Pressed into service as a Metrobus navigator

Photo courtesy of
‘taking the bus’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99’

Or, One More Thing an iPad is Good For

There I was, waiting at the bus stop after work, staring at my phone while waiting for Nextbus to load. Nextbus said the H1 bus would arrive in 2 minutes, though the H1 tends to run on Inception time, so I figured that “2” really meant “15.”

After about 5 minutes of shivering, we saw the H1 turn the corner from Constitution… and then blow right past the stop. There was a great disturbance in the Force, as though 10 angry government employees cried out… and the bus screeched to a halt on the other side of the intersection.

The harried driver waved us all aboard, not even wanting us to delay long enough to pay the fare. As I reached my customary seat right behind the rear exit, I heard the driver say, “Anyone going to Brookland?”

“I am!” I called out.

“Good, maybe you can help me, then. I don’t have the directions for this route. I mean, I’ve done it once before, but, you know, it’s been a minute.”

Oh. Great.

It turned out that this particular driver was subbing in on the H1, and when he left the garage, he had only been given the route’s inbound directions. If you read Shannon’s article on how bus routes are named, then you already know the H1 is a rush-hour only route, which means it only goes inbound in the mornings.

And look, when I say that the driver had the wrong set of directions, let me be clear about what he actually did have: A folded sheet of photocopied paper, where the print was distorted as though the original had been part of a notebook that didn’t lay flat on the copier bed, where the directions were printed out in order, turn-by-turn, but with no distances, no map, no nothing.  So not only were the directions for the wrong half of the route, they were practically unreadable.

The driver, to his credit, was a total pro in his demeanor. Yes, you could tell he was a little exasperated, but that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable reaction to being shoved onto a bus with the wrong directions and told to go pick up the cranky evening rush crowd on an unfamiliar route and having to rely on those same tired people to shout directions at you so you can get them home.

The passengers were all looking around nervously by this point, so I pulled out my iPad, downloaded the H1’s timetable, and showed its little half-assed map to the driver, because it was more helpful than what we was holding. And also backlit! And away we went.

Now, understand something really important: I have a terrible, awful, useless sense of direction. I get lost in large houses. And one of my favorite things about commuting by bus is that I can space out and pay no particular attention to the route. So let me be clear that in this situation, I’m just the one-eyed woman in the land of the blind. When I’m the one helping the bus driver get us all home, we’re all screwed.

But I sat in the front seat of the bus, helping the driver navigate the route from that mostly unlabeled map, occasionally turning to the other passengers when there was a question about the specific turn the driver needed to make, and jumping up to review the map with him while stopped at red lights. When a passenger boarded the bus and asked if it would go by the Columbia Heights metro and the driver hesitated, I said, “Yes!”

He said, “We do?”

“Yes! It’s right here on the map, see?”

As we pulled into Brookland Station, the driver visibly relaxed, his workplace ordeal over for the moment. “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. So… that’s an iPad, huh?”

Guess I know what somebody wants for Christmas.

Tiffany Baxendell Bridge is an Internet enthusiast and an incurable smartass. When not heckling the neighborhood political scene on Twitter, she can be found goofing off with her ukulele, Bollywood dancing, or obsessing about cult TV. She is That Woman With the Baby In the Bar.

Tiffany lives in Brookland with her husband Tom, son Charlie, and two high-maintenance cats. Read why Tiffany loves DC.

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8 thoughts on “Pressed into service as a Metrobus navigator

  1. This story is an early Christmas present. I’ve seen this happen on the 21A/D and 13A/B routes many times. We’ve missed freeway ramps, even.

  2. This is a frighteningly common event on the H1. More than once, I have navigated the bus from New Hampshire and M to Columbia Heights because it’s a new bus driver who has never driven/been on the route.

  3. I completely understand the need to have drivers sub in on routes, and that it might not always be possible to get someone who is familiar with the particular route, and that new people have got to learn it somehow, but it’s ridiculous that the route information is conveyed to the substitute/new driver in such a haphazard fashion. Photocopies? Really? With no map?

    You’d think WMATA could get an intern or something to plot all the bus routes in Google Maps or something to generate turn-by-turn directions with distances and maps. Or hey, providing the driver with a copy of the *published timetable* for the route would be a start.

  4. I’ll never forget the time a 30s bus driver, with directions in hand, wanted to continue down Penn Ave, and go past the White House. He was shocked to hear from the passengers that the route had been changed. This happened in 2006.

  5. Had a driver a while back on the 8Z confused about getting on 395 from the Pentagon in the evening- he was supposed to get in the HOV lane, but he headed south towards the same place he entered the Pentagon lot at- we had to guide him onto the HOV, then tell him where to get of at Seminary Road.

  6. I hate to break it to you, but that piece of paper the driver was provided with is called a turnsheet, and it’s what all bus drivers everywhere are provided with for their routes. Yes, the sheet should have been legible, and yes, it should have been for the correct time of day; but WMATA isn’t doing anything weird or silly by doing things this way.

  7. @Ginger: WMATA isn’t doing anything weird or silly? Just because it’s what they do as procedure, doesn’t mean it’s not weird or silly. I’d go a step further and say dumb-as-a-post idiocy. They have to be able to sub-in drivers regularly. They have the published routes, with maps. Come on. Get real.

  8. Indeed. It occurs to me that a sheet of paper copied from a paper notebook, which may or may not be up-to-date for construction detours, etc. is a procedure that’s 50 years out of date, when the cell phone I carry in my pocket as a person who doesn’t drive people around for a living can do better. The fact that other transit agencies are similarly behind the times is not an excuse.