When I was a 13, I went to a boarding school in the Himalayas. The road ended five miles from the campus, which meant that virtually everything had to be hand-carried in by “coolies.” They were wonderful people, and cheerful despite their daily backbreaking toil. They routinely carried a pair of our 50-pound trunks on their backs.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Not everyone travels on smooth, eight-lane superhighways; for most of the world’s commute, its either two-wheelers or public transit. Private cars are by and large a western luxury.

Here are some prime examples of how people get around:

Electric bicycles. China has more than 90 percent of the world electric bike market, and they’re everywhere on the mainland. I like them, but they’ve yet to grab any appreciable share of American commuters. They’re somewhat expensive and built for comfort and durability here, but the Chinese make do with all sorts of makeshift rides.

electric bike in China

Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons

Ferries. I love New York’s Staten Island Ferry, which carries 20 million people annually and has been free since 1997. Still, New York is only minimally taking advantage of its river highways. Why not passenger service from Connecticut, for instance? Cities that have reached critical mass with ferries include Sydney, Hong Kong, Vancouver and Seattle.

Cable cars. I recently rode one from Portland, Ore.’s waterfront to the Oregon Health & Science medical school campus up above on the hill. The car, full of bicyclists with their rides, swayed gently in the breeze. Below, we could see a bridge over the Willamette River being built for everything else but cars — trams, light rail, bikes. Other great high-altitude cable cars include the tramway that takes commuters to Roosevelt Island in New York, and the brand-new but ultra-long system now easing the congestion in La Paz, Bolivia. The Cabrio Bahn in Switzerland has a roofless upper deck for breathtaking views. The Table Mountain Aerial Cableway in Cape Town rotates for the same reason.

colorful bus

Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons

Colorful buses. Back in the good old days, I rode buses through places like Morocco, Turkey and Iran, with chickens tied to the roof, rhythmic music blasting, and the driver’s self-expression all around me —family portraits, religious art, murals. The art of the painted bus reaches heights in Pakistan, where the buses put the Woodstock Generation to shame. The New York Times opines, “A panorama of red, yellow and green, mixed with plastic whirligigs, polished mahogany doors and gleaming stainless steel cover plates, was a magical sight for a visitor with a love for anything on wheels.” Some truckers spend $25,000 — a fortune in Pakistan — to decorate their trucks. It’s a labor of love, but it plays havoc with aerodynamics.

Rickshaws. The bicycle rickshaw is now a fixture on New York streets, but it’s more a novelty in places like that. In India and other Asian countries, it’s viable transportation. In its primitive form, the rickshaw had two wooden shafts that a driver on foot pulled, but that’s out of date now. Well-meaning westerners have been involved in efforts to improve the basic design, which in my experience is based on ancient British bicycles. The new ones sport lightweight frames, better suspension and gearing. It’s still a real workout, though.

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Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

5 creative ways people get around cities
It's not all planes, trains and automobiles. How about painted buses, cable cars, electric bikes and rickshaws?