MOVE BACK: A Casual Guide to Regular Bus Usage

Hi, I’m Nick Magrino, you may remember me from such self-help posts as “Simple Suggestions for Grant Street” and “We Need to Stop the Southwest Corridor.”

In our fledging metropolitan area, Superbowls are plentiful but high-quality transit options can be hard to come by (see above). However, there are all sorts of ways to make your transit experience less painful while simultaneously making it more efficient for you and your fellow riders.

Before Boarding

1.) Get a Transit Pass

Emperor Trajan prefers Go-To Cards

Emperor Trajan prefers Go-To Cards

Get a Go-To Card, or Metropass, or a U-Pass, or a College Pass. No questions. No negotiations. You’ll thank me–it’s far easier (and cheaper!) than carrying different arrangements of paper (actually cotton linen!) cash and cupronickel coinage. No more painstaking rush hour dime fumbles causing the bus to miss a red light. There’s even a fail-safe built into transit passes! You can dip into five dollars of negative balance if you forget to refill your card. I can’t seem to find any proof of this on Metro Transit’s website, but trust me, it is a thing. You also get discounts when loading at least $10 of stored value to a Go-To card–good for an extra 10%, so $10 becomes $11, $20 becomes $22, etc.

Cash should really be phased out on transit.

2.) Be Realistic About Schedules (This tip is probably not what you think)

I’ll let you in on a secret that almost destroys many of my other opinions about transit: A lot of the time, the bus is actually just like a train. Meaning that, if you’re heading from the University of Minnesota East Bank campus to Downtown Minneapolis, and it’s not 3:00 AM, you probably shouldn’t need to check a schedule at all. Ditto for trips from Uptown Minneapolis to Lake and Hiawatha, and many other combinations. There’s a specific Hi-Frequency Service Network of buses identified by Metro Transit, but there are many other segments that probably count–the Route 4 and Route 17 buses in South Minneapolis, most of the time, come to mind. It took me like six months at the U of M to realize that, basically, the bus I want to take will come every 10 to 15 minutes, and worrying about catching it at 4:37 rather than 4:30 or 4:45 isn’t really necessary. I’ve waited in grade separated heavy rail train stations in Big Cities for more than 10 or 15 minutes on many occasions.

Note: Tip only applies to central city residents, and maybe only the most central one or two hundred thousand of them, at that.

3.) Remember, Nice Ride Fills Many Gaps!

Nice Ride: It’s great. The bike share’s stations are strategically placed in many popular parts of the core cities. Nice Ride, for me, is most useful (and very much so) as a return trip at night and on weekends. When bus service thins out as the sun goes down, you can count on Nice Ride to get you home without 45 minute service frequencies. In particular, it’s helpful for completing trips where one leg is in a more isolated area–Northeast Minneapolis comes to mind.

While Aboard

4.) Unless You Have a Plan, Sit Down Immediately

When on the bus, and there are open seats, sit down. There will generally be open seats. Sit down, even if it’s next to a person, even if you don’t know that person, and even if you’re not entirely on board with their wardrobe choices. Exception: If you’re getting off in the next…quarter (?) mile, this tip doesn’t necessarily apply, but conditions will vary. If on Nicollet Mall or any busy rush hour route, always sit down. This allows easy flow of passengers into and out of the front and back doors without their having to finagle their way, with their two shopping bags and suitcase and two kids, around you, standing in the aisle, because you didn’t want to potentially rub knees with someone. The seats are padded, and unlike on the light rail vehicles, you don’t have to stare deeply into the eyes of the passenger across from you.

5.) Probably Do Not Stand in the Rear Doorway

In situations where there are in fact no available seats, be smart about where you choose to stand. Generally, standing in the rear doorway is a terrible idea, especially if you have any amount of carried things, or if you’re not a small person, or if you’re texting and/or have big headphones on and are oblivious to your surroundings. Two good places to stand are in the front and back of the bus, depending on what point you’re at in the trip–if you’re on a Route 3 bus heading towards St. Paul on a Tuesday afternoon and you’ve been on that bus more than a handful of times, you’ll know that that thing will be pretty full of humanity by the time you get to the Dinkytown McDonald’s, but will quickly thin out after that. So use common sense–stand towards the front, as people hopefully will be exiting out the back door (see tip #7).

If you are forced to stand in the rear doorway due to a crushloaded bus, consider the ease of hopping off the bus for 1.5 seconds to let people off, and quickly hopping back on once passengers have gotten off, rather than accidentally getting to second base with people as they exit.

