxi.
Taxis are public vehicles whose drivers are required to stop for you if they are available, or to pick you up at the address you request when you call the company for transportation.

If you call to order a taxi, ask how long the wait will be. Sometimes this information is accurate. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes the dispatcher will volunteer the information that there will be a long wait.

You are especially likely to have a long wait if you are in an isolated neighborhood or if the weather is bad.

Taxi Fares

  • Most taxi charges are determined by a meter, and include
    • an initial fee when you get in the cab, plus
    • a charge for each fraction of a mile and/or minute that you travel.
  • There may be
    • a charge for coming to get you;
    • a premium in bad weather or at certain hours;
    • a charge for additional passengers.
For these reasons, it is hard to estimate the fare. Of course, the fee for two trips to the same place, or for coming and going to and from the same places should be the same (barring a change in traffic or road conditions).
  • In some places, there are set fares for popular destinations, like downtown and to airports; or there may be other ways of setting charges.
  • Most cab drivers are honest. They will run the meter and take you to your destination as fast as possible because they stand to earn more money that way.
  • If the driver offers to turn off the meter and claims he will take you for less than the meter fee, choose the meter. The driver is cheating his company, and probably you, as well.
    • If he objects or tells you the meter is broken, get out and take another cab.
    • You might want to get out and take another cab, anyway. This driver is not trustworthy.
  • Taxis are subject to regulation.
    • To complain about a taxi trip, note the driver’s name, the company’s name, and the taxi number, which should be plainly displayed in the cab.
    • Note the date, time, and your pick-up and destination points.
    • If you paid for a trip, and the complaint is about the fare, be sure to get a receipt from the driver.
    • Write a letter with this information and the details of the incident you are complaining about, and send it to the person listed on your city’s Web site as the head of the agency that regulates taxis.
    • Such a complaint may lead to a prolonged process with charges and countercharges. It’s worth considering ahead of time whether the incident justifies your outlay of time and energy.

Long Distance Public Transportation

For those who own cars, driving is the most popular way to travel, except for very long distances. Those who don’t own cars, or who don’t want to spend several days on the road, must choose among the available public transportation services. Long-distance travel by public transportation may be a simple matter if you live in or near a major city, but close to impossible if you live in a small town or rural area.

Intercity Buses

Buses are the simplest—and usually the cheapest—mode of travel from one area to another. Because buses can travel on most roads and don’t require specialized support, bus service may be available in small towns whose population can’t support other modes of public transportation.
  • Some companies are quite small, operating only a few buses on a couple of routes.
  • Some are virtual monopolies, offering the only public transportation to a given place, while others operate in highly competitive markets.
  • The quality of service ranges from excellent to awful.
      • You may find yourself in a luxurious leather seat with an outlet for your laptop, or cramped into a dusty, smelly wedge.
      • Drivers may be cautious or careless, friendly or cranky.
      • The ride may be smooth and relaxing or bumpy and jolting.
  • Prices vary dramatically, depending on the volume of passengers, distance traveled, gasoline prices, and competition from other companies.
  • Traffic delays may make a mockery of schedules—a circumstance beyond the company’s control.
  • If you are thinking of traveling by bus, it’s a good idea to research the options online. Use “bus travel from [your departure place] to [your arrival place]” as your beginning search term.


