Let's hit the road!
August 21, 2018 11:02 PM   Subscribe

I have meetings all over town, but most are accessible by public transit. I'd love to kill the car and eliminate using Uber and just walk/bike or use public transit. But I am having a few fails, can you HALP me?

Here are the issues I've run into, advice of any of them welcome:
1. Was going to catch the bus, and as I was waiting to cross the street, three of them came. The next one didn't come for 20 minutes. I consider this a fail. Is there an app (in the US) that will track buses or bus routes and set an alert for 10 or 15 minutes before a bus is supposed to arrive?

2. My phone ran out of juice and I was stranded in another town. Is there a good way to recharge my phone on the road?

3. I need to be on conference calls while on a noisy bus. Are there better headphones that I can use that will just pick up my voice and less of the surrounding sound?

4. I have a problem with transit where I am either an hour early or an hour late. I guess I'd rather be early...but really, I'd rather be on time. I feel like public transit though is not reliable enough though to ensure a timely arrival. Any suggestions there?

Any other suggestions from those out there who use public transit through out the day (not commuting in/out to work) as part of your job to go to meetings?
posted by Toddles to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
#1 -- This depends highly on your area; in Seattle, the two main apps for keeping track of when the bus arrives are OneBusAway and Transmit.

#2 -- Here's Wirecutter's list of battery packs.
posted by foxfirefey at 11:18 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does your city have Car2Go and/or ReachNow? The two companies are soon merging, it appears, but they're rent-by-the-minute cars that you find via apps. ReachNow also has an Uber-style service as well. Car2Go has various Mercedes cars (they phased out their Smart cars in North America); ReachNow has BMWs (one gas, one electric) and Minis. They work pretty great when you can find one and transit just isn't doing the job for you.

Really need to know your city to answer some of these questions, though. I use the above two services, plus OneBusAway for buses, here in Seattle, but whether that app can even exist for your down depends on what sort of data are provided by the buses and the bus system. Google maps for finding bus routes when I'm going to unfamiliar parts of town.

As far as headphones, well, get a bluetooth or wired headset. Headphones will always have omnidirectional microphones, but a head set with a mic in front of your face will capture your mouth above all other sounds.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:45 PM on August 21, 2018

1. Our city has an app that displays the locations of all buses in real time.
2. Sure, an external charger like this.
posted by davcoo at 2:12 AM on August 22, 2018

This is an odd question without reference to a specific area. It's not like there's a national bus service and they all follow the same policies or work the same way.

I'm only going to touch on 4. Public transit is not an on-demand service for most. You've got to learn to go with the flow if it. Sometimes I'm willing to cut it close, other times I know I'll be five minutes late so I opt to be early. I plan my life around bus times basically. I know how to shop for groceries in just the right amount of time. I know that bus XYZ is almost always 7 minutes behind at this stop and bus ABC is often running 2 minutes early. I know exactly how long it takes me to get to the bus stop from work. I also know real-time transit is great, but during times with ebbing traffic it can give you an incorrect estimate in either direction.
posted by Aranquis at 4:09 AM on August 22, 2018 [17 favorites]

posted by jointhedance at 5:14 AM on August 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

3. Headset, and liberal use of the mute feature, if you're not the one presenting/talking a lot.
posted by rachaelfaith at 5:59 AM on August 22, 2018

1. How reliable such an app is going to be for you REALLY REALLY DEPENDS on your local transit agency situation. Does your area's transit track realtime transit data? Does it then provide it to apps, whether official ones done by the transit agency or third-party ones such as Transit, Citymapper, OneBusAway, NextBus, etc? Are you trying to get timing for buses ("1 minute away" may be 5, "7 minutes away" could be 3, it all depends on traffic) or trains (less vulnerable to traffic so I find the realtime time estimates more accurate)? [FWIW, I use Transit the most in the Boston area, but I have found it reliable "enough" when using transit in NYC, the Bay Area, LA, Seattle. It does have alarms. It can't always get realtime data, though, so it will fall back to official schedules, and you can tell the difference because realtime bus times will have an icon in the app that looks like the RSS signal icon, whereas "scheduled" buses won't.]

2. I always carry a battery pack and appropriate cords with me for charging my phone. I don't have specific recommendations because I work in tech and they hand these out like candy at conferences, so I linked to the Wirecutter reviews.

3. Defaulting to others' recs, but ugh, honestly, avoid doing this whenever remotely possible. Nobody on the bus or subway wants to hear your conversation, and people on the phone are ALWAYS speaking louder than they think they are, and half the conversation regardless of the quality of your headset is "Can you hear me? What about now?" Especially if you're on a train, there's generally a high risk of your signal cutting out anyway. And I say the following as somebody who loves biking for transportation (see my history :)): in the US, it's highly unlikely your area has sufficiently safe biking infrastructure for you to be concentrating on a call for work while you're pedaling yourself around. I think this is one area you'll need to consider an exception to your "no car" rule. I would take a taxi or a solo Lyft and explain to your driver that you need to take this call for work if you absolutely can't avoid talking on your phone while being transported from one in-person meeting to the next.

