Why every city bus route planner is a stupid moron

Welcome, my friends and colleagues. Welcome to my nightmare of poorly designed public transportation systems.

Before we begin, let me be the first to clarify that I have no problem with well-designed public transportation. I love well-designed public transportation. Every time I’m in a new city, particularly those with a state-of-the-art subway system (or even the clunky, aging, 1950s-era steampunk-like contraptions rattling around Moscow), I rejoice in my ability to whisk myself away in a matter of minutes from one end of a multimillion-person megalopolis to the other. All those people who complain about how we don’t have teleportation devices like in Star Trek should be overjoyed at how we’re pretty much halfway there.

Sadly, it’s as completely different story when it comes to buses. And it’s not so much that buses are stupid. It’s the humans designing those bus systems are stupid. Every single one of them. ALL OVER THE WORLD.

Stupid design flaw #1: NO F#@%ING MAPS!!!

Take a look at the Montreal Metro map, which is present at every single station in the city and in multiple locations at each of those stations.

Montreal Metro Route and City Map
It’s…it’s just so beautiful.

Not only is there a handy map of the entire city, but there’s also a handy map of just the subway system, so you can easily determine exactly where you are, and where you need to go, with easily-navigable and color coded routes which take about as much time to figure out as 4th grade math problem. It’s great. Literally every subway system encounter that I’ve ever had has taken about 30 seconds to figure out exactly where I’m going, and off I go.

Now let’s take a look at the stupid bullshit that passes for a bus system route map in the same city:

Montreal Bus Schedule
ARGH.

If you were able to figure this out, good for you! But you’re also a total liar.

At practically every bus stop in the world that I’ve ever seen, the info presented shows a very brief, often-inaccurate schedule of the buses that pass through there, with numbered routes alongside estimated arrival times and NO F*&%$ING MAP ANYWHERE IN SIGHT. How the hell do you figure out where you’re going if you have no idea where you are or which route you’re supposed to take!??!!

If it weren’t for Google Maps and its public transit directions, navigating a new city would be an appalling travesty. And when your battery dies or your mobile coverage goes out, you go right back to the Stone Age.

Take a look at this one:

Garbage bus route map
ARGH AGAIN.

The only thing they give you besides the bus route numbers is literally garbage.

“Just ask someone which number you need!”

Ah yes, the ol’ “just ask a local” trick which only works if you speak the same language and he/she might give you wrong directions anyway. Also, have you ever been to a bus stop in the middle of the night and have no idea what the hell is going on and there’s no one around to ask? Or what if you do know the route number you need, but you don’t know where the bus stop is?!? That’s a good time for a MAP OF THE DAMN BUS ROUTES!!!

And don’t tell me it’s about money, because it’s literally just a sheet of paper that could be stapled nearby. STAPLE DAMN YOU. STAPLE!!!

Stupid design flaw #2: Inexcusable signage inadequacy

Let’s play a little game called Find the Bus Stop.

You’ve got 30 seconds to find it or you’ll miss your flight and be stranded here for days and miss your own wedding AAAAAHHHHHH!!!

Montreal Streets
Tick tock tick tock.

Trick question! There was none. Good try, though!

Now let’s take a look at how easy it is to find a metro stop:

Metro Station Sign
Every sign is like your own personal concierge.

Not so tricky, is it?

Subway signs are ALWAYS bigger, not only so you know where to get on, but also where to get off, since they have massive signs with gigantic letters telling you which station you’re at, which is incredibly goddamn useful and bus routes never bother doing that either, because why?!!?

The only explanation I can think of is that subway designers are intelligent and considerate people who want their system to be widely used and easily accessible, whereas bus system designers are terrible humans whose mothers don’t love them.

Stupid design flaw #3: Ticket purchase sequencing flaw

This is a more subtle problem, but it is the one most likely to lead to the greatest degree of awkwardness and inadvisable police encounters.

Let’s take a look at how it’s handled with a subway system, because subway systems are always better and everything else is stupid:

Metro ticket machine
Pay close attention. Pay attention. PAY…attention.

Take a look at the shorts-clad gentleman on the left, who is paying for his ticket before reaching the turnstiles. This is a wonderful design feature, because paying after passing through the turnstiles would just be a ridiculous disaster. This ensures that no one accidentally gets on the subway without having paid ahead of time. If you suddenly realize you have no cash to pay for a ticket, it will happen before any inadvertent illegality.

Now let’s consider the embarrassing cesspool of stupidity that is the bus system’s method of dealing with the same problem, which occurs in a variety of somewhat-stupid to incredibly-stupid variations:

  1. You pay as you get on the bus (decent)
  2. You pay as you get off the bus (stupid)
  3. You buy a ticket at a nearby kiosk (decent)
  4. You bang your head against the wall because the world is a terrible place and it’s all just pointless anyway (soothing, but futile)

Options 1 and 3 aren’t viscerally objectionable, but neither is without its problems; with Option 1, you often have to pay with exact change, because the machines usually don’t give change back. If all you’ve got is a $20 bill and don’t have time to change it for smaller bills, you might as well just take a taxi.