Airplanes are by far the most common mode of public transportation for very long distances. There are 25,000 to 30,000 passenger flights in the United States every day. Prices vary, depending on the popularity of the departure and destination airports, the price of fuel, and the number of competing airlines flying to the same destination. Although expensive, complicated by security precautions, and uncomfortably cramped as most airplanes are, air travel remains for many the most practical way to travel long distances.
  • Air travel is the safest of all travel modes. The government enforces tight safety regulations.
  • Delays are common. Schedules may be affected by bad weather, mechanical problems, and air traffic congestion at heavily used airports. Last-minute cancellations are also possible.
  • Prices fluctuate wildly depending on the date and time of travel, the number of stops en route, the type of aircraft, the airline, and even the date you buy your ticket.
  • If you can be flexible about your travel schedule, and you have ready access to the Internet, you can find bargain rates on sites like,, and
  • By and large you can get a better price by buying online directly from an airline, rather than through a travel service.
  • When you compare prices, check whether the price offered includes additional fees, including taxes, and whether you will be charged for checked baggage.
  • It is “iffy” to try to buy a ticket at the airport.  Paying cash or buying only a one-way ticket will almost certainly get you special attention from a security agent.  In fact, a round-trip ticket may actually cost less than a one-way ticket.
  • Be sure to read all the directions about what you are allowed to carry on with you and what you will need by way of identification and other paperwork; and allow plenty of time to get through the security check so that you won’t be bumped from your flight.


Trains run only in limited areas. Amtrak, the intercity passenger service, boasts that it serves 500 stations in 46 states and Canada; but in fact Amtrak runs only 34 routes.
  • Some routes, such as Boston to New York to Washington, D. C., are popular routes with frequent trains.
  • On other routes, trains may run as seldom as once a day, come and go at odd hours, or involve transferring to and from a bus.
  • Trains are generally more spacious and comfortable than buses or airplanes.
  • Costs for travel by train are usually higher than bus fares, and lower than plane fares.
  • Train travel is usually faster than bus travel. If you must travel a long way to and from an airport and allow extra time to go through security, train travel between some cities may be even faster than air travel.
  • Trains are not subject to the kinds of traffic or weather delays that may tangle up bus and plane schedules, but their schedules are not really any more reliable than the rest.
  • For specific information about train travel, the Amtrak Web site is clear and easy to use.

Personal Transportation

In places that lack public transportation, you must provide your own transportation. You may prefer to do it yourself, in any case.


A bicycle is handy for short trips, for recreation, and for some longer trips in bike-friendly areas. Bicycles can be inexpensive or pricey, depending on what you want to spend. But bicycles have limitations:
  • Bicycles can’t travel on limited-access highways.
  • Most streets and roads have no dedicated bicycle lanes, and bicycle riders are targets for irate drivers in a hurry.
  • You can’t carry much cargo on a bicycle.
  • You can’t safely use a bicycle in heavy rain or snow.
  • It’s dangerous to ride for more than a short time in extreme heat.
  • Unless well secured, bicycles are tempting to thieves and easy to steal.
If you use a bicycle, it’s advisable to:
  • Buy and wear a good helmet.
  • Register your bike with the local police so they will have a record if it is stolen.
  • Find a safe, enclosed place to store the bike at home.
  • Buy and use a good lock.
  • Learn about and obey local laws for bicyclists. For instance, in some cities, it’s legal to ride a bike on a sidewalk; in others it’s not.

Motor Vehicles

Material in this section applies to cars, trucks, motorcycles, and motorbikes.  Special-purpose vehicles such as golf carts and off-road vehicles—all-terrain-vehicles, or ATVs—are either not legal for use on public streets or must meet distinct standards specified in state and federal law.

Driver’s License

To drive a motor vehicle, you need a driver’s license.
  • Driver’s licenses are issued by the states. Requirements and fees vary from state to state.
  • If you have a valid license from another state, you may be able to replace it fairly easily with a new one from your new state.
  • If your license has expired, you will probably need to prove your identity, and you may need to arrange for a road or other test.
  • To find out exactly what to do, google “Driver license,” plus your state. There is usually a fee, and you can find that information also. (See Proof of Identity for detailed information on the topic.)
  • Your driver’s license is also your photo ID, required for many other purposes.
    • If you move, remember to report your change of address to the license bureau.

