Friday, June 22, 2012

Still Life with Robin: Bus-ted

by Peggy Robin

You know that sinking feeling you get when you’re running down the final level of stairs to the Metro platform, and you can see the train there waiting, and the passengers filing in, but you realize the moment you step off the escalator, you are going to hear that ominously final “bing-bong” followed by the warning: “Doors closing –please stand clear of the doors”?  That feeling is promptly amplified by the electronic signboard above your head that flashes the expected wait time until the next train: “17 MIN.”

Now, thanks to the wonders of technology, you can experience all these same feelings well before you catch sight of the train, or even before you enter the station. No more running, no more vain hoping, because thanks to a panoply online trip planners and public transportation apps --the WMATA Trip Planner, the Circulator Route Guide, the Montgomery RideOn Bus Real Time Scheduler, or any number of privately produced multi-system apps-- you can be informed electronically, instantly, and maddeningly, right on your smartphone, that you are not going to make it on time to catch that next arriving train or bus, and that it will be twenty-two minutes until the next one comes along. Plenty of time to duck into the nearest Walgreen’s and buy a $5 umbrella to attempt to shield yourself from the buckets of rain that are about to burst forth from the darkening skies.

Of course, if you use the app the right way, as its creator intended it to be used, you will be spared the whole rigamarole I have just described. You will consult the Metro, or Ride-on Bus online guide well in advance of leaving the cool, dry shelter of the building that is your starting point; you will take your time to calculate out how long is the walk to the nearest station or bus stop, and carefully time your arrival to give yourself just a minute or two break until the coming of the next bus or train.

Because these apps are based on real-time GPS information, when your Ride On bus app tells you it will be 8 minutes until the next bus arrives, you can count on it being actually 8 minutes.

There are only a few things that can go wrong if you use these apps correctly, and I have done some but not all of them:

  • You can get lost on the way to an unfamiliar stop, and so it takes longer than the allotted walk time.
  • You can trip over a piece of uneven cobblestone, twist your ankle, and limp slowly and painfully all the way to your stop, arriving too late for the next scheduled bus.
  • You can attempt to carry on a texting conversation while walking and bump into a light pole --teaching you that texting while walking is only slightly less dangerous than texting while driving -- also delaying your arrival in time for the bus.
  • You can arrive perfectly on time for the next bus, only to discover after boarding that you misunderstood the routes, and you have boarded the wrong bus and had better get off at the next stop and recalculate your trip.
  • You can attempt to use your Metro app in a Metro stop where the reception on your particular service is too weak for you to connect.

All of these (except, of course, the last) are user errors. In other words, they’re not mistakes I am likely to repeat. So I expect my reliance on bus and subway apps to produce better and better results as time goes on.

I will just end with a brief explanation of why I am taking all these bus and subway trips. We used to own two cars but several months ago we realized that we no longer drive enough to justify keeping both, something I discussed in this column on February 11, 2011. At the end of that year we sold the larger, less fuel-efficient of the two cars.  Now we are a household with four licensed drivers and only one car -- and now we all are aware of just how convenient (though fuel-wasting) it was to have a car at your disposal so that you can drive door-to-door whenever you feel like going somewhere.

However, there are other options beyond public transportation.  I have just signed up for the car-sharing service, Car2Go. I have yet to try it. Expect a report in this space at some future date of all the possible ways I will find to screw up what would seem to be a simple Car2Go excursion.


Still Life with Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and www.AllLifeIsLocal on Fridays.

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