Option 3 is great for getting change and taking your time, but if you don’t know where the kiosk is, you’re just going to be left wandering the streets aimlessly until you find it.

Which is why they should just combine the goddamn 1st and 3rd options together and let you do either one goddammit. That way you could jump onto the bus immediately if you happen to have change, or buy your ticket at a leisurely pace from a nearby supermarket if you don’t. It’s still not perfect, but it’s certainly better than either option alone, and won’t result in you getting on a bus without a ticket and being forced to pay a fine. But what they should really do is have the goddamn ticket machine right next to the bus stop like with all the goddamn subway stations. ARGH!!!

(And yes, I know there are a billion bus stops all over the place, and installing a ticket machine near each one would be financially problematic, so they could just let you buy tickets at any supermarket or kiosk, and install machines only at the busiest bus stops to speed things up for everyone. Yes, kids. Intelligence is sexy!)

By the way, this problem can potentially present a new challenge every few days; if you’re a tourist in a new country, you have no idea which system the country is using unless you ask someone ahead of time, or otherwise figure it out somehow. Once you do, you might already be headed off to the next city, which might have a completely different system…and have you ever gone from a city where you’re supposed to pay after you get on the bus and then you go to another city in the same country where you’re supposed to pay before you get on the bus, but you’ve already gotten onto the bus and the police officer is asking you what the hell you think you’re doing because nobody tells you these things?!?! Because I sure have. STOP MAKING CITIES WITHIN THE SAME COUNTRY OPERATE UNDER A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SYSTEM, YOU TERRIBLE HUMANS.

Other stupid crap

I’m too upset right now to go on about this too much longer, so we’re moving to the lightning round.

  1. Subways tell you which direction you’re going, whereas buses only sometimes do. THIS COULD BE SOLVED WITH THE AFOREMENTIONED IMPROVEMENTS IN SIGN TECHNOLOGY.
  2. If you miss your stop or go the wrong way (see previous problem), you can just jump right back on the opposite-direction subway train and get there for no extra charge. With buses, you might have to pay again, ALL BECAUSE OF A STUPID PROBLEM THAT COULD BE FIXED WITH SIGNS.
  3. With a subway system, you always know exactly where you are and how many stops you have left to go, because of the aforementioned handy little map that shows you exactly how many stops there are until your destination, and all you have to do is count the stops until you get there, or, even better, LOOK AT THE GODDAMN SIGNS WRITTEN IN GIANT LETTERS WHICH ARE ALWAYS THERE ON SUBWAYS BUT NEVER FOR BUSES AND GODDAMMIT I HATE THEM.

Argh. No wonder ride-sharing apps are so hot right now.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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34 Comments on “Why every city bus route planner is a stupid moron”

  1. I totally agree. On my second major trip (with only a carryon thanks to you), and the trains are great in every city, but the busses are useless without google maps. I will say that the buses on Bordeaux, France were decent and had displays inside with the listing of stops, what stop is next, etc, and it was very nice :-)

    I think one problem with maps might be the density of bus lines. Here in Prague, there are like a million train lines and it is pretty hard to figure out what is going where (without Google Maps). Might be the same thing with ~20 bus lines, but at least they could show the map of the lines that are available at that stop.

    1. The huge number of bus lines is definitely a problem, which could be fixed by simply having fewer bus lines, but which go further. Imagine if instead of having buses go on a route maybe 5 km long and then turning around and going the opposite direction, they could simply drive along a route that’s 30 km before turning around, and you’d cut down on the sheer number of bus routes. That way there would be fewer numbers to remember, and they could be more easily printed on a map. Kind of like how subways do it, because subway systems always get it right.

      1. Fewer lines with longer routes is a stupid idea in most cases. They tend to accumulate delays and are less flexible. In addition to that the control central will often shorten a buses route to even out the interval problems – which might leave you stranded and wait for the next bus to take you further. Even if this is advertised at the time of your boarding you may not recognise it due to the lack of knowledge of the local geography.

        You can’t compare that to subway systems since these are independent from external factors.

        In Vienna the subway lines are individually colour coded, but it would be impossible to do that for the bus and tram lines as there are way too many of them. So they chose to use red for trams and blue for buses.
        This plan hangs out at every stop: https://www.wienerlinien.at/eportal3/ep/downloadTracker.do/path/media/files/2016/gesamtnetzplan-wien-dez2016_201611.pdf?oid=82853&type=pdf
        Unfortunately it is a schematic map and not a geographical one as they had before but you can follow the lines pretty easily and get some sense of direction.

