A bus shelter at the side of a road, with a brick building visible behind it.
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I know that using public transit can feel overwhelming, but it can also become empowering to take it—it’s a way to regain at least some longer-distance mobility and allow you to go out on your own to work, play, or get medical care.

Understand your transit system’s patterns

Once you know where you want to go and when you want to go there, it’s time to double-check your “how.”

Some trips may require multiple forms of transportation or public transportation combined with hiring a service for the final leg of your trip. Taking public transit can still be helpful because it greatly lowers the cost of your trip.

However, only you know what you can and can’t handle, travel-wise, and every single transition on public transit is another space where something could go wrong.

I gravitate toward using trains when it’s possible/useful, but definitely have had a lot of destinations that required using the bus.

A hand is visible against the backlit map behind it. The finger points to a bus stop on the routes disaplayed
It’s very useful to understand where your start and end points are in relation to the transit system.

Where Al and I live now, it’s a short walk to get to a bus, and the train station is a short drive away (but too far to comfortably walk).

When Al is around, he is very willing to drop me off at the train station, but when he isn’t, I would usually have to take the bus to get to a train station.

There’s no easy way to get to the nearest train station, but the nearest bus to me does stop two train stations north of me, and there’s a southbound bus that connects to another bus that can take me to the train station two stations south of me.

You’re going to want to know where the transit hubs are in your area. Transit hubs are the spaces where multiple transportation options meet up.

The biggest transit hub in my area is the town of Red Bank, specifically its train station. Not only is it a train station, but it’s also the start and/or end of multiple bus routes in the area.

When I lived in Red Bank, I had a lot of transportation options and getting pretty much anywhere in the county was relatively easy. I lived a couple blocks away from the train station—it was a relatively ideal location for me in terms of transportation. Unfortunately, I was eventually priced out of living in the area.

Where Al and I live now, there’s a single bus stop at the end of the street, which can still get me to the train station or other locations, but often I’d need to get down to Red Bank or another hub to get myself to places not on my bus route.

Give yourself a time cushion

Buses aren’t known for their timeliness, so be prepared for the (very slight) possibility of the bus running a minute or two early and for the (highly likely) possibility of the bus running 5 to 15 minutes late. 

If you are going to a doctor’s appointment or other scheduled things, you want to plan in a bit of a time cushion, so try to make sure that the bus (or train, etc) is scheduled to arrive at your destination 10 or more minutes before you need to get there. 

Since transit services run once an hour in many areas, this may mean that you’re going to have a lot of waiting time. 

This is just part of the time cost of taking public transit.

Also, you need to be aware that buses, trains, and other forms of public transit often only run during certain hours and that they often have different schedules on the weekends and holidays than on weekdays, and sometimes their schedules or routes on Saturdays and Sundays are different as well.  

For example, the bus route that goes near my home doesn’t run at all on Sundays and has more limited hours on Saturdays than it does the rest of the week. The buses also stop running around 7 p.m. or so in the evening.  

The trains run daily, but have hourly schedules on the weekends, while the “rush hours” have many more trains during the week.

An unenclosed train station. The left hand side of the image shows people walking on the platform, with two sets of empty tracks to right, and train visible to the far right.
I prefer to take the train when I can, but there are a lot of places where the train just doesn’t go.

There are trains every 20 minutes or so from about 5 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. (we’re a little over an hour outside of NYC) and again at 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.-ish in the evenings.

I generally try not to travel during those peak times, as they are more likely to be crowded.

They also change the routes and the schedules on occasion, so you’ll want to double-check any older schedules you might have against the website, which should be up to date. “Should” being the key word, of course.

Try to minimize connections and transfers if you can, as some bus networks aren’t great about making sure you actually connect. 

If you need to make them, see how long you have between transfers—if it’s less than 10 to15 minutes, be aware of the possibility of the connection being missed. 

When a system is running reasonably well, the buses should wait for their connection if they happen to run a minute or two late, but I have learned the hard way that sometimes they don’t communicate as well as you’d hope.  

I’ve noticed that most transfer points, at least in my area, are located near some form of shopping area, so for the most part when I have gotten stuck, I’ve been able to go in somewhere and get myself a little something to eat or drink and likely would have been able to access a bathroom if I’d asked. 

That didn’t make waiting an extra 40 minutes or so fun, but it did make it more bearable.  

I’ve found trains to be a bit more reliable in this sense—they usually run close to on time, though occasionally one will run late.