Or, really? Walking might be a possibility. Like, in Boston, I'd walk from a meeting in the North End to one near Copley, a distance of about 2 miles. But I'm only going to do this if I have the 45-60 minutes to walk slowly enough that I don't start sweating, if it's cool enough that I won't start sweating, if there's no snow or ice on the ground so I don't risk falling, if it's not raining so I don't arrive at an in-person meeting looking like a drowned rat because raingear only does so much, etc.)

4. Honestly, if the transit in your area is that unreliable that you're either an *hour* early or late, it's centered around commuters and the commute hours, and it's not designed for you to go free of all cars. You might be able to ditch your personal car and just use Lyft in an emergency, or something like Zipcar or Car2Go. But if you're really committed to this transit-only thing, you need to be the hour early and just bring something you can work on while you wait in a nearby coffee shop or something. I think you can *minimize* your use of cars (both ones you drive and ones others drive with you in them), but based on what you've said about your circumstances, you're not going to be able to eliminate them completely.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 6:33 AM on August 22, 2018 [11 favorites]

1. Just seconding others on the point that this is highly dependent on your local system. Some transit authorities have the necessary infrastructure to support real-time information of bus locations, some don't. Among those that do, they expose that data to riders in different ways. You need to look at their website and/or call them up and ask.

2. As others say, battery packs. Also always carry a charger. Buy phones by battery life and charging time. And if you carry a laptop, that can also function as an emergency backup battery--just plug your phone into a usb port on the laptop. Laptops can often charge usb devices even while sleeping or off--this may work only on certain usb ports or may depend on the OS or BIOS configuration.

4. I used to always go for the "hour early" option and just plan to work at my destinations, as Pandora Kouti says, but these days I often go for the right-on-time option with the plan to fall back on Uber/Lyft if necessary. It all depends on the exact timing and how critical it is to be on time to the appointment.

Finally, you don't say why you're trying to do this. I'm a big fan of public transport but frankly I think it's better for some uses than others, especially in US towns with less stellar systems.

Some people do this because they believe that public transit is better for the environment. I share that belief, but I think the best strategy in such cases is to just do what works best for you personally, while also donating time or money to groups trying to improve transit.
posted by bfields at 7:09 AM on August 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I do a fair number of midday work trips by bike and transit in a city that isn't necessarily great for it. Seconding Transit, my app of choice. It does allow you to set alarms that would tell you when to leave to catch a given bus. If your transit agency doesn't offer real-time GPS bus tracking info, ask them for it. It's a lifechanger, and more so for infrequent service than frequent.

For questions of bus clumping and scheduling: they're addressable mostly by your city and transit agency. Dedicated bus lanes or train lines tend to solve the problem of having multiple buses show up at once, and a network of high-frequency lines would make it much less likely that you arrive either an hour early or late. This doesn't necessarily have to cost more, but it would likely involve some major changes to the system. Get involved in transit activism in your community if you can. The only way to make it better is to make it better, not to give up on it as a last-ditch provision for people who can't get around any other way.

I've got two main strategies for making transit work for midday trips: make use of bike accommodations on buses and trains so that I can get to and from the stops faster and at a greater distance, and I try to hit destinations at the beginning or end of the work day so that I don't have to worry as much about timing, and can leave from home or return directly home afterward.
posted by asperity at 8:20 AM on August 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m chiming in to agree that you should not Regularly have phone meetings on the bus. As a regular transit user, I can usually hear this even with headphones.

I use google maps, which actually has fairly reliable bus schedules in Vancouver. But we have great transit service.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 8:41 AM on August 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

Please don't have conference calls on the bus if you have to talk. If you just have to listen, that is obviously fine. Even if it wasn't rude, your employer or customer probably doesn't want random people overhearing you for confidentiality reasons. Boy it would be nice if they brought back phone booths.

For apps, I use Transit on iOS and it seems to track the bus when it can. I often see the icon start moving along the predicted route at the scheduled time and then it hops back to the actual bus location once the bus has its GPS active. Not all transit companies have their GPS open to the public, so if yours does not than no app will be able to help you with that issue.

If you make this transition, you can become an educated, experienced advocate for improving the transit system. You can also push to reduce in-person meetings or arrange them in a more geographically clustered way.
posted by soelo at 9:06 AM on August 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

N-thing the Transit app. I've used it in four cities now (varying in size from several million to few hundred thousand people) and it's reasonably accurate.

Depending on your city, midday service may be much less frequent than rush hour service, which can be pretty inconvenient for getting to meetings on time. I usually bike if I have to get between locations midday.

But please do not do conference calls (or really, any calls) on the bus. It breaks the social contract in a major way.
posted by basalganglia at 3:20 PM on August 22, 2018

1. happens, maddening especially in the rain, learn to be very visible during off hours.

2. Got an Anker PowerCore 13000 for a relative who loves it.

3. There are highly directional mic's so should be possible, may not be standard or cheap. Big over ear headphones should drown out most noise. Basically it can probably be a very functional system or a 'cool' looking system.

4. Gotta learn the quirks of the system but really always plan for 15-20min early.
posted by sammyo at 4:29 PM on August 22, 2018

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