Transit riding tips at random

What follows are one veteran straphanger’s tips, tricks and general counsel on getting about on public transit.  I don’t think they’ll amount to much, and cheerfully acknowledge that you regularly share seats with riders better qualified than me to write this post.  But they didn’t write it, and I have.  So:

In no particular order:

I can depend on the behavior of other riders at transit stops to tell me if a bus or train is on the way. 

If other riders are waiting with me, I don’t have to lean off the edge of the curb to look for an approaching bus.  (I sometimes do anyway, of course, just as I sometimes double check latches and locks that I already know are closed.)  They will do the leaning for me; I need only observe them.

If the bus isn’t coming, the curb leaner will abandon her station and return unhurriedly to wherever she stood before, likely with an expression that faintly limns all that is futile in life.  If the bus is coming, she will remain where she is, and show with body language that she expects to be underway shortly.  Perhaps she will put away a cell phone, or withdraw cash or a transit card from her purse.  She may stand straighter.  The signs are small, but difficult to mistake.

Most of the time, these observations aren’t worth much.  The bus is going to come anyway; the only penalty of finding out later rather than sooner is that I may be one of the last to join the queue.  But occasionally this trick saves me from missing a ride.

Let’s say I’m approaching a stop from a perpendicular street, and can see the waiting riders at the stop ahead, but not the approaching traffic.  I can count on their body language to tell me if an out-of-eyesight bus is about to pull up.  If it is, I make haste; if not, I can take my time about getting to the corner.

The transit card or pass that I don’t immediately return to my wallet is a transit card or pass likely to be lost.

I take it out when it’s time to get on, and return it to my wallet at the first opportunity.  In the days of paper transit passes, I lost one a year to the ravages of the washing machine.

I try to board the first or the last car of a multi-car train, and not a car in the center of the platform.

This might qualify less as a tip than as an extra effort.  I think most regular riders know that the center cars will be busier.  They just aren’t motivated enough to trot to the far platform end to board a less crowded car.

The longer I have to wait for a bus on a frequent-running line, the likelier it is to be crowded.

Subways have their own right of way, and usually run promptly.  Light rail systems compete with auto traffic, and aren’t as reliable.  Buses are less reliable still.  Transit gurus can do what they will: individual buses will be delayed by wheelchairs and passenger conflicts, and groups of buses will bunch up at major traffic jams.

If I have been waiting for twenty minutes for a bus that usually runs every ten, I can make book that it will be teeming with miserable riders when it finally staggers to the curb.  It will ferry not only its own allotted passengers, but the passengers who ordinarily would have boarded the bus behind it.

Before I join this onboard horde, I can try to guess if the delay affects only the lone unlucky bus before me now, or its brethren further back on the route line.  If I think it’s the former, I can let the packed bus lurch away, and wait; a nearly empty bus will be trotting up in a few minutes more.  If I think it’s the latter, I have no hope; I will suffer on any bus I board until the jam is cleared up, and might as well get the suffering over with.

I check cloth covered seats before sitting on them. 

People leak, erupt, have accidents, spill things.  Hard plastic seats may be ugly and uncomfortable, but they let riders spot the spills before they turn, bend knees and commit themselves.

If the seat is cloth-covered, I give it a probing stare or run my knuckles over the fabric before investing my pants bottom on it.  This has saved my backside more than once.

In a city with inadequate bus service, I regard the window seats in the back row as the best in the bus.

This tip only applies in cities like San Francisco, which regularly welcomes riders onto buses jammed to the seams with standees.  Feel free to skip to the next item, if buses in your town are less crowded.  (Although do pause first for a moment of grateful silence.)

Rowdy teenagers are likely to congregate in the back row, true, and I may also smell engine fumes here if the bus is in poor repair.  But these back row seats are still my first choice.  Even in a city that permits rear door boarding, crowding passengers almost always will leave an air pocket of sorts in the very back.  A rear row seat at the window lets me enjoy the view without staring at the belt buckles and coat zippers of standees next to me.

How about a window seat farther forward in the bus?  Wouldn’t I have a seatmate between me and the belt buckles there?

I certainly would, but your scribe is the polite type; in the bus center, I am much likelier to be stood next to by a frail standee.  I will feel obligated to offer my seat, and in that case might as well not take the seat in the first place.

In the back row, I will be in close proximity only to the standee at the back of the line.  He will be unlikely to be very old, very young or feeble; the more vulnerable passengers usually avoid the rear of the bus entirely.  I won’t feel any compunction to give up my seat, and will finish the trip with feet rested and conscience intact.

