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!

Country or City—Which is the More Frugal Choice?


It costs money to live no matter what, but there are differences in the expenses you will face based on whether you are a country dweller or a city dweller. There are several major needs that will be affected by your choice. Most cost of living indexes claim that the cost of living is higher in urban areas, but this may not be entirely true. These measures always assume that you own a private car that must be parked. But, if you live in a city worthy of the name, you can get around on public transportation or by walking, eliminating the entire automobile expense in the process. You may need to purchase a muni or bus pass to get around, but the cost of a pass pales in comparison to the cost of owning a private car. In the country it is very hard to live without a car, though it can be done.

When it comes to housing, the rural dweller may be ahead of the game. If we leave the higher end of the real estate market out of the mix, and concentrate on share rentals, it is the state and region that influence housing costs the most. That being said, rural areas have a slight edge on really affordable share rentals.

Food is the next great expense. The normal measures of cost of living assume that the urban dweller will avail

Or Country?

themselves of the great variety of restaurants in their city. But, if you are a frugalista most of your meals will be cooked at home from foods obtained at the best price possible. A few years ago, I would have said that even cooking is more expensive in the city, but that has changed in the face of farmer’s markets and community gardens, which are ubiquitous now in big cities. That being said, the country is still the place to cut the expense of food to the bone if you have the skill and the will. Even urban chickens don’t quite even it out.

Clothes don’t actually cost more in the city, but your requirements for more expensive garb will increase in the competitive social and professional atmosphere of the city. Like it or not, humans are visually oriented creatures, and clothing is social shorthand. In the country, after you get some serviceable boots and sunglasses to protect your eyes you are home free.

Those are the three expenses most sensitive to geography. It depends, like most things, on what kind of a life you want to live. If you are willing to endure the inconvenience and loneliness of life on a farm without a car, and you maximize your savings by growing produce and keeping livestock, you can live in the most frugal way possible. But if that is not for you, you can still make it work. Just cultivate friends that belief in voluntary simplicity, keep those urban chickens, and if you must drive get a Zip car, which is a short term rental based on membership.

There is only one bad choice for frugality, and that is the sprawling suburb, the worst of both worlds.

Here are some links to help:

Getting Around the Frugal Way-How to go Car-Free and What to do if you Can’t

The most frugal form of transportation is walking of course, followed by the bicycle. In the developed world the third place is taken by public transportation though in the less industrialized places animal based transportation would tie with public transportation for third place. Scooters and motorcycles are the most frugal of the motorized ways to get around. The private car is the least frugal choice by far, even the newer hybrids. When the electric car becomes common it will be better than any combustion engine, but not as good as walking, cycling, and public transportation.

A Reliable Used Car

But in the world as it is today it is not necessarily practical to walk, and many communities have virtually no public transportation options. Where I live, for instance, the nearest bus is three miles away down a road that is too dangerous to bike or walk. For short trips to town it would be possible to take a motorized scooter, but that being said, without a car I would be housebound. And I am hardly alone in that regard. If we could all work at home it would be less of an issue, but for people that are forcibly frugal that is a luxury that is out of reach. We work wear we are needed, and we have to get there somehow.

If your life has been disrupted and you are planning on moving anyhow, why not move to someplace with a high walkability index? This index is a measure of how many basic functions can be fulfilled within walking distance. Can you buy all of your food? See a movie? Go to a Laundromat? Find work? The more the answer to these questions is yes the higher the walkability index. Most places with a higher index number are big cities, but not all. There are still small towns in this country where it is possible to do all of these things.

If the index is a little lower it may still be possible to remain car-free by getting a bicycle. Some places are a little spread out but have good bike paths. Or if that fails, there may be a world class public transportation system. In big cities all of these options may be open. In smaller towns there may be a decent enough public system. The best thing is too do an online search for public transportation and the name of your region, city, or county if you are unsure. This is a good idea if you are unable to relocate to a place that is easier to get around. Don’t assume you are stuck with the car until you know for sure.

But what if you are stuck in an under-served rural area, or one of the sprawling suburbs? The only choice then is to get something with an engine, which also means maintenance, registration, maybe a smog, and insurance. If you are brave, have great driving skills, and no family to haul around, consider a scooter or motorcycle. Otherwise it has to be a car. Gas mileage should be foremost in your mind as you search for a frugal car.

When I was looking for a car it became quite clear that around $4000.00 was the cut-off for getting something that would run reliably and be safe for a non-mechanic. If you are a mechanic or have one close enough to you both in relationship and distance to do any good, you could go lower, maybe even a lot lower. If you search for a $500.00 car you could end up with something scary. And if your used car is your only means of transportation it is a good idea to get comprehensive insurance even if it is a larger monthly expense. It was probably hard enough to get the money together—you don’t want to lose it.

Here are some links to help get you on your way: Make sure to check before you buy For Motorcycles Scooters! Walkability Index for any address The main site for craigslist, the starting point for used cars and bikes. Pick your city and click it. Information on bikes And the Idiot’s Guide

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