Transit 101 – Episode 2 – Understanding a transit schedule

Transit 101 Cover 1

In my second episode of Transit 101, I’ll go over how to understand bus and train schedules. This is key to planning out your transit trip efficiently, especially if you’re making connections to other transit lines during your trip. Despite the technological advances that have made transit usage much easier (such as OneBusAway), many customers wind up falling back onto the paper timetable for reference.

System Map.
PSTA System Map cover.

If you’re new to transit, it is often very helpful to first examine the transit agency’s system map – so that you can have an idea of where you are traveling to and which routes to use. Transit system maps can vary greatly by transit agency. Probably one of the most detailed set of system maps I’ve seen thus far is from the New York City MTA.

A SunRail schedule timetable and travel guide. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012.
A SunRail schedule timetable and travel guide. Photo Credit: HARTride 2012.

Although the appearance of schedule timetables greatly vary by transit agency, the principle structure is largely the same across all agencies and modes. Schedule booklets and brochures typically include a map, showing where the bus or rail route goes to, and corresponding transit connections at each major time point.

Looking at the Weekday section of the schedule timetable for HART Route 5.
Looking at the Weekday section of the schedule timetable for HART Route 5.

Schedule timetables themselves provide the direction the bus or train is travelling, along with the names of major time points (typically intersections, landmarks, or designated stations), and the scheduled times that the bus or train is to depart from that time point. Some agencies even display layover points, by which both arrival and departure times are displayed for the layover point.

Depending on the transit agency – timepoints can be lettered (like HART) or numbered (like the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, or JTA, in Jacksonville, FL)

A close-up view - noting the Span of Service (in this case - Weekday), Route number and destination/corridor name, time points, and beginning runs.
A close-up view – noting the Span of Service (in this case – Weekday), Route number and destination/corridor name, time points, and beginning runs.

At first glance, a transit schedule may look intimidating, especially to a new rider. The more trips and time points there are on a schedule, the more confusing things can get. All of the transit districts that I’ve been on have paper schedules (as well as online timetables) that are pretty straightforward if you have a good idea of where you’re going to. However, these timetables may mean nothing for a new customer unless he or she knows how to use it.

One thing that I’ve always kept in mind when traveling via transit, is to know where you’re going before you leave. As I mentioned in my previous post, there are several ways to plan out your transit trip, including via the internet! It always helps to know where the closest bus stop is to both your origin, and your destination, as well as to know which time points your bus stop falls in between. You always want to allow sufficient time to arrive at the bus or rail stop so that you do not miss your trip.

For example, let’s say that you live right off 40th St in Tampa, just south of Busch Blvd. Since this intersection is a time point on the HART Route 5 schedule, it’s not too difficult to pinpoint when the bus is scheduled to arrive. However, you want to be at the bus or rail stop/station no later than 5 to 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure.  If you need to purchase tickets from a ticket vending machine or staffed ticket booth, then you should arrive at the stop/station no later than 20 to 25 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. If the closest transit stop/station is quite a walk away from where you are, you will need to build in sufficient time to get to the stop/station. Inclement weather situations will require even more time to travel to and from the transit stops.

If you happen to have a smartphone, there are many apps that will help you to locate your closest transit stop/station and pinpoint which transit lines serve them, as well as predict when the next bus or train is to arrive. While I am going to go further in-depth into smartphone apps for transit in a separate blog post, it is to note that more and more transit agencies are implementing GPS tracking for their vehicles so that knowing when your bus or train will arrive involves a lot less guesswork.


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