A few things about riding the bus

cdta bus downtown albany

Please have your swiper ready when the bus stops.

By AOA Greg

The battery died. That's why I became a semi-regular bus rider.

When the battery finally conked out for good on one of our cars, it was going to be a day or two before I'd be able to buy a new one to replace it. And my wife needed the car the next day -- so I took the bus downtown.

That ride started a mostly unplanned experiment in becoming a one-car household. We had kicked around the idea of not replacing our older car whenever its time came to be donated/junked/Craigslisted. But talking about that and actually doing that are two different things. So, the dead battery was an opportunity to try it out.

We still have the car, but we haven't driven it in about two months. In that time I've become a semi-regular bus rider.

Here are a few things I've learned, remembered, or noted along the way...

A quick note: As stated above, I don't ride the bus full time, so my experience of using public transportation is different from that of people who do so full time. And I'm lucky that I have a lot of flexibility. But I think my experience probably is representative of people who might be considering using the bus more often.

OK, that acknowledged, here we go...

Short is better than long
In my experience, the restructured CDTA routes work pretty well. That's especially true for shorter trips -- say, hopping the bus in uptown Albany and riding it downtown. It's easy and doesn't take long. If you don't have to wait long for a bus, it doesn't take much longer than driving -- especially if you're heading someplace where it's hard to find parking.

But longer distances require patience and planning. For example, it takes about 35 minutes to get from downtown Albany to downtown Troy on the bus -- plus whatever time it takes to get to the line that travels between the two spots, plus whatever time you have to wait to catch the other bus. In contrast, that's an under-15 minute trip by car.

(As Mary points out, BusPlus has made the otherwise "long" trip between Albany and Schenectady more convenient, but that's only one route. It'd be great to see that expanded.)

Downtown
So, as a short trip for me, I'm happy to take the bus from home -- or many points in Albany -- to downtown Albany. It is super easy. Hop on, ride for 10-15 minutes, hop off and go where I'm headed, with no hassle finding parking.

After this experience, I'm pretty sure I'd commute via bus most of the time if I worked downtown. Given the ongoing parking drama there, it makes me wonder if there are other people who'd have an easier time if they rode bus -- and maybe just don't know it.

It's also made me think about how people choose where to live and how much the commuting experience factors into that decision. I suspect that people tend to underestimate the hassle and expense of commuting -- and the degree to which it can make them unhappy. But I realize that easy bus use isn't evenly distributed. And people have a bunch of different reasons for picking where they live. Everything's a tradeoff -- it might not be worth it to you. It's just something to which a lot people probably should give a bit more thought.

cdta bus stop

It's not your schedule
One of the realities that quickly becomes apparent when riding the bus is that you're operating on someone else's schedule. The bus leaves when it leaves -- whether you're on it or not.

It's so easy when you're driving to delay your trip by a few minutes to take care of a last second thing, or just because you're a little slow getting your stuff together that day. But if you don't leave for the bus stop on time, you'll miss the bus. That's obvious, of course, but it's one thing to know it, it's another to watch the bus drive away without you.

If you ride the same line a lot, you'll start to pick up some of the small variations in the Schedule That's Not Your Own. The days specific drivers work, the fact that certain drivers tend to be a few minutes early or late. The bus system is people and people aren't exact. Sometimes that's a bit annoying -- like when the bus is late. Other times it's maddening -- like when the bus is early. It drives me crazy to get close to my bus stop a few minutes before the time it usually arrives only to see it steam by ahead of schedule. (I realize that is about 99 percent my fault for not building in more of a cushion.)

Related: it's not your map, either. The bus goes where it goes. There are days when I have to hit a bunch of different places all over the area and riding the bus would make that almost impossible.

Going part time requires coordination
During our one-car trial, my wife and I have had a lot more "Do you need the car today?" conversations. Yep, sometimes arranging things is inconvenient. But it hasn't been as bad as I thought it would be. It's a big help that it's also easy for my wife to ride the bus to work.