Temporary Use of a Vehicle

There may be times when you need a vehicle temporarily. Consider these possibilities:

Borrowing a vehicle

Sometimes a friend or family member can lend you a vehicle. This is especially helpful if you need it only now and then, or for one-time use, like when you move. If you borrow someone else’s car or truck, be mindful that it does cost them when you use the vehicle.
  • If it’s a short-term or one-time loan, estimate your gas use and either pay for the gas or fill the gas tank before you return the vehicle.
  • If it’s a long-term loan, talk to the lender about items like insurance and maintenance costs before you starting using the vehicle, so that both of you have an understanding about who will cover what costs. Also, it will save you some hassle if you have a copy of the registration and insurance certificate with you, in case of an accident.

Car or Truck Rentals

Car or Truck Rentals
are feasible if you have a credit card and need a vehicle for short-term use, such as moving, or for a short time until long-term transportation is available.
  • Rentals are expensive, so shop for the best deal.
  • In addition to the stated rental price, be prepared to pay extra for insurance, taxes, and gas.
  • Check out a rental vehicle thoroughly before you drive it out of the lot. You may be held responsible for problems or defects the company didn’t notice before you took it.
  • Car rental companies tend to concentrate at airports and central downtown locations. Most require you to pick up and return the car at one of their branches.
  • Airports often impose extra fees and taxes on rental cars. You might want to check prices away from the airport to see if it’s cheaper to go by cab or bus to a different rental location.
  • Car rental companies may charge extra if you want to return the car to a different city from where you rented it.

Car sharing

In several cities, you can join  a car sharing service.
  • For a basic subscription fee, plus an hourly rate, you can reserve a car for periods ranging from one hour to several days. The price includes gas and insurance.
  • Cars are placed in residential neighborhoods as well as in central areas.
  • This may be a useful option if you can compress all your driving needs into a few hours.
  • Be sure to note any taxes and fees in addition to the base rate before you sign up.
To find out more about this option in your area, google “car-sharing” + your city.

Leasing or Buying a Vehicle

If you live in an area without public transit, you may need a more permanent arrangement—to buy or lease a vehicle. This is a major expense and a very tricky business.

If you know someone who is knowledgeable about cars and willing to help you, by all means, take advantage of the offer.

But no matter whose advice you get, you will be driving the car, and you will be paying for it; so think long and hard, and do some careful research before you buy. You can find helpful advice at this government sponsored Web site.

Think about
  • Your driving habits: How often will you be using the vehicle? How far will you be driving?
  • Your needs: How many people will ride in the car with you? Will you need the vehicle for transporting goods or tools as well as people? What kinds of roads will you be driving on? In what kind of traffic? Will there be weather hazards?
  • Your budget: What kind of vehicle can you afford to buy and maintain? Remember to include
    • gas,
    • insurance,
    • taxes, and
    • maintenance and repairs.
These expenses could easily amount to several hundred dollars a month.


Leasing is a long-term agreement with a dealer. Leasing usually calls for
  • a cash payment when you get the vehicle, plus
  • fixed monthly payments for three or four years to come,
  • after which you can either buy the vehicle at a reduced price, or return it to the dealer.
You are responsible for maintenance and repairs (outside of those covered by a warranty).
Leasing may look attractive because you need less money up front; but before you lease, add up the total that you will be paying during the term of the lease and compare it with the cost of buying a comparable vehicle outright.


Buying gives you ownership of the vehicle. It’s yours. If you will need to borrow to pay for the vehicle, read about loan basics. Here are some guidelines to help you think about buying a vehicle:
  • Plan on a down payment of 20% of the car’s total price. You will then be able to pay off a loan at a rate that keeps you from owing more than the car is worth.
  • For the same reason, it’s advisable not to take out a loan of more than 48 months (four years).
  • A dealer’s loan may be convenient, but it is often more expensive than a loan from a bank or savings institution. Shop for the best deal.
  • To get a loan from a reputable lender, you will need
    • a good credit history for at least six months, preferably a year;
    • stable employment; and
    • income that is adequate, in the lender’s opinion, to afford the monthly payments.

If you do not have a credit history, you may be able to get a loan if someone with a good credit history will co-sign it. A co-signer agrees to be responsible for the loan, a major commitment. If you use a co-signer, be sure he or she understands this commitment.  

