You may get there by plane or automobile, but trains and trolleys are eco-friendly, enjoyable and easy-on-the-wallet ways to enjoy the scenery in cities without being cooped up in a cab or behind the wheel.

Many cities have experienced increases in mass transit ridership — with 10.7 billion trips on public transportation nationwide in 2008, a 4 percent increase from 2007 — as visitors and residents are choosing the option to reduce their carbon footprint, fill their gas tanks less and rely on transportation powered by electricity.

Use of mass transit is at its highest level in 52 years, according to the Washington, D.C-based American Public Transportation Association.

Here are four U.S. places and our experiences on their rail-based mass transit option. Some are longtime traditions, others are new.

Charlotte, N.C.: The Lynx light rail, which debuted in 2007, quietly transports visitors and commuters from the south part of Mecklenburg County to uptown Charlotte (the moniker for its downtown area) in about 30 minutes. The success — 13,000 weekday riders — has shattered expectations and joins increases in bus ridership. The line ends at the ImaginOn center, a youth library and children's theater.

We joined families disembarking for a Saturday storytime and then grabbed a gourmet sandwich at Reid's Fine Foods, a specialty grocery store on the other side of the tracks. The 15 stations on the rail line also include the city's convention center and its South End area, home to antique markets and trendy shops and restaurants. A one-way Lynx fare is $1.50 for adults, 75 cents for ages 62 and up and kids 5-12, and free for 5 and under; a round-trip ticket is $3 adults and $1.50 ages 62 and up and kids 5-12, and free for 5 and under; a one-day ticket with unlimited rides is $4.50.

San Francisco: A ride on one of the city's iconic cable cars offers visitors a sense of adventure as they ramble up and down the city's hills. We avoided the long line at busy areas like Fisherman's Village and Union Square (both attract camera-happy tourists snapping shots of the trolleys turning around) by snagging one a few stops away. That allowed us to get an optimal spot — hanging off the side and holding on tightly as the cable car navigates the city's terrain. The tourists are easily distinguishable from businesspeople and residents, who hop on and off at their destinations. Three lines follow the 10 miles of tracks throughout the city, with an estimated 7.4 million passengers annually. A single ride is $5, with discounts for seniors and children, or an all-day ticket for $11. That joins light rail, electric trolley coaches, diesel buses and alternative-fuel vehicles that are among the city's mass transit offerings.

Baltimore: The city's MTA (Maryland Transit Administration) light rail system pulled right up to the brick warehouse that's a centerpiece of the Baltimore Orioles' Camden Yards in the city's downtown area, and took us back to our hotel after the game ended. Just like public transportation in other cities, the street-level cars travel through some of the city's blighted neighborhoods, but we had no concerns on our trip to and from the stadium. It has more than 33,600 weekday users, on average, according to fourth quarter 2008 data from APTA. The light rail also connects to Baltimore-Washington International Airport and stops at the convention center, an easy walk to attractions such as the National Aquarium Baltimore. A one-way fare is $1.60 or a day pass for unlimited travel is $3.50.

Lake Buena Vista: You don't have to take a vacation from thinking about the environment. Walt Disney World's monorail system circles Epcot's Spaceship Earth, making a silent statement about how clean transportation modes at the popular Florida theme park are helping the environment and trying to lessen the impact of its millions of visitors a year. The elevated 14.7-mile system, which more than 150,000 guests use daily, joins buses and boats offering ways to get between the parks, resorts and shopping areas. The more than 40-year-old monorail zooms along on beams to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and some of the park's resorts, serving as Disney's version of mass transit and entertainment for kids. 

(MNN homepage photo: Dawn Endico/Flickr)

Seeing the light (rail)
MNN hops on board trains and trolleys in four U.S. cities to see if they're on the right track.