It mixes things up
Driving a car often involves spending a lot of time by yourself. You're almost never by yourself on the bus -- it's you, the driver, and a bunch of people from all walks of life. I don't know if that's a good thing, or just... a thing. But in a city that tends to be geographically segregated, I think it's notable to see all sorts of people on the bus -- and to often find myself in the minority.

The bus also takes you to places you might not otherwise go. Sometimes I ride the 6, which travels along Whitehall Ave in Albany and then through the South End on Second Ave. I almost never have a reason to go through that neighborhood normally, but I see it on the bus. Again, I don't know if that's a good thing or just a thing. But I suspect it's not a bad thing.

cdta bus at stop

Be ready
You should have your money/swiper/pass ready when it's time to board. If not, you should let the other people get on first. It's the courteous thing to do.

Also, you should try exiting via the door in the back (if the bus has one). It frees the way for people to get on in the front. And let people off before trying to get on. Again, it's a courtesy .

It makes you walk more
If you ride the bus, you're going to walk more. There's no way around it. To the bus stop. A few blocks from where the bus dropped you off. A half mile to catch a different line. Back home from the bus stop.

I already walked a fair amount, but I'm guessing that riding the bus has added 3-5 miles to my weekly walk total. I feel better for it.

Another upside to walking: you notice more of what's going. New stuff. Old stuff you somehow missed. Weird things. You miss a lot while driving in a car.

I don't like driving
Riding the bus has reinforced the notion that I just don't like driving all that much. Sure, driving on a open road isn't so bad, it can even be fun. But I often find driving in and around Albany an annoying experience, between the other drivers and the many ill-timed stoplights that seem to be at every... single... intersection. (Seriously, it's like Albany got a discount on traffic lights one time and decided to buy in bulk. If I was mayor for a day, I'd order a stoplight removal survey.)

Riding the bus can be civilized
The bus doesn't have the best reputation. People are always pointing out that weird stuff -- both weird amusing and weird bad -- happens while riding the bus. Yep, sometimes a few of the people along for the ride are something less than charming. And it's certainly not perfect -- far from it.

But, look at it a different way: Someone is driving you where you want to go. You can just sit there and zone out, read, check email or Twitter on your mobile, whatever. And there's something pleasurable about riding the bus back after a day of work, getting off at your regular stop, and strolling a few blocks home.

Comments

Good overview, Greg. Having just had my closest bus discontinued, I'm missing having that easy option when I don't want to bike into work. Without parking, I don't view driving into Albany as an option.

And yes, sometimes the people on the bus are less than charming. But here's the thing: ALL THE TIMES the other people driving cars are less than charming. Occasional interaction with a sketchy character or two, or daily guaranteed interaction with people who are angry just because someone else is on the road. Gotta keep it in perspective.

We live in the DelSo and take the bus pretty often. The number #18 goes from Lark Street to Delmar and back via Delaware Ave. It's nice for us if we're headed to Lark or downtown for diner and/or drinks. No worrying about parking and who's going to be the designated driver.

Also, if you live in or around Center Square it's an easy ride to The Spectrum, New World and Mingle!

Another bonus, if you go to or work for St. Rose or SUNYA you ride for free, just swipe your id.

Is that a cheer for the bus I'm hearing?!

The timing of this post couldn't be more perfect! My wife and I are moving out of Center Square July 1, and I've been considering taking the bus to work (Empire Plaza area). I currently enjoy a 6-minute walking commute to work, and have for the past 2 years. Before that, I commuted an hour each way by car for 6 months. While what is now going to be a 2.5 mile commute from home to work – much better than my original driving commute – I do not look forward to the parking issues around the Capitol, or the many jerks that seem to drive Albany roads. My office offers parking in a garage, but who the heck wants to PAY to park?? I sure don't. So the only logical solution seems to take the bus, but I've never been a public-transportation user. Your post makes a lot of good points and I'm taking it as a sign :)
Also, you are totally right about the ridiculous stoplights throughout the city! I think turning 99 percent of them into 4-way flashing red lights after certain hours of the day and a handful of them into flashing reds all the time, would help ease the traffic ugliness throughout the city and make our driving lives much smoother.

