connections, lessons, transportation, travel

Notes from the Bus

Notes from the Bus-2

If you read my post No Car No Car No Car No Car from a few weeks ago, you may recall that I, well, have no car. You might also remember that my full-time job involves frequent within-town travel, which means that I rely heavily on public transportation to get from place to place throughout my day.

Our public transportation system in Boston is called the “T”, and it consists of both buses and subways. For various reasons, however, I tend to spend more time on the bus than on the subway while traveling around for work. Honestly I think I probably spend more time on the bus than pretty much anyone except bus drivers.

There are a lot of reasons why I’m taking the bus instead of getting a car, but the main one is that it allows me to save a massive amount of money. My employer reimburses me the $75 cost of a monthly T pass, which means that my transportation costs are currently at $0/month. This is a huge factor in my being able to put $1000-$1500 towards my loans each month (the other factor is my unusually low rent). Another major upside of taking the bus is that it allows me to completely avoid parallel parking, and by “parallel parking” I mean “attempting to parallel park, failing, and having to drive around and around the block until I find two spots in a row and can just slide into the front one without having to put the car in reverse at all.”

However, I will also acknowledge that taking the bus has its downsides. Sometimes the bus is crazy crowded. Sometimes you have to stand in the cold rain waiting for a bus that is running way behind schedule. Sometimes the inside of the bus smells like pot. Sometimes (if you’re me) you get motion sickness. I admit that there are definitely days when I wish I were sitting in a warm, dry, clean, silent car all by myself.

But I also feel—strange as it may sound—that I’m learning a lot from riding the bus. Amidst the crowds and the waiting and the rain and the noise, I feel like I’m starting to see patterns and insights slowly emerge. Lessons, you could call them. Most of these lessons could probably be learned in other contexts as well, but the bus is what I’ve got right now, so that’s where I’m learning them.

Here’s what I’ve got. (So far.)

Lessons I’ve Learned I’m Learning from Riding the Bus

  1. Traffic is a great equalizer. There are definitely days when the bus ends up sitting in traffic. And you know who else ends up sitting in the exact same traffic? That guy over there in the Mercedes. And that woman in the shiny SUV. And everybody else. Our situations may be different in some ways, but on some level we’re all in this together.
  1. Technology is truly amazing. I have never felt so fortunate to own a smartphone before. I quite literally could not do this job without the Maps app (which tells me all the possible routes to my next destination) and the MBTA Bus app (which uses GPS to tell me when the next bus will arrive). I know there are downsides to technology, but when used intentionally as a tool, it completely changes what is possible.
  1. Sometimes running really fast for a short period of time results in a huge payoff. If I know (from my GPS-based bus app) that I have exactly two minutes to get to a bus stop that is three long blocks away, chances are I’m going to run for it. Catching that one bus might mean I can catch an earlier connecting bus, which might make the difference between getting to my next appointment on time and getting there 20 minutes late, which in turn might impact whether I’m on time for the rest of my appointments that day. And this is something that applies to non-bus-related situations as well. As much as I complained in my last post that I have too much to do on a daily basis, I do think that there are situations when putting in a TON of effort for a very short period of time—like staying up super late to finish an application or project with a deadline—can have huge, cascading effects on your short-term or even long-term future.
  1. We can get used to a lot. I did not grow up using public transportation because I’m from a rural-ish area where everyone gets around by car, and before I moved to the city I would have said that getting around by bus sounded super difficult and inconvenient. But I’ve adjusted, because human beings are great at adjusting. And if I ever needed to adjust back to having a car (and to parallel parking), I’m sure I could do that too. We may think we would never be able to get used to X, Y, or Z, but chances are we probably could if we wanted or needed to, as long as our basic needs were still met. After a while, it would probably even seem normal.
  1. There are a lot of people whose lives and experiences are very different from mine. Pretty much everybody rides the bus. Well, okay, people who have cars and people who can afford to Uber everywhere probably don’t ride it, but you know what I mean. There are elderly people, middle-aged people, college students, kids in their school uniforms, parents (and nannies) with strollers; there are people of different races and ethnicities and people speaking many languages; there are people with disabilities; there are people wearing suits, people wearing scrubs, people wearing food service uniforms, and people wearing sweatpants. It’s a simple but valuable daily reminder of the wide variety of experiences that different people are having.
  1. There are always new places to discover. This one is kind of a no-brainer, but I’m including it because it still feels profound. I’ve discovered an incredible number of interesting neighborhoods as a result of taking the bus—many of them neighborhoods that I’m fairly certain I never would have stumbled upon for any other reason.
  1. There are often multiple routes to get to the same destination. I find almost every day that there are often three or even four different ways to get from Point A to Point B: a bus and a train, two buses, one bus and a lot of walking on both ends, etc. Sometimes I choose my route based on which route will get me there the quickest, sometimes I choose based on how tired I am, sometimes I choose based on whether or not it’s raining, and sometimes I just take a gamble. I’m pretty much going to end up at the same place no matter what, so I may as well choose the path that works best for me at that moment.
  1. Sometimes walking is faster. While I often assume it will be faster to take the bus to get to my next destination, this is not always true, especially if the destination is a mile away or less. Sometimes it’s more efficient to just accomplish something on your own steam than to bring in outside help.
  1. Some people are dealing with really tough realities. I can’t pretend to know what’s actually going on in the lives of any of my fellow bus passengers. That being said, it’s unusual for me to get through more than a couple of bus rides without encountering a reminder of one sort or another that many people are facing tremendously difficult physical, social, financial, medical, emotional, and/or psychological challenges.
  1. Sometimes a mental game of “would you rather?” can save the day. Some of my least favorite bus-related moments are ones when I’m standing in the cold rain on a random street corner waiting for a bus that’s still (according to the bus app) 11 minutes away. Those are the moments when I say to myself: This is insane. Why are you not in a car right now? But then I think Ok, would you rather put up with this situation for 11 more minutes or shell out, say, $300 for a car payment every month AND have to deal with parallel parking?” then suddenly the answer is pretty clear.
  1. When in doubt, bring an umbrella. Enough said.