Remember, though, you usually need to get from your train stop to wherever you are going—often by bus, walking, or Lyft/Uber/taxi. When you plan your trip, think through each step to ensure that you don’t miss or run late for your event.

Packing for travel

I personally take a backpack with me most anywhere I go—it’s easy to carry on my back, can hold a reasonable amount of stuff, and with the way my movement symptoms work, it’s not going to get in the way or be damaged if I start flailing around.  

I generally don’t carry a purse because of my potential to misplace or drop it.

Instead, I often carry a wallet in my pocket or a backpack-style purse if I don’t need a bigger bag. My goal when I travel is to only have one thing to remember.

I highly recommend bringing something to entertain yourself with. This may be a book, music, knitting material, or anything else that you can easily pull out and use in a compact space. 

Waiting for the bus often takes time—the rule of thumb is to arrive at the bus stop 5 to 10 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive so that you make sure you don’t miss it, and then you need to wait there until the bus shows up. 

a man stands in a subway station wearing jeans, a coat and a medium-sized backpack with a water bottle on one side.
This guy is prepared to travel safely and comfortably. My goal is to have space in the bag for additional things I may pick up along the way but still be prepared for likely events.

Buses aren’t known for their speed, as they make frequent stops and aren’t particularly fast, so you will often find that your bus ride takes you through neighborhoods you’ve never seen before, and it takes at least twice as long to get where you’re going than it would have if you were being taken directly there.  

I also reccommend carrying along extra change.  Most buses primarily take cash, and they do not give change. 

Every once in a while, something doesn’t get counted right, or it costs a little more or less than you thought—and having that extra nickel or quarter on hand makes your life that much easier. 

There’s also usually somebody who gets on the bus and doesn’t have exact change, or the right change, and if you are able to help them save that bit of money, you may make a new friend!  

On the positive side, riding the bus is one of the cheapest options out there, and once you’re on board, there isn’t much of anything for you to do but enjoy the ride and make sure you get off at your stop. 

Personally, I like to bring music with me, especially if it’s one of my first times on a route, so I can just watch the world go by with a nice soundtrack. 

When the route is more familiar, I may end up playing (or working) on my phone or (rarely) pull out my Chromebook for some serious writing. 

Buses tend to be bumpier rides than cars, so you don’t want want to be doing any delicate work—I’ve watched women put on makeup during their ride and things like that, and I’m amazed at how well they manage, given the bumps.  

I have seen people carry pretty much anything onto the bus—some people take the bus home after grocery shopping, or are taking the bus to another mode of transportation for a long trip. 

Whatever you are carrying, however much you are carrying, I’m sure the bus driver has seen weirder, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that.  

What you do want to do for your own sanity, though, is to pack in a way that’s easy for you to manage. 

Try to keep what you’re carrying light and something you can pick up, put down, and carry with minimal awkwardness. 

It can also be helpful if it has multiple small compartments, both to protect your privacy and to minimize the risk of dropping or spilling out the contents of your bag.

I will often bring a water bottle and granola bar or other snacks with me (you’re starting to picture why I need a backpack, right?) as I’ll often end up being out long enough to want a little something, and I feel a bit better when I know I always have water available. 

It’s a lot cheaper to carry something along than to be dependent on whatever you might find along the way.  

Blocking out your time—how a one-hour appointment costs five hours

So I’ve mentioned that things take a while, and I really want to help you visualize this so that you’re prepared and can make the best of it.  

My therapist’s office is just north of one of my local transporation hubs, the town of Red Bank. 

There is a bus that goes down the street where her office is located (it’s a major highway), so I have frequently taken the bus to see her.  

I live about a 10-minute walk from another major highway, and there’s a bus stop at the intersection of the highway and the road I live on.  

It takes about 20 minutes to drive to my therapist’s—generally my partner and I leave a half hour before my appointment in case of traffic or other stupidity, and so I often arrive at least 5 minutes early, often more.  

It takes me about an hour to get to her office by bus, and I need to make a transfer. 

If I’m driven, we leave the house around 3 p.m. for my 3:30 p.m. appointment, and are home again by 5 p.m. or so (unless we make additional stops or something). 

When I take the bus, I walk out the door around 1:30 p.m. My first bus is scheduled to arrive around 1:45, and I need to cross the highway to get to my stop. 

a brightly colored planner has slots for each hour of the day.
Be sure to factor in the schedule for your transportation and the timing of each transfer. When I can, I make a day of it, so that I have less stress about making it to whatever I have scheduled.

