Buses: If the Greeks are the only ones doing it right, that’s telling you something

Dispatch from Luxembourg

M Street - Thimk - 03-12-11

First, this is going to be a photo light post. I simply have few-to-no pics of buses to illustrate this post.

Second, there are going to be swear words in this post. And I might call God’s wrath down on some bus drivers. Trust me, they deserve it. You’ve been warned.

Now, on to the topic at hand: buses. I’m done with them! No really, I can’t stand them and I will not take another fucking bus, God help me, from this point on. Why? Let me tell you why, but first, we need a point of reference. And that point of reference is Metrobus.

I use to think that Metrobus was as horrible as buses could get. They never keep to their schedules, making it impossible to know when a bus is coming. They bunch up, so when four buses come by a stop all at once, that’s the four buses in an hour. The drivers tend to be surly, if they even acknowledge your presence. And there seems to be two bus stops for every block in the city. I always thought how can a bus system operate like this?

Now I’ve been on buses in three countries, and Metrobus is looking top notch. Sure, there are a ton of routes here in Europe and you can get almost anywhere in a city. But explaining where routes go? Forget it. Announcing up-coming stops? They laugh at the logic of that! Don’t you already know when you’re stop is coming up?

I have three experiences I want to show, demonstrating the differences, and similarities, I’ve experienced in the buses I’ve taken. First, the UK. I had to take a bus from Bath to Glastonbury because Glastonbury is officially in the middle of nowhere (no serious, look it up. I’ll wait…). The route took me an hour and a half; cost 10 pounds; and I had to transfer once in Wells. All that is just one way.
Oh, and while the first leg was a simple route from beginning to end, the second leg was not. I need to make a stop about 20 minutes into the route. And were they announcing the stops? Nope. How, exactly, was I supposed to notify the driver to stop at my stop? It’s not like he’s stopping at all the stops, even the ones NOT ON THE OFFICIAL ROUTE.

Cheverly - Even in Snow - 3-2-09

But things turned out ok, I somehow got to Glastonbury, and all was well with the world.

Then I came to Brussels and wanted to see the Waterloo battlefield; this one was not going to be nearly so easy, especially considering I had a language barrier to cover. But between reading my tour book, reading on the TEC bus website (the bus company operating the route), and doing some smart Googling (Wiki Travel is SOOOOO useful!), I figured out my route AND the exact stop I needed to take. I even planned to get an all-day bus pass so I could save a bit of money (the TEC buses said they honor the Brussels Metro cards). In true Art of War fashion, I won the battle before it was fought!

“HA!” said Belgian bus system to me. First, if my two bus rides on a TEC bus are any indication, never get on a TEC bus. Ever. I believe the drivers are psychotic ex-F-1 drivers who think they’re on a race track. The first driver out to Waterloo, kept doing a jerking stop and go at every stop. Thank God I hadn’t had a big breakfast that morning because I probably would have lost it. Oh, and announcing stops? Forget about it. I had to resort to reading the bus stop names on the shelters; a fuck load harder than it sounds because: 1) they were in French and Dutch, 2) the lettering was about an inch high, if it was visible at all, and 3) if we even stopped at the stop, we tended to be about twenty feet beyond the shelter. You trying reading a foreign language going 40 miles an hour. Oh, and the names that are on the official route schedule? Conveniently enough on the shelters they leave out the town names, which were put on the official route schedule. I only figured out I had entered Waterloo when I saw the sign that said “Leaving Waterloo” (it was in French, Dutch, and English).

I also only figured out where my stop was by seeing signs for the Lion Mound (Butte du Lion) through the windshield of the bus. I had a grand total of ten seconds to hit the stop button or God only knows where I’d have ended up. But the trip out is never where the problems are; it’s the trip back that is the true challenge.

After a very fun and educational morning (I never realized how little I knew about Waterloo until I was there), I had to head back to Brussels. Back tracked to the bus stop and in three minutes, my bus arrived. That’s where the fun part of the return trip ended.

National Gallery of Art - Double Reflection - 5-31-08

My all day pass I got in Brussels? Didn’t work for the return trip. Why? I still haven’t figured that out. And it wasn’t that my card didn’t function properly; it wasn’t accepted at all. All I got from the driver was a heavily accented, “You buy ticket on bus.” So I was out an extra four Euros.

