How to Match Transit With a City’s Topography: Lisbon

Joel Epstein
4 min readDec 18, 2023


By: Joel Epstein

One of the workhorses of the Amarelos da Carris, Lisboa.

I was lucky enough to get back to Lisbon (Lisboa) recently. I can’t get enough of the city, especially in the off season when it’s not overrun with tourists and global nomads looking for a tasty caipirinha or port in Bairro Alto and an evening of Fado in Alfama. I return to Lisboa for both too, but I also visit to ride the Metro and the trams and consider how a hilly city reminiscent of San Francisco gets people around.

As in Madrid and other European capitals, my transit envy for Lisbon always starts with the Metropolitano (Metro) de Lisboa right outside the airport terminals, as it should be.

The ease and comfort of riding the Metro with its cork appointed seats, comes in

Cork seats on the clean, functional Metro Aeroporto — Saldanha line. No wine drinkers, there is NOT a global cork shortage.

contrast to my slog to JFK on an often old A train from Harlem to Lefferts and Liberty, followed by the Q10 Bus to the AirTrain.

For a tastier ride, take the A train to Little Guyana, and the Q10 to JFK.

Sure, I know I can save a few minutes by taking the A to Howard Beach or the E or LIRR to Jamaica and getting on the AirTrain ($8.25), but why would I? I’d rather budget more time for the trip and buy a couple of Trinidadan doubles for dinner with the money I save making my ride a single fare OMNY trip.

It is rare to get jostled on the Metro in Lisboa the way one might in New York. And getting on and off a crowded train is not the hassle it can be at rush hour on the A or E, or any of our trains for that matter.

Metro Alameda: Respeite as entradas e saídas (respect the entries and exits).

Lisboa isn’t a massive city like New York or Los Angeles but like so many global cities I have gotten to know over the years, it seems to have figured out how to match its transit with its commuters’ needs and the city’s often steep topography. Take the romantic trams (amarelos da Carris) that climb up and down Lisboa’s narrow, winding streets. As with the New Orleans streetcars, San Francisco’s cable cars and L.A’s Angels Flight, one doesn’t have to be a transit lover to swoon over these trams.

Inside the tram from hilly Graça to Alfama.

Of course the Lisboa Metro and the trams aren’t perfect or service as frequent on some lines as it needs to be. One night, heading back to my Airbnb in Arroios, I couldn’t help noticing how packed the train was. Like sardines, as we used to say in New York, or sardinhas, in Lisboa.

Sardinhas on a late-night Lisboa Metro train.

The system is also not as disability accessible as it needs to be.

While escalators take you close to the platform, disability access on the Lisboa Metro is far from perfect.

Still, Lisboa and Portugal in general seem years ahead of the U.S. in building a more sustainable transportation network that won’t cost the country the arm and a leg that the Second Avenue Subway extension is going to cost us.

And transit in Lisboa is still improving and growing. The new loop to Campo de Ourique will bring trains to more Lisboetas or Alfacinhas (little lettuces) as Lisboa residents are called.

Lisboa’s Metro is coming to Campo de Ourique!

The dedication to transit is consistent with the country and the E.U.’s commitment to sustainability generally. Portuguese cities are places where residents routinely sort their trash and recycling and best of all, drink their coffee at home or in a café, rather than out of a togo cup.

Recycling with a view. Near the ​​Miradouro da Senhora do Monte in Graça.

It was great to get back to Lisboa and it won’t be my last time riding the Metro. And while I am still learning the meaning of saudade, the Portuguese feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese temperament, who doesn’t love an airport with bike parking!

Bike parking at Lisbon Airport.

Yours in transit,


Joel Epstein is a New Yorker and an advocate for public transit, livable cities and public space.

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