So what do you think? Can you relate to any of these (or think any of them are nonsense)? Have you learned other lessons from driving or biking or walking or whatever your preferred form of transportation is? Do you play “Would You Rather” with yourself in your head while considering purchases? Am I the only one who can’t parallel park?

58 Comments on “Notes from the Bus

  1. Loved your bus insights. I have not parallel parked since my driving test as a teen. I avoid it completely. When I was growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, which has always had a wonderful and dependable metro bus line, the bus was my ticket for independence and transportation. We lived in the central part of the city, and from the age of seven, I could drop in my coin (or coins-no passes in those days) and take a bus anywhere in the city, transferring to another bus if needed. In high school, I took my bike to work at a grocer’s market but often did not want to ride it home in inclement weather or late at night. The bus driver would allow me to put my bike ON the bus as long as I brought him a treat from the market. (This was before bus bicycle racks, and I am sure was completely against the rules.)

    I’m not riding the bus now, but my husband takes it into downtown Minneapolis. He has many of the same stories to tell me of the people he encounters. Yes, there are those with real struggles.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kiki. That’s such a funny story about the bus driver allowing your bike on the bus if you brought him a treat! It does sound a little bit against the rules, doesn’t it? 🙂 I’m glad you were able to get on the bus somehow though — biking in the rain/snow is definitely no fun! And I love that you grew up riding the bus. For me the main public transportation I was exposed to as a kid was when we occasionally visited NYC and rode the subway, which was always a big exciting adventure.

  2. All of these points ring true to me with the possible exception of running for a bus. I’ll run for one some of the time. But if I have the time, I’ll check the bus tracker and maybe walk down a few stops and not worry about it. My wife and I sold our 2nd vehicle back in the fall and I started taking the bus to work instead of driving. I love it. We took the proceeds from the car and put them in our emergency fund, our gas and maintenance costs dropped in half, and I don’t have to drive around town as much. Triple win! I don’t have any transfers, so I use the time to meditate in the mornings and read in the afternoons.

    1. It sounds like your switch to using a single car is working out great! Triple wins are always good. 🙂 I’m impressed that you are meditating on the bus since there are so many potential distractions. I’m still working on just fitting meditation into my day at all, so I’m starting small, with a few minutes in my quiet apartment.

