Friday, June 18, 2010

The complete newbie guide to riding the bus

If you've followed this blog from its early days then you know that I started out with a complete ignorance for the public transit system.  In that opening post I pledged to figure it all out and share that knowledge with the world.  Here it goes.  Everything I think you need to know to ride the bus around the city or at least Seattle.  It's actually not that complicated or scary and technology has simplified everything.

Step 1 - be prepared

If this is your first time riding the bus I suggest  you do a little research.  The internet is by far the easiest way to do this and Google maps is the only real game in town for simple, accurate directions on a easy to use map(come on Bing!).  All the big local transit systems also have route finding services if Google maps doesn't work in your town.  But in my experience Google maps is the easiest and best way to go.image

Go to and enter your address and where you want to go.  Be sure to choose the "by public transit" option.  Once you choose your destination Google maps will spit out all the route information you need.   You can change your departure time to a date in the future and choose between alternate routes.  It lays everything out for you on the map and even tells you how far you need to walk and how long that walk will take.  On the left hand side of the page you get a output like this:


So now you know you that if you leave your house by 3:48 you should roughly make the 3:58 245 and get to the Redmond library at 4:30.  You can change the time you want to leave or arrive and it will figure out all the details. 

Now you know where to go to catch the bus and where it's going to drop you at.  What Google doesn't seem to get right is how much it's going to cost you.  I don't know if that's a bug or something I 'm just not smart enough to understand but Google is always telling me the bus is free.  It's free if you have a pass that someone else paid for but in general the bus does cost money.  We'll get into that in a minute.

Step 2 - Walk to your stop and wait

Once you're at your stop you get the wait for the bus.  Who knows how long that will take right?  Wrong.  At least here in the Seattle area we have a system that can tell you almost exactly how long it will take for the bus to come to your stop.  It's called One Bus Away.  You can check it out at or download one of photothe apps available for most modern smartphones.  It also works with just any old smartphone via SMS.  Here is a shot of One Bus Away on an iPhone.

Generally before I even step foot outside of my house or office I check this app.  Over the course of a year I think OneBusAway saves me hours of time not spent waiting at a bus stop.

The app uses the GPS in your phone to figure out what stop your standing near and then uses some funky dead reckoning system and SMS to transmit the bus's location to a central server which this apps connects to.  I don't claim to really understand it, but you can read about it on the onebusaway development blog if you're interested.  All I know is this app works really well and is well worth it's free price.

Step 3 - Get on the bus and pay

When your bus arrives you'll need to pay that bus driver.  This chart from explains the basics better than I can.  The bus costs more money during "Peak" hours so if your travel times are flexible you can save a little by travelling during the no-peak hours.  Once on the bus there is a machine that takes your money when you get on the bus.  You just drop your money in.  There is no change so try to bring in exactly what you need.

Of course you might be in what's called a "free zone" and then you don't pay when you get on the bus, you pay when you get off the bus.  If the bus is in the free zone then you will see a sign on it when you board.  Don't try to pay if your in the free zone and it slows everything down.

Step 4 - Grab a seat

If it's really your first time on the bus try to sit up by the driver.  It's the best view of where you are and it's also easy to ask the driver a question if you need to.  I also find I get less car sick up in the front of the bus.  The fronts seats do get priority for elderly or wheelchair passengers so you may need to move when new riders board.  Now you can sit back and enjoy the WIFI, read a book, apply hand sanitizer etc.

Step 5 - Debussing

When you start to get close to where you are going to get off you will want to signal the stop.  You do this by pulling the string near the window.  On some busses it's a button like thing.  You want to signal early enough that the bus driver doesn't blow past your stop but not so early that the bus stops at the wrong stop.  It seems really simple but I've still managed to screw this up a few times.  On one occasion I was entrenched in my reading and looked up and thought I was right at my stop.  Turned out I was a little early.  I didn't have the kahunas to admit my mistake so I got off and had to walk a little extra.


Like anything in life you don't really know what you don't know.  Bus Etiquette is no different.  In general it's all common sense and politeness which is sort of a dying art.  Here are the important highlights in my opinion:

  • Be self aware and keep your volume to a minimum.  Nobody else wants to hear your conversations or music.
  • Avoid placing cell phone calls.  Most folks on the busses I'm riding are reading and it's really distracting to overhear meaningless chit chat. It's not to say you can't use a phone but in practice most folks don't sit on a call through the duration of their ride like so many car drivers do.
  • Most folks don't want to talk to you or hear about your first time on the bus or your bus blog so in general don't engage them in conversation.
  • Do offer a seat to an elderly or wheelchair rider
  • Do be nice to the driver
  • Don't over chat up the driver.  I made the mistake of asking a driver who was talking with me what her name was.  The tone of the conversation changed and she said that she was Ms. Busdriver. 

That's about it.  The bus is actually quite easy to ride and can be a nice change of pace from riding in a car. 

Anything I missed?


  1. was doing some research on public transport when i landed on this page ...
    good article ...
    i need to blog about this as well ...
    good pointers !!!
    thanks ...

  2. Google, Bing maps changed our regular transportation world, now we can get much of the information like public transport, car route, bike route etc.. with simple click am just amazing to see all those developments in this short period of time.

  3. Hi there, your blog look great, i like this one.your information very helpful. thankscheapest car

  4. I started riding to work on a bus 1-1/2 years ago. My trip requires walking 1-1/2 miles to the bus stop. During that time I lost PassbeeMedia

  5. Thank you for providing this guide of how to ride the bus. It is good to know that one should be prepared and know how the transit systems work. Something else to consider would be to plan something to do while on the bus if it is for an extensive amount of time.