Navigating Philly’s bus system

Travel Tips — By abbygordon on August 16, 2010 at 8:00 am

For those who want to save some money, see how the locals travel and get to work, or are just feeling intrepid, Septa is the way to go.  Septa — the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority — offers subways, buses, and a few trolleys all over Philadelphia.  For now, we’re going to focus on how to get around by bus without garnering evil looks from impatient Philadelphians trying to get to work.

One of the best tools Septa offers is a trip planner on its website.  Much like Mapquest, you can just type in where you want to leave from, your destination, and the approximate time you want to leave, then hit “Plan My Trip” and select your mode of transport (bus, in this case).  A plan will pop up, complete with exact times of buses and estimated traveling time.  Septa has many many routes — there will usually be more than one way for you to get somewhere — so using this tool will help you immensely.  Unfortunately, a complete map of the bus system does not exist, so your best bet is using this tool or asking someone which route to take.  Once you identify the proper route, you can find a map and schedule on Septa’s website by clicking on maps and stations or schedules, then selecting buses.  Here’s what you might encounter (this one is for the 40 bus, which runs from West Philly through Center City):

Map of the 40 bus route

Hmm, that trip planner is looking better and better, isn’t it?

Anyway, once you’ve got your route selected, you’ll need a few tips on traveling by Septa.  First of all, you MUST have exact change, which is currently $2.00.  The driver will not let you on without exact change.  The other way to travel — a far cheaper way — is to buy tokens ahead of time, which you can buy at the larger subway stations, some tourist destinations, and some supermarkets…Ask the concierge at your hotel about this or use the website’s comprehensive list of token vendors.  If you use tokens, each ride only costs $1.55, so it’s definitely worth the extra hassle of trying to find somewhere to buy them.  You can only buy tokens in packs of 2 or more.

Another great option for visitors is the One-Day Independence Pass, which lets you take an unlimited number of bus (and subway and trolley) rides in one day.  This costs $11 for an individual and $28 for a family of up to five.  Sounds like a great deal, if you ask me!  You can buy these passes at the aforementioned places, or, if your trip isn’t for a few weeks, you can purchase them online here and wait for them to arrive by snail mail.

Keep this in mind when figuring out how to pay for your rides: travelers over the age of 65 with either a valid PA senior citizen transit card OR a Medicare card travel free.  And children under 4 (accompanied by an adult) also travel free, as long as you don’t have more than two per adult.  Woohoo!  If you do have small children with you and are traveling with a stroller, Septa kindly requests that you fold it up before boarding the bus so as not to inconvenience other passengers.  Riders with disabilities also get a discounted fare of $1.00 (and Septa buses do accommodate wheelchairs).

And another thing you should know about: transfers.  Once you board the bus (after you’ve slid your money into the little machine by the driver or deposited your token in the slot), you can slide an extra dollar into the machine and ask the driver for a transfer.  This ticket lets you get on another bus going in a similar direction, so it works if you have to take two or three buses to get to one place — but it’s not valid for buses going in the return direction.  Also, check the time punched on your transfer ticket; you may be able to dawdle for a few minutes before getting on that second bus, as long as you don’t take too long.

Before we get to the ins and outs of actually being on the bus, there’s one more thing you should know: Septa buses rarely stick to the posted schedule (sorry, Septa, but it’s true).  You might be standing under the Septa sign at a corner (see below) for 15 minutes waiting for a bus that’s supposed to run every 8 minutes.  And then, of course, 3 buses will go by at once (it’s like Murphy’s Law, but for Septa…Septa’s Law).

Septa signs on corners indicate which buses stop there.

Okay, so you’ve paid your fare and you’re on the bus.  Are there any rules?  Well, there are, but people rarely follow them.  You’ll see people scarfing down full meals right in front of the signs that say no food or drink.  But, if you want to be polite, it’s worth heeding those signs.  You’re free to sit wherever until the bus gets crowded, at which point seats in the front are supposed to be given up to the elderly and to others who look like they might need a seat (that pregnant woman carrying three bags of groceries, for example).  You’ll also see people blatantly ignoring this common courtesy, while the pregnant woman or the little old lady gives them the evil eye.

During rush hours and on popular routes, buses can get quite crowded — once in a while a bus might even fly right past a stop, invariably too full to take on any more passengers.  If you have to stand, the most important thing to remember is either to move to the back (as the driver will probably loudly remind you) or to make sure you let people pass you as they board.  Nothing gets people angrier than a bus appearing full simply because everyone is standing at the front when there’s plenty of room in the back!

When your stop is approaching — when it’s the next corner the bus could stop at — pull the cord or push the button on the side to signal to the driver that you’d like him or her to stop.  You’ll have to pay close attention to where you are as you’re traveling, unless you are able to stay near the front of the bus and happen to have a friendly and helpful driver…The electronic notification system telling passengers what intersection the bus is at often doesn’t work or is poorly timed — not to mention the fact that it only exists on newer buses.  My advice is to ask someone at your hotel what landmarks to look for as you approach the right bus stop.  If you’re on the bus and are thoroughly confused as to where you are, don’t be scared to ask someone politely for their help.  Philadelphians can actually be pretty helpful and friendly, despite the grumpy scowls we wear on our faces.

While many Philadelphians get quite a bit of satisfaction out of griping about Septa (the fares!  The untimeliness and frequent detours!  The drunk man talking loudly to himself in the back of the bus!), it is actually quite convenient, and it’s certainly cheaper than taking cabs everywhere.  So go find those tokens and get ready to act like a real Philadelphian!

Tags: bus, public transit, travel


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