  3. I was just thinking of starting a series similar to this. I love learning lessons in random places. I was making a mental list in at a charity dodge ball tournament the other day. Lesson one – face the game or you won’t spot the foul balls. 😉 Traffic is a terrific equalizer. I always find some delight in seeing an old rust bucket next to a Tesla with both drivers scowling equally. Terrific list!

    1. Ooh, you definitely should! I do have to say that it took me much longer than usual to write this post — I don’t know if it was just me or if there’s something about “lessons learned” posts that are just harder to write in general. But if you do end up writing one, I’d love to read it!

  4. Bus? Don’t you mean the big, blue limousine? Or whatever color they are in Boston?

    I take the bus to work most days and have written about my adoration of it. Never would I thought I would have my own driver. Now I can focus on things like reading, watching tv shows, or just seeing the world go by. And yeah, it is the great equalizer, like the subway in NYC. It’s one of the few places you see absolutely everyone in one place.

    I had to learn how to parallel park once we moved to a city because we had to park on the street, but it took a while. Now I still get a thrill when I slide into a space exactly right.

    1. That’s so funny, Norm, and I do feel that way about the bus a lot of the time: like, why would I pay to drive myself around when I can get a chauffeur for cheap/free? 🙂
      Congrats on your progress with parallel parking; it sounds like you’re getting the hang of it! I’ll probably have to learn for real someday, but that day has not happened yet.

  5. Love these observations! I recently moved back to LA and don’t plan on getting a car. Crazy, I know! But I work from home and plan on living in Hollywood and the public transportation is getting better here. Saves me so much money and taking public transit is great people watching.

    1. Wow, no car in L.A.! I have never lived there, but I have visited and it definitely strikes me as a car-centered city. I hope you’ll write about your experiences using public transit! 🙂

    1. Oh, interesting! We have bus lanes on a couple specific streets here, but they are few and far between — sounds like a good idea to make more of those!

  6. I love the insights. When I spent a semester in London, there were two tube stops that were about twenty minutes apart. I discovered a few weeks in that they were actually only a few blocks away. I think about that a lot… sometimes walking is faster, just as you say. We think we can make everything more efficient… but there are exceptions. They couldn’t create the entire tube system to be faster than walking. Knowing the exceptions is important.

    1. Haha, yes, I have had the same type of experience here. We have one subway line in particular (the Green Line) where the stops are so close together that it often seems ridiculous. It definitely helps to recognize those situations and realize that you might as well just get off and take a walk in the sunshine! Also, I too spent a study abroad semester in London and I loved the tube! It’s so fun to get to know subway systems in different cities. 🙂

  7. I had to parallel park between two state trooper cars during my test to get my driver’s license and it was terrifying! I’ve kinda sorta figured it out by now though but it still gives me anxiety when I’m holding up the people behind me. I also totally agree that traffic is a great equalizer. Whether you’re paying $700/month for an audi or $75 for a T pass, you’re all stuck in the same place. Interesting way to look at it!

    1. Oh my goodness, parallel parking between two state trooper cars does sound absolutely terrifying! I had to parallel park my parents’ minivan during my driving test and it took me three tries to do it correctly (somehow they let me pass anyway). That’s great that you’ve figured out how to do it now! I hope to someday… 🙂

    1. Same here…but it’s a useful exercise, because sometimes there are situations when I think, well, actually this purchase really IS more important to me than making another debt payment. But I think just taking the time to really think about it is key.

  8. These sound like excellent reasons to stick with public trans. How awesome that your employer reimbursed you, in addition to not having the costs associated with a car!

    1. Yes, I definitely feel fortunate to be reimbursed. I would buy a T pass each month whether or not I had this job, so it actually makes me feel like I’m MAKING money, haha. 🙂

  9. This is great. While I was reading your post, I couldn’t help but remember my time in Las Vegas. Vegas has a really good public transportation. You can go just about anywhere in Las Vegas with just riding the bus. The only thing I didn’t prefer about such public transportation is the long wait.. (lol not complaining here). Just like what you said sometimes walking takes less time to get to your destination than to ride the bus.