Used vs. new. It may be more practical to buy a used car in good condition than to buy a new car.
  • New cars lose a chunk of their value as you drive them out of the lot, and they also cost more to insure.
  • If a new car is affordable and you are planning to keep it for many years to come, the comfort of knowing its history, and the fun of having something totally up to date will not cost you in the end.
  • But if money is tight and you’re not sure how long you want to keep the car, a used car in good condition and with low mileage is a more economical solution.
  • A dealer may offer warranties on used cars, but it isn’t easy to know why the previous owner traded it in.
What to buy.  Whether you buy a new or used vehicle, you’ll find an immense range of offerings and usually will need to make some major decisions before you start shopping:
  • How much you can (or want to) pay, including cash available for a down payment and monthly payments.
  • What kind of vehicle best suits your needs.
  • What features are most important – such as fuel efficiency, bad weather handling, cargo capacity, for example.
Once you make these basic decisions you will face a range of brands, styles, and options from which to choose.  There are some useful resources for information that will help you make an informed choice.
  • If you are buying a new car, search online for reviews of the makes and models you are thinking about.  Google “reviews of” plus the year, make and model.
    • Note the qualifications of the reviewers, and read more than one review.  
    • You can check in your local public library for reviews in Consumer Reports, a non-profit magazine that does extensive reviews of cars.  
    • Other sources of reviews are specialized magazines like Car and Driver, Automobile, and Motor Trend.  All have online sites and some offer used car information as well.  
  • If you are looking for a used car, you can find summaries of owners’ experiences with specific makes and models in Consumer Reports.  
  • You can get information about the history of individual used cars online at Web sites likes this one or this one. On these sites, for a charge, you can type in a specific car's Vehicle Identification Number -- a unique number assigned to every vehicle -- and get its history.  
    • The charges vary, depending on whether you want to check one car, or the option to check several cars. Prices ranges from $30 to $50 for this service.
    • Some dealers will provide a “Carfax” used car history for you.
    • Before buying a used car, it is important to have a reliable mechanic – whom you, not the dealer, pay for the service -- check it out. A car may look good and run well, and still be in imminent need of expensive repairs, which you will need to figure into your budget.  
    • Check the Blue Book prices of comparable vehicles to see if you are getting a fair deal.  Usually, a Blue Book price is the most you should consider paying. If the price asked is significantly different (either higher or lower), find out why.
Where to buy. You will find many enticing offers practically anywhere you look: online; in local newspapers; at auctions; at used- or new-car dealers; and from individuals, charitable organizations, and car-rental companies.
  • The safest place to buy is from a reputable local dealer.
    • Dealers, but not individuals, must provide certain accurate and honest information about the vehicle.
    • You can take the car back and complain to the dealer if there is a problem with the vehicle after you buy it.
    • Dealers usually issue a warranty, even for used vehicles, that will cover the cost of certain kinds of repairs for a while after you buy it.  Some manufacturers offer warrants, as well.
    • Dealers have reason to want satisfied buyers: They want you to buy from them in the future, and to send your friends to them to shop, as well.
    • There are shady dealers, as well as reputable dealers. If you can, ask a co-worker or friend whom they recommend. Check the dealer’s record with the local Better Business Bureau.
Unless you have personal knowledge of the honesty and integrity of the owner, be cautious about buying from an individual. This is not to suggest that everyone with a car to sell is dishonest, but it is very easy for an owner not to mention problems that are not evident when you look at, or test-drive the car. You don’t want to find yourself stuck with a car that needs expensive repairs, or that has a questionable ownership history.