6.) For the Love of God, Move Back

The slow motion train wreck of a crowded Nicollet Mall bus during rush hour never ceases to amaze. As part of my afternoon commute, I will generally take a Route 17 or Route 18 bus south down Nicollet Mall, and I’m lucky that I get to board on the north side of the mall, before people start gathering in the back of the bus around a trash fire in a barrel like the 1930s hobos we are. It’s unclear how so many regular transit riders fail to anticipate that, yes, the Route 18 bus will probably be crowded in Downtown Minneapolis at 4:30 PM on a Tuesday.

After most or every seat is taken, people will start to bunch up in the aisle, and there’s always that one person standing just before the steps who has to realize that there are six more people trying to board, and the continued passable operation of the entire metropolitan area’s transit system is dependent on them taking six steps back to let those people on, but they just stand there. Mind-boggling. Anyway, don’t do this, you look like a moron, just move, or figure it out, or whatever. Move back.

It was also raining that day

It was also raining that day

7.) Exit Out the Back Door When Possible

While this tip runs contrary to everything Minnesotans are and aspire to be and are lampooned as in a recent FX miniseries, it’s important. Saying thank you to the bus driver is less important than exiting the bus in a way that does not delay new riders from boarding. This tip is negotiable–if you’re the bus’ sole passenger and you’re sitting in the front, and you see that no one is boarding at the stop you requested, by all means, say thank you to the bus driver. It’s also negotiable when the weather prevents the back door from being a good option.

I will close with a quote from national treasure/Gawker staff writer Caity Weaver:

Short of burning down their barns or murdering their families, inconveniencing people on public transit is one of the worst things a person can do to their fellow human beings.

Please ride considerately.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

45 thoughts on “MOVE BACK: A Casual Guide to Regular Bus Usage

  1. David Baur

    A great list! Here are a couple more that I live by which are closely related to each other.

    1. Seats are for people, not your smelly takeout or your backpack. If the bus is even remotely crowded that stuff needs to be on your lap or the floor as appropriate for the item. If the bus is nearly empty, fine, treat it like precious cargo.

    2. The empty window seat beside you is not yours either. I see that you are staring into nothingness, pondering the depths of your own madness, but either move over (preferable) or let me sneak into the window seat. If you do move over to the window, I promise that if you get off the bus before me I will let you out 100% of the time.

  2. Monte

    Although there are other reasons for rail bias, not knowing how to use a bus is one factor. I see on a simple map that the Green Line goes from the Mall to Target Field, the fare is a set price and you can buy a ticket at the machine next to the stop with any form of payment. But suppose I want to take a bus from downtown to say Columbia Heights. Do I take the 5 or the 95A or the 547B? How much is the fare- the sign doesn’t say? Do they take credit cards like every other place around since I never carry cash on me or do I need to hunt down an ATM? Am I going to step on the wrong bus- maybe the map is wrong or the bus is displaying the wrong number, and wind up in Osseo? At least the fare structure is more simple (but I guess you still have to figure out if you pay when you get on or off), when I last rode a public bus decades ago there were all sorts of fare zones, my mother would usually make us get off a half mile from our stop so we wouldn’t cross a zone.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I’m not sure that any of the things you note are tied to the technology of rail. Better signage/maps/bus labels, off-board payment, etc can all achieve bus system simplicity and ease of use equivalent to rail stops.

      1. Rosa

        Metro Transit’s hatred of useful signage is worst with bus stops, that often won’e even tell you which bus stops there and hardly ever say which direction that bus will go in once you get on.

        But it’s most hilarious at the airport, where people who are not from here and maybe have a familiarity with other transit payment systems like “follow printed instructions” or “talk to a human” are forced to walk into the Ticket Required area in order to buy a ticket.

    2. brad

      This is another good reason to get a GoTo card–you don’t need to figure out if it’s an express route or rush hour or whatever, just swipe your card. (and if you’re curious about how much it was or how much money is left on your card, look at the screen and it’ll tell you)

      An added benefit of the GoTo card is that it also automatically handles transfers, so no more having to deal with the transfer slip.

      Monte, yes, it’s all way simpler than you remember!

      1. MplsJaromir

        Go-to-card is not great for occasional users. After a certain amount of time, I think its 45 days your card goes dormant and you have to visit a Metro Transit retail location to reactivate. The retail store is only open during regular office hours, clearly the best time to be open, but for those of us who do not work near downtown it can be a problem.

        I cannot, with full confidence, recommend a Go-to Card for casual riders. Just have one dollar bills and three quarters.

        1. Gary

          I have a Go-To card that I store value on, and I’ve gone long stretches without using it, and it does not go dormant or require re-activation. I’ve never heard of such a problem.