    Having said that, I certainly can relate on all the things you are learning about public transportation. How I wish we had the same reliable public transportation where I live now as the one in Vegas.

    1. Yeah, there can definitely be a wait sometimes…although overall I feel I have nothing to complain about — I rarely have to wait more than 15 minutes, and usually it’s more like 4 or 5. i didn’t realize Vegas had such a great public transportation system! It’s such a large city geographically that I would have assumed people mostly drove everywhere, but that’s cool that they have buses available as an option as well.

  10. I sometimes wish that I lived in an area where I could use public transportation. While there are public busses where I live, they aren’t convienent and wouldn’t be able to get me to where I work. I love your thought that traffic connects and affects all of us. No matter your income level or worth, there are certain things in life that affect each and every one of us. Sometimes it is as simple as the weather or traffic, other times it is loss and death. Great post Sarah!

    1. It’s true — there are a lot of things that are great equalizers. That’s something I’d like to keep in mind more often, since it can be so easy to just focus on things that make us different from one another. Thanks for the comment!

  11. I love that you are using your bus time to gather these insights! I’m sure you didn’t set out to but it’s great that you’ve collected them here. I especially like your point about adaptability. I have adapted to circumstances I never thought possible, and I try to remind myself of this when something new feels insurmountable. I would also be terrified to park in Boston so you’re not the only one!

    1. I’m glad it’s not just me! People drive crazy here, and parking is the worst. The couple of times I’ve had to drive/park a rental car in the city have been extremely stress-inducing!

    1. Yay for walking! I definitely end up walking a substantial amount most days — it can’t really be avoided since the bus rarely drops me right at the doorstop of where I’m going. I agree that walking has a huge number of advantages, like the ones you list. I can’t say that I often make friends while walking, but fresh air, exercise, and music are definitely on my list as well. 🙂

  12. I think it’s super admirable both that you’re sticking with the bus and that you’re using it as a learning experience and not getting bitter about it! I can definitely see the positive of not having to park or pay for parking, and being able to do something else with your transit time instead of having to keep your eyes on the road. Sitting in traffic is the thing I miss the very least about city life. And I totally agree that walking is often faster! That’s something I realized when I lived on the east coast — those stops are often so close together, and especially if you’re traveling underground, you may never realize that!

    1. Well, I wouldn’t say I’m never bitter about it… 😉 Honestly I think the #1 upside for me, which I didn’t even mention in this post, is that taking the bus means I have a lot of exercise built into my day. As someone who spent much of the past five years sitting on my butt in a windowless lab, staring at a computer screen, I find this an incredibly motivating reason to stick with the public transportation option. I should really always refer to “taking the bus” as “taking the bus and walking” because that’s really what it is!

      1. That’s awesome! I recently realized that my iPhone counts all my steps, distance and floors climbed (apparently it’s been doing this for like a year and I didn’t know?!), which has also made me realize how hard it is to get 10,000 steps a day without really making an effort. So if you have that built in, then you have a pretty great situation — assuming you’re not getting soaked in the cold rain in the process!

        1. Haha, I also had that exact same iPhone realization! (“Wait, so I’ve basically had a fitbit in my phone this whole time??”)
          I think the challenge will be when the weather gets colder again and I’m waiting not in the cold rain but in a polar vortex of freezing awfulness. I may need to reconsider at that point, haha.

  13. I’m southern born and bred, and love many things about the south. The attitude about public transportation (or even sidewalks for that matter) is not one of them. It can be hard to get around our area of Raleigh without cars safely, and I think people are healthier and more active where they rely less on cars.

