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Tuesday
Sep072010

Getting Around Town: A Visitor's Guide to the Bus

uploaded to flickr by davereid12I’ve long recommend to visitors that driving in DC is a bad idea for the uninitiated and to instead take Metro. 

Metro is relatively simple to figure out, comparatively inexpensive, hits a good chunk of the places visitors want to take in. What's more, it’s concrete, both figuratively and literally. Their is no doubt when you are in a station, the station is clearly named, and the whole thing is color coded. Sure, there’s a bit of confusion for visitors about which side of the platform to get on the train from, and the pricing is becoming increasingly complex; but the average tourist can get on, spend a minute or two looking at the map, and get where they’re going.

The problem: the Rail system doesn’t go everywhere. Georgetown, the Frederick Douglas House, the National Arboretum, Adams-Morgan, the National Cathedral, and, yes, the Lincoln Memorial, are but a few of the incredible things Washington has to offer that ill-served by the train. They all, of course, are accessible by Metro Bus, but most visitors shy away from it.

Which is a shame, as the bus opens up great swaths of the city that otherwise go unexplored. The bus also can be more rewarding than rail as you have a chance to see more of the city than when you’re being shuttled around underground. Chances are, you’ll arrive at your destination with a little better sense of the lay of the land, and not blinking in the sunlight like a mole unexpectedly surfaced.

So, in hopes of opening up more of Washington for you, here’s some tips to using the bus system (note: this does not include the Circulator system, run by the DC Dept. of Transportation, which will be covered later).

  • Get a SmartTrip Card: I've pushed you to do this for the train, and I strongly urge you to do it for the bus. Order them ahead of time for everyone who's coming. It's particularly important here as your paper fare cards from the train will not work for the bus. Without a card you will either be counting out a roll of quarters or trying to get that wrinkled dollar bill to work, all the while staggering under the weight of hostility of the regular riders. And as of this writing, bus fares are cheaper for SmartTrip users ($1.50 vs. $1.70).
  • Know Where You Are Going: Use the Trip Planner to figure out which bus to take between routes. If you have a phone that can support it, bookmark Metro's mobile site. If not, use their trip planner ahead of time. It's gotten progressively better over the years, and no longer seems to send me on crazy routes. Be sure to note the time, as many routes are rush hour only.
  • Bring Paper Copies: Print up the DC bus map before you come, as well as any timetables you may need. The train map is a model of simplicity. The bus map is not. They are only available from Metro as bulky .pdfs which are not terribly useful for those of us on smartphones. You will also find maps and timetables available at Metro Stations, but why not be prepared?
  • NextBus: NextBus is a system that predicts when, you guessed it, the next bus will arrive using GPS. It has it's faults; it's not useful if you don't know the bus you want (i.e. need directions), there's often "ghost" buses that are predicted and don't show, and occasionally drivers don't turn their transponder on so the bus isn't in the system. But for all that, NextBus is far, far better than trying to decipher timetables (which have even more severe accuracy problems). You can download the app if you have the technology or simply note the stop you are at and call (202) 637-7000, scream "Next Bus" like a banshee at the prompt, and enter the bus stop id number (available on a sign nearby).:
  • Know the Stop Closest To Your Destination: Bus stops are more frequent than train stops, and the bus may or may not be stopping at the stop you are planning on using. For those of you not familiar with bus systems, you have to request a stop by pulling on the cord. So know the stop you will be exiting, as well as the stop immediately prior. Pull the cord as you leave that one. Also, it's not a bad idea to know which stop is after the one you get off of, so you know if you've gone to far.

And finally, a quick note on terminology: Metro is often used interchangably with Metrorail. However, technically the bus system is also part of the Washington Metro Area Transit Agency (WMATA) and is therefore also part of “Metro”. But when most people refer to "taking the Metro", they don't mean the bus. For example, I take the D6 bus to Union Station and transfer to Metro. Technically, I was in the Metro system already, but no one would be confused by what I just said.

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