Then the bus driver tried to kill me and everyone else on the bus. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he didn’t try to do it deliberately; just through inattention and stupidity. To draw a full picture, he was driving a very long accordion bus; you’ve seen them. I never thought to see one driving along the semi-highways we were on, because they aren’t exactly nimble. Or, to be more exact, they aren’t supposed to be driven like they are nimble. Well, this driver wanted to prove that idea wrong. And he demonstrated it by stopping short so quickly that I was thrown from my seat into the seat in front of me. I’m not exaggerating this one. If I hadn’t had quick reflexes, or if I had been in a different seat, I would have been on the floor and been sent to the hospital with a concussion. I have no doubt. The driver’s reaction? Now that I could tell. I spent the rest of the trip gripping the handle bar in front of me in case it happened again. Do you want to know how it feels to grip a handle bar for over an hour? My arm crapped up for the rest of the day.

(Just so everyone knows, I’m tagging this post with “TEC bus.” I really hope they see this, though I expect nothing to happen.)

My last experience was in Luxembourg City. On the whole, I’ve loved Luxembourg. Simply one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. But the bus drive from the train station to my hostel was anything but beautiful. First, I got on to buy my ticket; when I said the stop, the bus driver completely misunderstood my request to buy a ticket and said, “Yes, it goes there; all day!” And, of course, he wasn’t announcing any of the stops. So I had to, once again, overcome a language barrier and read stops as they went by. This time, I missed my stop but decided to take a chance after seeing a street sign that was on my walking directions. That chance paid off, I was only one stop beyond where I was supposed to be, but I had to walk up a very steep hill with two very heavy bags.

So, those are my bus stories, so far. I am certain I will get more. In short, buses have major problems. Sure, they’re cheap and versatile next to trains or trams. But showing a map of a bus route is difficult to impossible. Stops are hard to mark clearly. And if you aren’t announcing your stops beforehand, how is someone supposed to know where their stop is? The experienced answer is, “you’re already supposed to know it!” But considering I’m only going to use that route once or twice, it’s a pretty high bar to expect of me, a first time user.

I’ve now had to navigate two subway systems on this trip: London’s Underground and Brussels’s trams and metro system. Both had detailed maps. On both, they announced each stop, both over the intercom and on a display board (and with big signs at each station). And they stopped at each stop. Once I got my bearings, they were incredibly easy to navigate.

Chinatown - Hustle and Bustle - 12-22-10

I’ll never forget what I was told about the Greek transportation system: boats and ships rarely to never keep to their schedules; driving, especially in Athens, is going to be a nightmare; but the buses run with almost German efficiency. And I have ridden on Greek buses, and they are very good; I got to two hard to reach places on my first solo international trip. I love the Greeks, but even I know they are not a standard to be lived up to. So when the Greeks are put up as the gold standard, that’s a sign that things are bad.

Oh, and Metrobus? Don’t change. At all. I now absolutely love your stop announcing system. NEVER, EVER, CHANGE IT! I also have a better appreciation for the drivers. Surly drivers? At least they will acknowledge your presence when paying at the till. Just work on bunching up on the road and keeping to a schedule thing. That’s not asking too much.

Categories: Unorganized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Buses: If the Greeks are the only ones doing it right, that’s telling you something

  1. benhrome

    Word of warning, then: don’t use the Paris bus system. At all. It’s more of the same, but with Parisian contempt for foreigners – which comes into play if you can’t speak French. (Conversely, attempting to speak French – even badly – earns you sympathy and a change in demeanor. Odd.)

    The Parisian Metro, however, is awesome, if old. Just avoid the Yellow / 1 route that cuts through the heart of the city; it’s almost always Red Line-esque packed, though at least these riders don’t grope you, except to pick your pocket…

    Fortunately, Paris is a great walking city, so the bus isn’t needed or missed. If you want a cheaper alternative, use their bikeshare system. Also, the batobus, which has set stops on the Seine and is a lovely ride on the water. I believe one ticket gives you unlimited stops all day long.

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