    1. Yeah, I guess I didn’t mention the health benefits in the post, but that’s something I appreciate as well. I also totally get that in the vast majority of the country, public transit simply isn’t an option. I guess you have to be in a really big and/or really compact city for it to work out. Not having a lot of sidewalks does sound tough though — I hope you have other walking options, like trails and such. I remember you wrote a post about the “big darn hill”, which sounded like a bit of a hike! 🙂

      1. We have trails and greenways and parks. They tend to be in nicer areas so if you don’t live in one, you are driving to them (another disadvantage for those with unreliable transportation). And I am fortunate that my neighborhood is not busy so we can get good walks in,

        1. Ah yes, ideally parks would be available to everyone… I’m glad you have a quiet neighborhood and places to walk though. 🙂

  14. I’m not sure what is motivating your more – having $300 to pay down your debt or not having to parallel park. These are great insights on taking public transit especially that some people are dealing with very rough realities. I drive a car to work every day and it’s not an option to take public transit but sometimes when you get in your car, drive, get out and repeat you miss interactions and are relatively sheltered from some realities. Thanks for keeping it in perspective. FYI – I hate parallel parking too.

    1. Haha, yeah, I’m honestly not sure which sounds worse to me: paying for a car or having to parallel park. It’s basically a toss-up. 🙂 And yeah, as someone who spent many years driving a car, I do think driving can be a bit isolating…then again, it’s obviously a lot more convenient in many ways, so there are always pros and cons.

  15. Honestly if I lived in a more public transportation friendly city I would totally choose that over driving a car. Owning a car, even one that is paid off is a hassle. I envy that you can walk and take a bus places. We do have public buses but they are not user friendly and would take half a day to get wherever you need to go. Our “train” (the Metrolink) is not easy to get to and even if you could find a station, it’s not the safest. I loved your insight of how we are great at adjusting to things. I used to HATE parallel parking. Then I decided it was great idea to work in Downtown St. Louis and live in the city. You somehow, without realizing it, adjust to things really quickly and now parallel parking is a skill I may want to put on my resume.

    1. Yeah, I totally get that taking the bus is only possible in select locations, and that in a lot of the U.S. (and elsewhere) you need to have a car. I’m impressed that you’ve gotten so much better at parallel parking! I suppose it is a learnable skill just like anything else. 🙂

  16. I used to take the train for a previous job. Even though it made my door to door commute an hour and a half, I loved it. I can take a nap, catch up on my reading, or do some work on the bus. It was a lot less stressful than having to sit through traffic.

    How is it managing work? I imagine there might be times you’d be late for a meeting because a bus got delayed? Or am I just being a naive car driver?

    That’s awesome that this can work for you Sarah! More power to you! 🙂

    1. That’s cool that you used to take the train, Vic! I’m impressed you were actually able to get a nap in too. 🙂
      As for being late, I have a lot of control over when I schedule my appointments, so I tend to just schedule them with some time in between to make sure I have time to get there. I think I’ve only been late once, and that was because an entire subway line was shut down for 30 minutes due to police action. That being said, there are challenges to taking public transportation, but I’m hoping to keep it up as long as I can!

  17. I like the part about technology. Yeah there are so many downsides, but I can’t imagine living without certain things anymore. I used to take the bus for a period of time when I lived in Seattle. It’s good people watching. I used to make up stories about people’s lives. The only downside I remember is the occasional wasted person who made everyone uncomfortable and the smell nearly made me throw up. Huge downside!

    1. I agree — it’s definitely good people-watching! Regarding wasted people, I once was standing on the sidewalk waiting for the bus along with a guy who was yelling and screaming and cursing (and drinking out of a bottle of liquor that he kept in his pocket), but as soon as the bus pulled up, he got on silently, sat down silently, later gave up his seat for someone else, and eventually got off silently. I guess even while under the influence he felt it was important to respect the bus!

  18. I read your post about the two longest weeks just before this one. I have to say, I don’t think you’re rushing through your days as much as you think. Here you are, sitting on the bus, making all of the great observations about life. Life passes by quickly, for everyone. It seems like you’re taking time to experience the now, even though you’re working towards the future.

    1. Thanks, Harmony. 🙂 That’s a good point. Life definitely passes quickly by, doesn’t it? I’m working to find more ways to slow it down so I can appreciate everything.

  19. We used to take the “T” when we lived near Boston and can relate to your detailed descriptions such as the bus smelling like pot. Talk about bringing back memories! We still take the commuter rail, but now that we are in the suburbs a car is a requirement for us so it doesn’t happen often unless we are attending a popular event.

