I’ve been participating in the Zipcar Low Car Diet challenge this month, and something that I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten more transit-dependent is that a lot of intelligent, resourceful people are completely confounded by any bus that’s not the Circulator. If their destination is not close to a Metrorail stop, they drive to it. I humbly submit that this is completely ridiculous; the bus is just not that hard.
However, it IS true that Metrobus lacks the navigational simplicity that Metrorail has. The Metro map gives you a nice sense of the finite nature of Metrorail: there are only 5 lines, and they’re, well, lines; they go to all the stops in order one way, and they go back along the same stops the other way. That’s it. Have you seen the full Metrobus system map? It’s a freaking mess. It’s not even one map; they had to split it into three.
So with the goal of making it all a little less daunting for the novice Metrobus-rider, here are a few things you need to know:
1. Don’t panic! All the bus routes include at least one Metro stop, and frequently more than one. Know that even if you ignore the rest of my advice and find yourself on the wrong bus going somewhere you had no intention of going, you always have the option of riding it until it gets to a Metro station. There is always a way home.
2. One SmarTrip is good; two are better. Cash is pretty much the worst possible way to pay for the bus. The cash fare is higher than the SmarTrip fare, and you can only take advantage of transfers (unlimited transfers for 2 hours!) with a SmarTrip card, which means you have to pay full fare for each new bus ride if you’re paying cash. That means my typical two-bus commute from home to office costs $1.50 if I have a SmarTrip, and $3.40 if I left it on the kitchen counter. I made that mistake exactly once, and now I keep a spare SmarTrip with a few bucks on it stashed in my purse just in case.
3. The Internet is your personal transit concierge; carry it in your pocket if you can. Yes, I know. Smartphones are expensive, and their data plans are practically confiscatory. Plenty of DC residents who have depended on the bus for years manage to navigate the system just fine without smartphones. We are not talking about them. We are talking about you, whose willingness to explore DC is limited to what’s in a 5 block radius of a Metro stop. If you can swing it, get a smartphone with that money you are no longer spending on your car. You just need something that has GPS, can browse the web, and ideally open PDFs. Why? Because you can use the following tools from a computer, but it’s a lot easier to re-route on the fly if you can use them while you’re out and about:
3a. Google Maps with Transit. WMATA finally got on board with this late last year after dragging their feet for aaaaaaaages, and it is pretty much the best thing ever. Plug in your starting and ending points, and Google will spit out multiple transit options that will get you there, and just like Metro’s trip planner, you can specify that you want to leave now, at a specific time later, or that you want to arrive by a certain time and Google will adjust accordingly. Unlike Metro’s trip planner, however, using it on a mobile phone won’t make you want to kick a puppy. Google does include regional commuter buses that don’t take SmarTrip, though, so watch for that. And the full, Google Labs version of Google Transit can even estimate the cost of driving, if you want to feel smug in your transit choices.
3b. Nextbus. GPS tracking of buses, and estimates of how long you can expect before the next one comes along. Set the bus stop closest to your home and office as link buttons in your web browser and you’ll always know when you have to leave. The mobile web app can use your phone’s GPS to give you predictions for all the bus stops near your location (though sometimes it can be a little bit of a challenge to figure out which corner you want). Welcome to life in the future! Caveat: Nextbus is about 78% accurate, which means it is a dirty, nasty, stinking liar 22% of the time. You can mitigate the effects of this inaccuracy first by understanding how it is that it gets to be inaccurate, but also by sanity checks on…
3c. Published bus timetables. They’re all available in PDF form on Metro’s website, and usually a quick Google query for “[route number] wmata timetable” gets you straight to it without having to navigate to it through Metro’s website. Handy from your computer, but even handier from your mobile device. If, for example, Nextbus tells you there’s no bus for 35 minutes but the schedule tells you that there’s a bus every 10 minutes this time of day, you can reasonably assume that Nextbus isn’t tracking a bus or two for some reason (broken transponder, driver failed to sign on, etc.) This won’t save you from every Nextbus lie, but knowledge of the schedules and what causes inaccuracies can wrangle the system back into a usable state for you.
The bus is cheaper and goes more places than the Metro does, and broken escalators are never a problem. If you’re not a bus rider, give it a shot sometime soon and report back.