Don’t buy (from an online or out-of-town seller or dealer) a used vehicle you haven’t seen and driven.
  • They may look like amazing bargains, but cars presented for auction are “iffy”. One person who bought a car at an auction later learned, after experiencing numerous problems, that its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) belonged to a car that had been listed as “totaled” (damaged beyond what the cost of repair would justify).
  • Price and drive several cars at different dealers before you buy, so you have a good idea of an appropriate price for a given vehicle.
  • Don’t let yourself be rushed. A salesman’s comment that “Some folks who looked at this car this morning were mighty interested. It may not be here if you wait much longer,” or “I can’t keep it at this price much longer. The sale ends tomorrow.” is designed to stampede you into premature commitment. Indeed, that particular car might be gone, but hundreds of others will still be there.
  • Read all the terms of any contract completely and carefully before you sign anything or pay out any money. Once you sign, you are legally committed and cannot undo the deal if you find something better elsewhere.
    • Ask if you don’t understand something.
    • Make sure that all blanks are filled in correctly. If there are mistakes, correct them. Put a dash or other mark in blanks that you do not need to fill in.
    • Be especially cautious if the salesperson
      • seems to be rushing you,
      • can’t explain something to your satisfaction, or
      • acts as if you are “odd” for questioning some part of the agreement.
Car-buying vocabulary. Here are some frequently used terms to help you understand, and speak, the language when you’re looking for a car:

Blue book price or value: Refers to the Kelley Blue Book, a guide to the market value of all kinds of vehicles, frequently used to establish a fair price for a used vehicle. The book provides both an estimated retail or sales value, and trade-in or seller’s value.

Collateral: Property used as security for a loan. If you take out a car loan, the car is your collateral for the loan.

Interest rate: The cost of the loan, expressed as a percentage. A 6% simple interest rate means you are paying $6 for every $100 you owe each year.

Lien: The right to the property listed as collateral. If you default—fail to pay—as agreed, the lien holder, or lender, can repossess the vehicle and sell it to recover the amount owed.

MSRP: If you are buying a new vehicle, this is the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Generally, you pay less than the MSRP, but if a particular model is very popular, you may pay more.

Pre-owned car: A more expensive or upscale used car.

Title: A certificate of ownership. If you take out a loan to pay for the car, the lender may keep the title until you finish paying off the loan.

Trade-in value: The amount a dealer is willing to offer if you are exchanging your present vehicle for one of his.

Both Blue Book and trade-in values are suggestions. Actual prices for a given vehicle vary depending on its individual condition.

Used car: A car being resold after ownership by another person or company.

Warranty: A dealer’s statement that the vehicle is in good condition. The warranty clearly states what parts and services the dealer will provide if the vehicle proves defective in the conditions covered, and for how long the promise is good.

Keep all documents related to lease or purchase of a vehicle—contracts, warranties, receipts, loan agreements, title—in a safe place as long as you have the vehicle.

Motor Vehicle Insurance

In most states, vehicle owners are required to have liability insurance to cover costs of accidents.
  • If you are at fault and if more than one vehicle is involved, your insurance company may also have to pay for repairs to other vehicles and medical costs for injuries to people in the other cars.
  • If you are in an accident while driving without insurance, you will be personally responsible for costs of repairs and medical treatment.
  • The cost of insurance varies greatly depending on your age and driving record; where you live; and the make, model, and year of your car.  It’s advisable to:
      • Check several different insurance companies online or by phone.
      • Be mindful that sometimes lower rates signify inferior coverage.
      • Find out what kinds and amounts of insurance your state requires and make sure your coverage conforms.
The amount you pay for coverage is called a “premium.” Premiums are calculated as a yearly expense, although you can usually pay in installments.

Motor Vehicle Registration

When you buy or lease a motor vehicle, you must register your ownership with the state and get a license plate. Usually you will need to
  • show proof of ownership or lease;
  • pay a licensing fee;
  • pass the vehicle through a safety inspection.
You may also need to show a certificate of insurance for the vehicle.
  • If you buy or lease from a dealer, the company will usually take care of the registration, but check out the fee beforehand.
  • If you buy from an individual, you must take care of the registration yourself. Check your state’s motor vehicle department to find out what you must do and how soon you must do it.
  • If you sell a vehicle, be sure the new owner transfers the title and registers the vehicle in her own name. Otherwise you may be held responsible for parking tickets and other fines actually incurred by the new owner.