    That’s great how your employer is contributing towards the cost of the “T” pass! This is a huge benefit so it’s good that you are taking advantage of it. Parking in Boston is so expensive! A little tip: I used to keep a sprig of lavender in my bag to help offset the surrounding smells. Have fun people watching! – Mrs. FE

    1. Oddly, I have only taken the commuter rail a handful of times, but it seems like a great way to get into the city for work if you choose to live in a more suburban area. I can’t believe how far it extends — almost to New Hampshire! And all the way to Worcester if I recall correctly. I hope it’s working out well for you. And thanks for the lavender suggestion! 🙂

  20. Love how you really create some thought provocation here Sarah! 🙂

    Can you relate to any of these (or think any of them are nonsense)?

    Catching the train, yes for sure can relate to a few of them..

    Have you learned other lessons from driving or biking or walking or whatever your preferred form of transportation is?

    I’d say the importance of sticking to a schedule or risk the consequences of missing a train, by being late for work :O

    Do you play “Would You Rather” with yourself in your head while considering purchases?

    Not particularly, while I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a higher paying job here down under.. One of the more important things for me is time & saving that rather than money.. Sure I’m not a massive spender however especially with public transport vs. driving if it would have to save me a lot to avoid driving.. It’s so damn convenient ha

    Am I the only one who can’t parallel park?
    You haven’t attempted practising this ;).. I find that yep people struggle without it although if you practise anything enough you’ll probably get better at it :)!

    1. That’s true, Jef — probably if I practiced parallel parking I would get the hang of it eventually. It just seems scary because I haven’t done it enough. It’s funny how much I’ve adjusted to public transportation — I used to drive everywhere when I lived in a more rural area, and it definitely seemed more convenient then, but now it feels more convenient to take the bus. 🙂

  21. I didn’t get my driver’s licence until I was 27. Luckily I lived in areas with pretty good public transportation. It was always a bummer when it was raining (which in Southern California wasn’t too often) but I can not tell you how many books I was able to read a year on my 1.5 hr each way commute. People watching was also fascinating.

    1. That’s awesome that you were able to read on public transportation. Unfortunately I can’t do that for very long because I get motion sickness, but I can answer emails and that sort of thing. I also think it’s cool that you didn’t get a driver’s license until age 27 — not a lot of people in this country can say that!

  22. My current job is only a 5 minute drive from my house…or a 15 minute walk and a 5 minute bus ride…or a 35 minute walk (not happening in the morning).
    Totally different from my last job with an hour by public transport, or the one before that which was almost 2 hours by public transport. While it is totally tedious to spend so much time travelling (and sometimes the people and weather can be…less than ideal) I actually miss it. It was nice to have an hour each way to zone out, read, listen to music or podcasts.
    I’ve taken advantage of the warmer weather to start walking home the past month, both so I can get some fitness in and so I can wind down after work. Enjoy it! 🙂

    1. I agree with you that public transportation can offer a nice chance to zone out or listen to music/podcasts. I definitely like that aspect, and I definitely like the walking that is involved with relying on buses and subways. That’s great that you have a shorter commute these days — enjoy the walking!

  23. Now do you prefer the bus or the subway? I personally prefer the subway and I love walking the city at night when I am in Boston, particularly down by Copley and Prudential. I just am not a big fan of the bus system in Boston.

    1. I definitely used to prefer the subway, and in many ways I still prefer it. But I have to take the bus for work out of necessity, simply because many of my appointments are in residential areas where only buses go. Now that I’ve learned the bus system better, I think it’s a pretty good system. The only problem is the traffic! (Then again, the Green Line runs into traffic as well…)

  24. I am an adult first time driver. Seriously, I should be getting my license in the next couple of weeks. So, I’ve used public transit my whole life. When I worked my previous job (for 10 years) I had free transportation because everyone received an ECO pass as part of our benefits. I love public transit and am very grateful for the service that I have in my town.

    1. Oh wow, that’s exciting! I’m also really impressed that you avoided cars for so long. I think a lot of people just take it as a given that you have to have a car (I know I did for many years), but it can be freeing knowing that, depending on where you live, there may be other great options out there. Good luck on your driving test!

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