          1. MplsJaromir

            That is definitely a change in policy, and change for the better. I know for a fact that when I moved I found my a Go-to Card and I was told I had to reactivate it to access the greater than $20 value stored. I only lived in that apartment for a year.

        2. Jeb

          I’m one of those “occasional users,” and there’s almost nothing better than the GoTo card. The only practical limitation is that you can’t top up more than 28 days before your next ride (or buy a card more than 28 days before your trip.) Other than that, it’s very freeing to use (don’t have to deal with “do I have enough cash” and such, and the easy transfers are very nice.)

      2. Rosa

        but is there some magical way to pay for a second person on your card? I am always traveling with a kid, old enough that I ought to be paying for him. On my card I (and the various bus drivers) ahve never figured out a way for me & kiddo to both ride & both transfer. So usually they just don’t charge me for him.

        1. Victoria

          Yes, you can do this. BEFORE you tap the card, simply tell the driver that you want to put two (or however many) rides on the card. Wait until the driver tells you to, and then you tap the card. The two transfers should work automatically on the next bus.

          1. Rosa

            I will try that if I ever get a GoTo card again, thank you!

            Now tell me: is it possible to do one transaction on the train pass machines, where you have multiple tickets at different prices? Say you’re taking an adult, 2 kids, and a senior to Target Field and you want to buy all 4 tickets in one transaction because you hear the train coming and doing 4 transactions is going to make you miss it…

    3. Peter

      I think there could be a lot of value in more clearly segregating the all day bus routes vs the commuter routes. Even though Monte used made up bus numbers, I can pretty easily tell that the 5 is a local route, the 547B would be some kind of express bus with a few trips each day, and the 95A just wouldn’t exist (the only 9X bus we have is the 94, which follows intersate 94, we don’t have an Interstae 95, so no 95 bus). But someone that’s new might not know that, and if they put a trip into a trip planner that has them take the 547B, they may not be able to get home on that same route the way they thought they would.

    4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      This point is well-taken — and gets more confusing the less on a predictable urban grid you are. I tried to take a bus to a Lifetime Fitness in the Normandale Lake district of West Bloomington. Was great getting there (if a bit of a walk from the bus stop), but then when I left, I discovered that the buses actually stopped running at 6 — a half hour earlier. Of course, the only way that I knew this is that I owned a smartphone and looked up when the next bus would come. There was no such information at the stop or on the bus.

      I then was set with finding another way back. Again, relying on my smartphone, I found out that the 542 was running one last loop through the area before retiring for the night. It was to stop at “82nd St and American Boulevard”. I had devised that I had to go west in order to go east again, so I knew I was looking for a stop on the westbound side. So I go to 82nd St and American Boulevard, to find two bus stops where the roads meet — one on westbound 82nd, one on westbound (momentarily due south) American Boulevard. Which one was it? Anyone’s guess. I had to wait between the two, head darting like a squirrel, ready to sprint for the bus when it arrived at one or the other.

      Buses don’t have to be this difficult, but we’ve put very little effort thus far into making them as easy as we have rail.

      1. Rosa

        Even the 5 and the 14 randomly change their route by letter, though. My husband managed to lose an hour last week by accidentally getting on the one 14 that doesn’t go to the 38th street train station. We’ve lived on this route for more than a decade and I take it all the time, but I *still* check the schedules for the one bus that comes at the exact same time as a same-number bus but doens’t go where I’m going.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    This reminds of one of my favorite signs “Nina’s is like a city bus, just because someone is sitting doesn’t mean the seat next to them is taken”. Or something like that.

    Great list. I agree with Monte that it does point out some of the benefits of rail. And in that it is even needed is a benefit of rail. 4,5,6, and 7 also don’t seem to be issues on most rail systems I’ve used (and they are often issues on buses). I’d guess the lateral swaying of buses has something to do with it and maybe our buses should go to a 2+1 seat config to make more aisle room.

  4. Andrew B

    3. Nobody likes the music you do, and even less when it’s playing out of your crappy cellphone speaker. Wear headphones.

    1. lifelong MTC rider

      Thanks, I was going to add this…amazing the author forgot about it. I’d add that headphones aren’t enough; turn it the **** DOWN. (My favorite driver gets on the PA system when riders forget this basic piece of manners. It works, too.)

  5. Janne

    There are gender/racial/power dynamics on the bus, too. This is not scary, but a fact to be respected, especially if you happen to be white, a man, able-bodied, young, etc.

    4. Don’t take up too much space on the bus. (See David’s tip above.) This also includes your elbows and legs. I know you think you’ve got special “stuff” in how your body is created, but we’re all on the bus together, so pull into your own seat and stop forcing your physical being into the space of that friendly woman sitting next to you.
    (Note: There’s a whole tumblr about this, and if you aren’t careful, someone will post a picture of you on it.

