SEPTA vs ALSA !
If you’re a public transit enthusiast like myself (NUMTOTs where you at??), you probably already know that the rest of the world does mass transportation quicker, cleaner, and techier than we do in the United States. Spain, where I studied in the spring of 2019, was no exception. So, I am dedicating this post to the ALSA bus system that I took throughout Spain and showing you all how it compares (good and bad) to Philadelphia’s very own bus, subway, trolley, and regional rail system, SEPTA.
My first experience with an all-encompassing public transit system was here in Philly when I started at Temple in 2016. Growing up in West Virginia, I thought relying on cars to travel was normal. I was so excited by the prospect of not having to deal with traffic (just take the subway instead!) and of using the time spent on the bus or train to be productive in other ways. When I moved to Oviedo, Spain, I figured that I would be able to go to other big cities by train or plane. However, I didn’t expect that I would be able to visit so many towns in Asturias by bus! I imagined that this rural province of Spain would be more like West Virginia, which only has a small bus system that runs throughout my town. It didn’t cross my mind that a bus network stretching across windy one lane roads could exist – but Asturias makes it work!
ALSA map of Asturias services (with my highlighted trip routes)
As you can see, the bus routes throughout Asturias, a state similar in size to Connecticut, are quite comprehensive. I highlighted the ALSA routes that I took on various weekend trips where I visited nearby towns like Gijón (30 minutes away) and state parks like Pola de Somiedo (4 hours away). Some of these bus routes run every half hour, whereas some only run once a day. Still, ALSA’s website is very navigable, which makes it easy to plan trips in advance! The buses leave and arrive fairly close to schedule, similar to SEPTA regional rail.
ALSA website homepage
During my time in Spain, I took ALSA buses on at least 8 different trips! I got to know the process of buying tickets (you have to pay an extra processing fee if you buy online, but it’s nice not having to arrive at the bus station too far in advance), boarding the bus (standard!), and the expectation for the ride (usually smooth, I was never on a bus that broke down – something I can’t say about the U.S.). Aside from weekend trips, I took ALSA buses throughout Spain to places like Bilbao and Granada. At the end of our program, my friend Allie and I, and all our luggage rode the ALSA bus the five hours back to Madrid.
ALSA national services map
I won’t say that ALSA is a perfect bus system. Of course, my friends and I did have some mishaps. When we were heading back from Bilbao one Saturday evening, my friend Ruthie realized that her ticket was for the wrong date! She tried to convince the bus driver to let her on since there were open seats, but he wouldn’t budge. Thankfully, our friend Lianna stayed behind with her and the two of them spent another night in the hostel. I also had a close call on the bus to the Madrid airport. Allie and I noticed on the bus ticket that there was a transfer, so at the designated stop we went to grab our luggage and head off. Thankfully the baggage handler informed us that the stop wasn’t a transfer as it said on the ticket, just a refuel stop. Lucky!
Me and other Temple in Spain 2019 students asleep on the bus
When you live in a place for 5 months you learn about the ins and outs of a transit system, just like I’ve done with SEPTA here in Philadelphia. I had many mishaps on the subway my first year living here. It’s just part of the experience. That being said, signs that make places easily navigable, a website that is updated and informative, and clean and functioning vehicles make a huge difference.
The quality of SEPTA’s services differ between their modes of transportation, with buses being less timely than the Regional Rail system. Of course, Ovideo had its own bus system too, that had varying levels of timeliness. For the sake of comparison, I think the Regional Rail is the closest option Philly has to the ALSA bus system. The Regional Rail reaches far enough into the suburbs that you could compare it to taking a weekend trip to a different city, or going to the beach for an afternoon like I did in Asturias. The Regional Rail is also clean and easy to board, although you cannot buy tickets online. The main difference between SEPTA and ALSA is that while you can take an ALSA bus to almost any destination in mainland Spain SEPTA Regional Rail lines are limited to the Philadelphia Metropolitan area, with select stops in parts of New Jersey and Delaware. For a trip to a different part of the U.S., you’d have to check out Greyhound, Megabus, or Amtrak. I’ll let another transit enthusiast write that blog post!