Woot. Welcome, to our world, Greg. I'm so glad that you're liking it! I'm looking forward to running into you on the bus one day soon so that I can add you to my "bus buddy" roster -- all the cool people are on it, of course.

I was on a panel with a bus driver recently. He said that as a bus driver, you strive to be on time, you try not to be late, and you should NEVER be early. I agree. Early buses make me go grrrr.

I had a nice run as a bus rider in Troy last year -- my RPI student ID got me free rides even. But when the baby arrived, we had to get a second car. I couldn't deal with taking car seat / stroller on the bus (though many people do, and do so much better than I'd ever be able to), or not being able to get somewhere in an emergency if my wife had the car with her at work in Albany.

I still like to ride occasionally, though I always worry that if something happens at home, it will take me forever to get back.

You'll appreciate the bus more when your wife is shoveling the car out on the street and you're hopping onto a toasty warm bus.

It definitely depends on which route you are on and where you want to go. I would like to take the bus more often for those times when I'm going downtown. I live less than 5 minutes away from downtown by car, but it can take an hour on the bus. Just isn't worth it for me, unfortunately.

@Carl, Megan M: The uneven distribution of easy service is definitely an issue. It's frustrating that a person can be a 10-minute car drive away, but the same trip via bus is sometimes much longer.

@Aela: I think commuting via bus is worth a trial -- give it a shot for a week or two and see how you like it.

And I agree about more after-hours flashing stoplights. It's crazy to make people stop at an intersection with absolutely no traffic at 9 pm just because the light is cycling through its normal pattern. I think one of the reasons people are so willing to run red lights here is that they just get frustrated. (It's still not a good reason.)

@Leah: An early bus is the worst!

@Tom: Heh. I suspect I'll still be the one shoveling the car out.

Driving in Albany is definitely a frustrating experience. I don't know whether it was the disasterous traffic engineering done back in the Rockefeller days or just the result of recent population growth overwhelming the transportation infrastructure, but man is it bad.

Once you're in Albany in a car it can be very difficult to find a quick and efficient way out. As you say, it seems like there are approximately a billion stoplights and slow congested intersections between any given point in the city and the closest highway. And it's really not a big city either.

"Given the ongoing parking drama there, it makes me wonder if there are other people who'd have an easier time if they rode bus -- and maybe just don't know it."

That is the problem. I think if more people were aware of it, or were willing to give it a shot, they would become converts. Many people are upset at the new permit system because they don't want to pay for parking (I get it, it's expensive), but not only is the park n ride system cheap (bus fare only), but it takes away the hassle of finding a spot in my neighborhood.
Park N Ride Details

Great post Greg. You've inspired me to appreciate the bus more. Sometimes my morning ride can make me a bit gumpy if I'm surrounded my noisy and unruly people. But hey, I was noisy and unruly once too. And no matter how long I've lived here, the simple pleasure of cutting through West Capitol Park in the morning isn't lost on me. I mean, THIS is my view!

My husband and I both live in Alb but commute out of town so daily bus use is out of the question, however, when it comes to going out downtown, we rarely drive - we love the #10 and its drivers (can't say enough how much I especially love the late evening drivers). You can buy swiper cards at the grocery store and save a few $$ if you're just an occasional bus user. I think that one of my favorite thing about Albany winters is getting on that warm bus after a good meal at the Wine Bar! (Waiting for the bus is not so much fun though.)

I think one of the things that would make the bus a little more convenient is if they could get a route that wound it's way between Central, Washington and Western in a few more places uptown and midtown, providing better connections between the 5, 12 and 10/11 buses.

Early bus is not 99% your fault, it is not your fault at all. Public transport can *arrive* early, it should never *leave* early. That is the whole fricking point of having a schedule for public transport, a fact that CDTA authorities will probably never get into their heads.

I will add that CDTA's maps have improved a tiny bit in the 20 years I've been back here, but they still forget to include the most fundamental information an initiate needs: what direction is the bus traveling on that thick black line? I've yet to see a CDTA map that makes that clear. You're just supposed to know. It's extremely confusing on runs you don't often use, or figuring out some of the boxes and loops the buses take, and the "occasional" stops in the schedule that don't happen every run make it even more confusing. I used to use Centro in Syracuse, and their maps were very easy to figure out.