        A typical bus station: https://arouet8.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/wien-stelle-des-messerstichs-gegen-moosbrugger.jpg
        And a tram stop: http://donnerwetter.kielikeskus.helsinki.fi/DVG/Subst/Subst-Uebungen/Genus/Haltestelle.JPG

        1. Maps at every stop would be a glorious blessing. Too bad on the longer routes, though. I guess streetcars could do that, but they’re not cheap or easily flexible.

  2. You are so right. On a recent trip through Copenhagen, we got to the train station, which connects directly to buses. A great start, but there were no route maps that we could see until, finally, we found one map on the far side of the second-last bus stop in the terminal.
    Great! We need bus 66!
    Bus arrives at a time that doesn’t match any of the ones posted at the stop. Hmm.
    We get on, and I tell the driver where we’re going, confirming we have the right bus. He says we will have to change buses to get there, because the route changed TWO YEARS AGO and nobody bothered to update the one bus map posted in the whole complex.

    Now the bus itself had maps, but that requires you to pay for and jump on a random bus just to find out where you need to go. It’s not an issue of no maps, just no maps that anybody not already part of the system can access.
    We got off the bus early and walked.

    1. Maps ON the bus…no maps OFF the bus…is just…argh. Pay first, figure out if you’re on the right bus later! Woohoo!

  3. Yeah, better information availability on bus rides would be great. Too bad the sheer number of bus routes and bus stops would make maps and stuff really tedious to maintain. Locally, there are over 300 bus routes locally and more than 5,200 bus stops, compared to 5 lines and less than 100 stations. Trains go where the tracks are laid; Buses can be redirected as and when there’s construction on the road.

    They’re trying to get everyone to use apps instead. Their thinking is that you’ll use some other 3rd-party mapping app, who will buy their scheduling information from the bus operators. Generally works, but maps would be more visually intuitive.

    Also, what do you think of the Singaporean system for buses. You place a deposit for a standard NFC card, usable for both the bus and train, and put a value in it. You tap as you enter the bus, and tap again as you exit. It’s distance-based fare, so you pay only as much as you travel. You can go into negative value, they’ll just take it from your deposit. And they warm you when your card is running low on value. Seems pretty decent to me.

    1. Reusable NFC cards are great, but not so much for tourists, so I think that’s something to add in addition to everything else, rather than replacing the other options.

      As for the number of bus routes, it’s true that it’s hard to do a map, but if they just reduce the number of routes but make each route longer, it makes everything easier. For example, a lot of subway systems have one giant line that goes in a big circle around the city, and then a bunch of lines that cross it, like a bicycle wheel. That way you can get anywhere in the city with a relatively small number of lines. Buses will always have more lines than subways, but I’ve generally noticed that they use much shorter lines than subways…there isn’t a perfect solution here, but I think it would help.

  4. I totally agree with you, having traveled to a lot of cities, and lived and worked in many large metropolitan areas in the US. A friend and I are headed off for a train trip to Seattle, WA, where we’ve never been, to stay in a hostel for awhile before traveling some more. We plan to research the transportation and print maps before we go.

    1. People who live here say we have a great bus system, but anyone who’s used a subway knows they’re better. It’ll be good though. Not super-great…but good.

  5. So … you want the bus system in Oslo, Norway, then? Most (but to be fair, not all) bus stops have a little shed you can wait in. These sheds prominently display maps, the timetable, and the name of the stop. Tickets can be purchased in the ticket machines by every metro stop (bus, metro, tram and ferries all use the same ticket system), in one of the many, MANY kiosks that are sprinkled all around the city, on the bus, or with a phone app.

    We also have a very decent online timetable service to help plan multi-step journeys, a service that was available by phone and even text message before smart phones became common.

    If you want an old-fashioned paper map of the bus routes to carry around with you, then okay, those are most easily available on the bus — but most bus drivers will allow you to get on, grab a map, and get off again. And the bus drivers are required to know their route well enough to answer if you ask “will this bus get me near X street”.

    One final thing which wasn’t even among your complaints: The bus company will pay for your taxi bill if a late bus would cause you to be more than twenty minutes late.

    1. Yes, that is exactly what I want. Dammit Norway, you’re making us look bad. You probably have universal health care and education too.

      By the way, before Google Maps existed, my city had a route planner online, and I looked at it many times, and literally could not figure it out, ever. It didn’t even show all the stops. It showed maybe 7 of them along a route with 30 or 40 stops, and that was all. ARGH.

      AND THE BUS WILL PAY FOR THE TAXI?!?! WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!? SENSIBLE ACCOUNTABILITY?!

