How to Ride the Bus–A Public Transportation Primer

Union Station, Chicago

Using public transportation sounds easy enough—after all, how hard can it be to ride a bus? But this assumption of ease just doesn’t play out in the real world in many places. These systems were generally not designed all at once as a cohesive system, but in most cases have been patched together in an attempt to keep up with the eternal sprawl of cities as they grow. And this leaves some of the places that need public transportation the most, such as rural areas and large suburbs, entirely car dependent. Yet, leaving aside the environmental aspect and just looking at the economic side, it still makes sense to take public transportation when you can. On a recent visit to LA I found that it would cost twenty dollars to take a cab to my hostel, but the bus took only forty minutes and cost a dollar. I only had to ask six people to find the stop the first time…

So how do you cut through the complexity of the system and get where you need to go? In the area where I live, north of San Francisco, public transportation is a mess. There was once a great passenger train system here, but the tracks were partially torn out years ago at the height of our unrequited love affair with the automobile. There is a good bus line running in and out of San Francisco but politics keeps this company from operating efficiently in my county. There is a county system that will get a person to any town in the county—eventually…

Then there is the bus system in the county’s biggest city, Santa Rosa. This may be the most workable of the three systems, though it misses some areas completely.  Where I live, supposedly in Santa Rosa, I must walk for an hour to nearby Sebastopol to catch a county bus. I keep three bus websites on my desk-top. None of the schedules sync with the others and it takes up to three hours to get where a car could go in 20 minutes. All of these buses except the San Francisco bus stop running at around 7 or 8 PM, making it impossible to go out at night without a ride home.

I am pretty sure the scenario I just described it at the extreme when it comes to dysfunctional public transportation systems. This does not make other systems, even the best ones in the country, any less daunting Riding a bus is not rocket science, but it has been made as complicated as programming your own remote. Anyone who finds themselves in Manhattan for the first time can attest to that. So—if you are in an unfamiliar city and want to learn to get around fast, what can you do? I suggest going to a phone book and looking under the transportation authority of the city you are in. Or better yet go online. There may be more than one authority if it is a big area. Detroit has two systems. LA has at least two. But all of them have a number that you can call for information, and many have online schedules and fare charts.

It may take some time to get a live person on the phone. When you do get someone, ask about the best way to get where you want to go. Confirm the fare, the boarding location, and even the schedule if it is not clear that your route is well serviced. Ask about discount passes, even if you are just visiting. But don’t stop there. Get your questions answered even if you think they are dumb. You are a paying customer and you are not the one who made this so complicated.

Another trick is to type in the address of where you want to get to and pull up the Google map. Click on “get directions” and then click on the bus icon. Make sure the origin and destination addresses are correct and hit search. It should give you the bus stop locations, times, transfer points, and route numbers of the bus or busses you need to take.

Once you know how to get where you want to go remember to dress in layers, carry a book and some snacks, and hit the bathroom before you head out. Once you get the hang of it you will come to enjoy the reading instead of driving and the freedom of not being chained to a car and having to park it. Happy Trails!

Here are some links to transportation information for some major cities:   New York City  Chicago San Francisco Boston Seattle Los Angeles Minneapolis New Orleans Atlanta Detroit Denver Las Vegas Phoenix St. Louis

If your city is not on the list just Google it!


3 Responses

  1. I rode the bus for several years when I was without a car. After reading your description of the various public transportation issues, I’m thankful that the city where I live is so forward thinking with the transit system…I was always able to get where I needed to go with the bus service running until 11 pm…my one problem with the transit system here was that it didn’t offer service on Sunday and I work every other Sunday…so always had to get a cab both ways that day…yikes! I have a good car now and can get to work in 10 minutes when i drive…by bus it took me 50 minutes…with the crazy hours I now work, I’m thankful to have a dependable car, but would take the bus if necessary…at least it’s there as an option.

  2. Great post! I battle the public transit system on an almost daily basis and while it is a very inexpensive alternative I constantly battle to decide if the financial and environmental savings are really worth it. It would take me a mere 20 minutes to drive to work (each way) and $25 a day to park, versus an hour on public transit (each way) on the days the train does not break down (which happens frequently). It is somehow reassuring to know other cities are in the same predicament! For now, I continue to enjoy my commute with my e-reader in hand!

    • Yes, the transportation problem so often comes down to a complex calculation involving time, expectations, and necessity. In the end, many of us in under-served rural areas must get a car, but when I do I shall try to only use it when truly necessary and keep walking and cycling, and using public transit where possible. Getting around on our own power is better for us and the planet and public transit needs our participation in order to work.

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