I take computerized transit planners with a grain of salt.

Let’s say I want to catch a ride at First and A Street in Anytown.  The 60 line stops at that corner, and connects to the 110 line; the 60-110 combination can get me to my destination in a half hour.  The next best route would take ten minutes longer.  Ergo, the 60-110 route is what the computerized planner will tell me about.

But, a problem: the 60 only runs every forty minutes, and the 110 every twenty-five.  And if I were to walk a block to B Street and budget another five minutes for my trip, I could get my traveling done aboard two buses that run every ten minutes.

The computerized planners have improved, but they still take a backseat to practical knowledge of the local transit grid.

I pay attention if a crowd at a bus stop is much larger or smaller than the norm.

Smart phone-toting riders today can access online services that report the real time locations of transit vehicles, and such services make this tip less meaningful.  Still, for what it’s worth:

If no one is waiting at a stop where I have always seen at least a dozen fellow riders, or if the crowd is much larger than normal, I assume with certainty that something is wrong, and investigate.  I do not just join the huge crowd and wait with the rest of them.

On crowded transit vehicles, I avoid arguments by watching what I step on.

Self-explanatory.  Toes are delicate, hurt when stepped on.  Some sufferers of stepped-on toes handle pain and anger poorly.

I expect the transit grid of an unfamiliar city to take a long time to learn. 

The rich regularly ride transit in New York, San Francisco and some other cities, but the poor take transit everywhere.  Because transit is something that the poor do, the better-heeled may assume that it can’t be that hard.

But learning the transit grid in an unfamiliar big city is hard.  It might not be that tough to ride one bus from point A to B, but it’s very, very hard to get a reckoning of the hundreds of routes and dozens of service providers that might be available.  Consider Los Angeles.  The county transit agency, LACMTA, operates 183 bus routes and eight rail lines.  It would be plenty difficult to learn a fraction of them, but that’s just the start of the up slope for the Southern California straphanger: more than forty other city and regional transit agencies also field bus fleets in the county.  You can ride Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley, the Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica, the eponymous Norwalk Transit, Long Beach Transit, Torrance Transit.  You can ride commuter buses, that operate only in the early morning and late afternoon, and commuter trains.  Some buses have short lines: abbreviated circuits that cover only the busiest, central portion of a complete bus route.  Other routes offer local and express service operating side-by-side.

This expectation that a formidable task should be easy yields a predictable result.  The new transit rider is quickly bewildered, and may feel inferior.  If she rides in Manhattan, where her peers get around by subway and transit knowledge is expected, she may roll up her figurative sleeves and grimly start the climb up the learning curve.  In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the bewildered rider may simply retreat indignantly to his car, with the private shame of a parent stumped by a child’s trigonometry homework.

If I travel to a new big city, I assume that the poor learned route idiosyncrasies because they had to, that it wasn’t easy and won’t be easy for me, either.  Expect it to be challenging and you won’t feel inappropriately bad when it is.

To judge a transit agency, ride a rush hour bus in the ‘hood.

I am a long-time spectator of transit doings in Los Angeles, and a spectator for the past two years of transit doings in San Francisco.  In both regions, I can spread a starched linen napkin on my lap at a fancy downtown luncheon and listen to starry-eyed talk about the latest gazillion dollar rail project, often from influential and well-intended folk who ‘don’t ride as often as they should’ or who ‘haven’t used the system in awhile.’  There is always a gazillion dollar rail project that shekels must be seized for, and there also are always — far, far from the luncheon — unglamorous, work-a-day bus lines that unglamorous commuters depend on, that are as invisible to the luncheon goers as gamma rays and that the transit agency may hold at arms’ length, like a bad parent bored by his own offspring.

I am a transit geek.  My Flickr page is full of photos of lifeless transit vehicles.  Only a transit geek would thrill to such shots.  I’ll ride the gazillion dollar rail projects after they’re built, and enjoy them, but I do most of my getting around with a transit pass, and know better than to judge the agencies in question by the pricey projects they want to yak about.  I judge them first by their operation of the prosaic bus lines they want to ignore.

I strongly recommend this perspective to others.  Skip the luncheon.  Travel unannounced to a less monied part of town, at least if you think you can do so safely.  Ride the buses there at rush hour.  If the service is adequate, then the agency is doing its job, and might be trusted to build something new.  (Perhaps like a divorcé who gets to buy a zippy car because he makes all his alimony payments.)  If the service is less than adequate, then the transit agency just showed you its true colors.

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