I just want a frickiin' arrow here.

I relied on CDTA to get around for two years while in graduate school. I also get around on mass transit yet again now that I live in NYC. You're right that the bus IS a worthwhile transportation alternative -- and sometimes a superior one. But the key turn-off is the lack of freedom in being reliant on mass transit. A spontaneous trip to Crossgates Mall from downtown was a laborious process that could take up to an hour. You have to operate without a lot more constraints not having a car -- that's just an undeniable reality. That also exerts a mental toll.

This may be a little off topic here, but I feel ya on the crazy lights downtown. Super long reds when no one at all is going in the other direction. I'm a goody two-shoes, and I have to tell you I was even tempted to run a light or two the other night.

Hear hear on the maps, Carl! I also used Syracuse's transit system extensively when I was a student there with little problem, but the schedules CDTA provides are very confusing. I don't mind the extra time, the walking, the people or any other aspect of the ride, but when it takes me a good half hour to figure out what buses I should take and when, and where they stop... Geez. I've tried their app - it crashes. I've tried the schedules online - takes me forever just to figure out what route is applicable and then they have very vague maps and list only a few of the stops. I've tried Google Maps transit directions - Just plain wrong in every respect.
We're a one car household, but I usually make things work with car pooling, biking, and learning to enjoy being stuck at home more.

I think one of the reasons you don't see as much mass transit use around here as you might like is that, parking problems aside, driving a car around here really doesn't suck all that much. (Pardon my French.) It takes me about 15 minutes to drive to downtown Albany via 787 and another 10 minutes or so to get to other parts of the city. Rush hour on the Northway may be bumper-to-bumper, but as long as there aren't too many accidents, it's still a tolerable drive. Commuting time is still short enough for most people that they haven't thrown their hands up and demanded a different solution. Combine that with slow buses and the lack of freedom (real or perceived) that comes with using them and you see why people are slow to hop on the bus. Perhaps a commuter rail line or two to complement the bus system would lead to increased ridership.

I ride the bus in Troy and I've found it to be extremely reliable. This is a massive improvement from NYC where the buses I took always seemed to be late. I figure out the timing by using the public transportation directions form google maps which is much easier than finding and searching through a specific bus schedule. I can even access google maps directions from my phone.

Something that I've gotten used to from taking public transportation in NYC is the amount of time it takes to get places. 35 minute commutes are relatively short compared to what I'm used to. It does require more planning but if you have something to read/work on during the bus ride the time can be considered productive time. If you think about it this way instead of a comparison between 35 and 15 minutes to get somewhere, the calculation is 35 minutes of reading versus 15 minutes of driving. I know I'd choose the reading almost always.

I think you could also use to emphasize the presence of bike racks on all their buses. CDTA allows me to put my bike on the front, ride all the way to Albany where the good guv'nah decided we should now work, pedal in seven tenths of a mile without getting all smelly before work, work a full day, then ride home because the return trip on the bus is more often overcrowded and annoying. If it rains or if I have a physical or mechanical problem, I have a fall-back plan to get back without getting too entirely drenched.
I had never taken transit before on a regular basis. Now I do, as a means to adapt to the new workplace. I have had a few issues with CDTA, in particular with connecting buses pulling away six minutes ahead of their scheduled departure times while I stood in the middle of Central Avenue at a place with a 2:10 delay before the walk symbol lights up. I know why people get killed trying to cross that road. Even nicer is when you make it to the other side and see the snazzy new electric display telling you it's -2 degrees out. Eventually things appear to have changed (from CDTA, not with the traffic signal timing, despite multiple fatalities).
There are things beyond CDTA's control, mostly the clientele. Their maintenance workers and drivers for the most part do a fantastic job and deserve more credit than they get. The neutered express bus service could still use some improvements, like more appropriate dedicated lanes and pre-payment, because getting passed by the local while someone pays their two bucks entirely in nickels is not the greatest operating scheme. You've got to have pretty thick skin sometimes, and learn to laugh off the riffraffisms, but it sure as hell beats dealing with those maniacs in a car.

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