  6. Yes yes YES the bus system in most places is endlessly frustrating. Even in my home town the app is limited and bus stops are called the same on both sides of the road (“Smith St near Shopping Mall”). Seriously? Nobody knows the bus stop number unless they’re actually standing there, so a proper identification name would be grand. And please label stops the same on app, map and timetable. Doing research for a trip to Adelaide (Australia) I found out that on the same website the bus stop labels differ between the map and the actual timetables and there is rhyme nor reason to the system in the first place. After many a minute I concluded that there is no public shuttle between the airport and town during the weekend. Go figure. You think people don’t arrive during the weekend? Or shouldn’t? Adelaide is, by the way, a lovely city and I want to go back and spend more time there. But not on a bus.

    1. Having no shuttle service to and from the airport should be illegal. I was up in Quebec recently and you have to take a taxi into town, even though everyone at the airport is doing exactly the same thing, and a bus would fix everything.

  7. I’m from Montreal myself and to be fair, the transport system here is often praised in comparison to other public transport systems on the american continent. Also important to give it some credit for functioning almost at 80% during our harsh winters :)

    But truth be told, after living in Europe, it does feel like a nightmare some time. Ever spent some time in Munich ? Really good public transport there. Ridiculously efficient.

    People still complain about it…

  8. Haven’t been to your site since I came back from my trip, then I randomly decide to see what you’re up to, only to see that you honour my home city of Montreal. Bienvenue!

    Let me know if you want to grab a beer! Cheers

  9. Matt,
    You nailed it.

    I’ve nearly pulled my hair out several times when trying to navigate a foreign bus system.

    For example, the bus system in England. Decent for the most part but as my girlfriend and I found out this past summer, they make it incredibly difficult to pay. We struggled to find kiosks during the day but could easily find bus stops so we resorted to waiting for the next bus, asking the driver how to get where we wanted to go, then asking where we could purchase fare (they don’t take cash).

    The funny thing is, each time we asked a driver where to purchase fare, they looked VERY confused as though they had NEVER been asked such an odd question before!!

    Then, they would inevitably lead us to an electronic kiosk hidden deep within a sidestreet building.

    And worse, as we decided to take the bus to Heathrow at 4 in the morning we found out that, though the bus runs as that hour, there is no way to purchase fare outside of business hours (all the sidestreet buildings housing the kiosks are closed at night)

    You really wonder who comes up with these systems!!

  10. Try coming to San Antonio. If you live anywhere outside downtown you are eternally screwed to riding a bus one hour to where you need to go. Riding a bike would work better. Hell, half the time walking would be better. Why would people use public transportation when buying an inefficient car would pay back dividends in free time such as: exploring the woods no one ever goes into, or walking and finding some cool niche store, or talking to your neighbor who happens to be from another country, or making a tasty meal for your family (which you learned to make while TRAVELING!) Make public trans easier! Their are some cities that do it great, but I live in the worse one.

  11. I just spent two weeks in Auckland, NZ. Crazy bus and train system. The AT card gets you access to both. Their AT app let me down a couple of times. However both times I was rescued by random busses that just happened to drive by.

    The AT app is almost a really great app. However it was created with a government budget so Im sure they dont have money to fix the bugs or add features.

  12. In Madrid I needed to go from the metro to a bus to get to my last evening’s hotel before flying out. Came out of the metro and I could see a big section with lots of buses so I figured I could just walk over and see the bus number I needed on a sign and stand there. Nope. No bus number signs (though I knew I’d gotten off at the correct metro stop for it). In my poor Spanish I asked bus drivers where the Trespaderne – Barbadillo bus stop was. To which I got 9 different answers with lots of arm waving in a lot of different directions. Finally I asked a pop-up drink stand guy and he pointed across the street in the direction I’d come from the metro. He said for sure bus to Trespaderne – Barbadillo, stand by bench. And he was right thank goodness. But no signs….

  13. The bus routes here in Hong Kong are planned by morons literally.
    For example:
    – we commonly pay on boarding – but BOTH boarding and alighting on a few routes.
    – the letter P at the end means the route is a peak-hour route – but exactly the reverse on the case of 18 and 18P, where 18 is a peak-hour route and 18P is a full-day route!
    – the letter X indicates express route – but exactly the reverse on the case of 8 and 8X, which 8X is slower than 8 and N8X is slower than N8
    – mobile apps only work on a single operator, you cannot find for a route if you don’t know its operator in advance, like 960, 961 and 962 serving similar area but different operators
    – multiple routes serving same area can have vastly different fare – you don’t know how much to pay for the exact fare before a bus come, and each route is operating at 25 to 30 minutes interval uncoordinated!
    – and there is literally completely no signage for minibus routes – you just hop it anywhere along the route if you are lucky to see one with available seats.

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