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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Public transportation is exactly what you need during vacation

Enrich your next urban adventure by leaving the car at home and deleting the Uber app

I have spent my entire life in the San Francisco Bay Area. My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Punjab in 1999, and we have been here ever since. Growing up, we always had family visiting, and one of our main activities were making trips to San Francisco. We got in our car and went to the same big tourist spots every time: the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, Pier 39 and Union Square.

I didn’t realize how many experiences I had missed out on in San Francisco until I was a junior in high school. Part of it is because my family never deviated from the same four destinations. But there was also the fact that driving a car to San Francisco meant incessant parking struggles as well as horrible traffic. There’s a very good chance that, on a particularly bad day of traffic, we would spend just as much time stuck in our car as we did actually enjoying the city outside. 

The summer before my first year at UC Davis, I had the chance to take the anti-car trip of a lifetime. I joined my extended family for their annual summer biking trip in Germany. On the way there, we stopped in Amsterdam, which, in terms of transit, is the antithesis of the Bay Area. 

Amsterdam was not a car-friendly place, and I liked that. Most of the streets were completely inaccessible to a car, and people mostly got around on bikes. This was the first time I was in a large, urban city where I could hear the voices of people and not the rush of traffic. The roads weren’t congested and run amuck with cars — they were lively, vibrant and bustling.

We took the Amsterdam Metro into the city, which gave us the chance to experience the city from a different perspective than the one from inside our car. Riding with other commuters, I had the chance to enjoy views of the city and the Dutch countryside without having to think about traffic, directions, parking or other minor annoyances that come with driving.

But what might have captivated me the most is that some of these train stations weren’t just transportation hubs — they were grand and beautiful centers that showcased the city’s art, culture and history. Although train stations are unlikely tourist destinations, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and the Gent-Sint-Pieters railway station in Ghent, Belgium were the highlights of my trips. Public transit allows tourists to experience a city from a much deeper perspective, transporting you out of a superficial tourist escapade.  

I’ve come to appreciate how public transportation isn’t just a topic of mobility but an active and thriving institution that is vital to the functioning of a city or region. When I finally began to use BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, and the SF Muni to get around San Francisco, I realized how little I had experienced in a city that I had been to many times before. It wasn’t just that I gained a better understanding of the makeup and geography of San Francisco — I was captivated by the movement of its people into, outside and within the city. But most of all, I loved the creativity and lives that I saw on mass transit.

Of course going completely car-free is easier said than done. Even my great German biking trip required a car to take us from England to Germany before we could begin to meander through the countryside. A car can seem convenient by transporting you in a familiar setting and at your own pace and time. But being a tourist is about detaching yourself from mundane modes of familiarity and immersing yourself into a new way of life.

In places where public and mass transit are integral parts of the city, you shouldn’t rely on it as a back-up but utilize the service because it’s there to serve you. The bustle and noise of a city’s transit centers feel like a celebration of a wide and diverse community and its people. So maybe on your next trip, opt-out of using a rental car or Uber, and give the local light rail or rapid transit system a try. You might find yourself appreciating a city in an unexpected yet welcome way.

Written by: Simran Kalkat — skkalkat@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie


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