    5. Generally avoid conversations with those on the bus, especially women. Women are not riding the bus so that they can be picked up by you.
    (Note: A casual nod or comment about something odd happening is OK.)

    1. JB

      Did you really have to restrict this advice to certain genders? It seems to apply to everyone, not just men or women. Why did you bring up race, ability, and age and then never mention them again? And why do the people on that Tumblr think it’s okay to take pictures of people and put them on the Internet without permission?

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        You’re kidding? Because men often have trouble with women inconsiderately (and perhaps unconsciously) invading their space and/or hitting on them constantly? And men typically have to be wary of how they respond to these issues because any given woman might react violently or with a sense of entitlement?

  6. David W

    1. Moving back and exiting at the rear door are important points, but also look out for snow banks in the winter. The older 40 ft busses have doors that open farther out and get jammed on snow banks.

    2. I disagree with standing near the front of the bus. The best place to stand is at the back. Actually, it’s not that terrible to stand near the back door if you’re not in the doorway as you can move back and forth depending on who’s exiting.

    3. Even if everyone is standing when you get on, there are usually open seats in the back if you fight your way through. This is especially true on low-floor busses that have more “privileged” riders, as they seem to be afraid of going up the stairs at the back of the bus.

    4. Hopping out the back door to let people off sounds like a bad idea.

    5. If you’re sitting in the front-facing seats, sit completely on the seat rather than half on the seat, half in the aisle.

  7. Julie

    And beyond the “don’t creep out a woman” factor, don’t be the person who looks around desperately to avoid sitting near someone non-white.

    The years I spent as a train-based life-form in other cities taught me quite a lot about coping with space on buses. It is possible to be proximate to people without harshing their space or their being.

    1. JB

      Is that something that happens? I’ve never seen it. And I find the idea that apparently there are people out there taking pictures of men without their permission and posting them on the internet much creepier than a woman getting subjected to unwanted small talk.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          It’s a little different when sitting in rows with an offensively shallow seat pitch. So many folks have short privilege and can’t understand the struggles us moderately tall folk encounter everyday. I can’t manage to get my knees straight ahead of me on many airplane seats and some transit seats. But after looking at that link (gah why did I click that!) it became clear that it’s not because these folks are tall…

      1. Julie

        Do we have to play a game of degrees?

        Both are creepy. Neither is okay. We shouldn’t play games of “this is less worse” with behaviors that are crappy.


  8. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Hi doctor nick!

    In Chicago, they’re very assertive about telling people to exit out of the rear door.

  9. Mark

    Cash should not be phased out on transit. De-emphasized, perhaps, but don’t be so casual about dismissing folks who may operate a bit differently than you do, or differently than you think ‘mete and just’.

    1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      Totally agree! Not everyone has access to a computer and many people don’t have credit cards or bank cards to order passes online. I realize that passes can be obtained at Metro Tranist stores, but that’s one extra and unnecessary trip.

      1. Anne

        They can also be purchased at many grocery stores.

        My thought is that maybe having $10, $20, $40, or enough for a monthly pass all at once could be more prohibitive than going to your grocery store’s service counter to buy a pass.

  10. Peter

    Sometimes I swear there’s a conspiracy between Metro Transit and the City of Minneapolis to make sure that a bus always stops such that the rear door is directly in front of a light post or trash can or something.

  11. Ben

    Some of the best bus riders are New Yorkers.

    I was amazed its like every one made it work so well.

  12. Cedar

    If standing, take off your backpack! Not only do the backpacks take up more space — space that should be filled in with people if it’s a crowded bus — but if you’re wearing a backpack while standing and you turn, even slightly, the backpack is apt to hit someone else.

    My other pet peeve (and maybe it can be addressed; I need to call Metro Transit to clarify) is that there aren’t special kid passes. What this means is that if I forget to ask the driver to charge the card at the .75 rate, I’m out an extra dollar. And really, if I’m standing on the bus with my 6-year-old I just want to sit down as soon as possible, not stand up front making sure the driver charges him right. Not to mention that this slows everything down. (I loved how when we lived in the East Bay in CA the local transit company offered affordable monthly passes for kids; wish we had that here.)

    1. brad

      About getting charged the wrong rate, it’s a PITA, but the driver can refund your card via the card reader, and then set it up so it charges you the correct amount next swipe.

      Also, I’d suggest your backpack comment be changed to “be considerate of those behind you if you’re wearing a backpack”. It’s as much of a pain to take one on/off on a crowded bus as it is to wear one, and you may as well expect you’re going to get jostled one way or another on a crowded bus.

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