Once I board and show my pass (NJ Transit now has an app for bus and train rides, which has made my life infinitely easier) I get to ride to the end of the line (about three towns east) and we are scheduled to arrive there a little after 2 p.m. Our connecting bus is scheduled to head out around 2:15 p.m., and I have missed it innumerable times due to the driver of the first bus running terribly late.  

The end of the line is a small strip mall with a convenience store and a deli and a few other shops—I’ve noticed a fair percentage of riders will often go into the convenience store and grab a snack or cigarettes while waiting for our connection to show.  

The connecting bus ends in Red Bank, so I hop in for another 20 minutes or so on board, and am scheduled to arrive at 2:37 p.m. I usually get there by 2:40 or so, and so have close to an hour to wait before I see my therapist. 

I’ll often just go and wait in her office, but I have noticed that there’s a park not too far away, so I may explore it a little one day when I’m feeling adventurous.  

I use my time waiting in her office to color, play games, do bits of work on my blog, or otherwise keep myself comfortably occupied until I see her. 

After my appointment, I have to walk down the street to my stop for the ride home (opposite corner from where I arrived) and that bus is scheduled to pick me up at 5:11 p.m. but often runs late. I usually catch the next-to-last bus home and finally walk back in my door around 6:15 or so.  

This translates to me spending about five hours for an one-hour appointment. It isn’t efficient, but it is inexpensive, and I do get there and back. 

I traveled up to NYC by train relatively often (pre-Covid) and would often plan on catching the train before the last one of the night, just in case.

For example, when Al and I would go up for his doctor’s appointment, we’d aim to catch the train that would get him to his appointment close to an hour early. That way, if we missed it for whatever reason, or it ran late, we still would be able to make it to his appointment.

It takes some spoons away, but it is manageable.  

Making the most of the trip

When I need to travel like this, though, I often prefer to make a day of it and fit in some fun too!

The town of Red Bank is very walkable, and it’s only about a 20- to 30-minute walk to my therapist’s office from downtown. 

So what I can do if I know I’ll be seeing my therapist in the afternoon and the weather is nice is, I can take the bus into Red Bank in the morning (it’ll still take about an hour, but then I’m done) and spend the day in town. 

There are multiple interesting restaurants (some of which are also pretty affordable) that I could have lunch at and several parks on the river that I can hang out in. 

There are also antique shops and other interesting stores to browse and a couple of Hispanic grocery stores if I feel like searching up something interesting to bring home and eat or make later (another great reason to travel with a backpack). 

Then, after a leisurely lunch and a walk in a pretty park (or just sitting there admiring the view), I can either walk to her office (sidewalk all the way, but it is a major road) or catch a bus up to her office from downtown. 

a concrete path through a park in the fall.  The trees have yellow leaves, many of which are scattered over the grass
Often, public amenities, like parks, have or are near bus stops.

It makes it all feel worth the travel time and gives me that opportunity to go out and interact with the real world in a fun way, while only adding about a half hour of travel time to my day.  

When I was traveling almost entirely by bus, I would also try to have each trip serve more than one purpose. 

For example, my old PCP’s office was also accessible by bus, but a long ride (there was a transfer point along the way, but I stayed on the same bus so it was less stressful). 

The bus stop for my trip home was right in front of a large grocery store.  

So when I’d go to see my PCP (which was maybe a 15-minute walk from the bus stop and did not have a sidewalk) afterward, I’d also get my grocery shopping done (buying minimal cold or frozen products and keeping them together) and pick up a meal for myself in the store.  

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much else I could easily access (come to think of it, there were a few interesting stores in the area, and a coffee house across the street I could have checked out), but it was nice to be able to kill two birds with one stone by getting my appointment and groceries done in one stop!

Conclusion: using public transportation is an investment, but can pay good divends in personal freedom

I don’t always enjoy taking the bus, but I do really appreciate the freedom that having buses and trains available gives me (and I’m missing it right now in Covid times).

There are often transportation hubs of various sorts around and available for use, and it’s often helpful to understand where they are and how you can get to them. If there are multiple forms of public transportation available, these nodes are where they are most likely to met.

You need to plan in time cushions not only for the trip but for every transition or change in transportation you make. Whenever you change vehicles, it’s possible that you may miss the connection. It’s useful to be aware of this possibility and plan accordingly.

Because of all these potential challenges, I am a big fan of just making a day of it if you need to take public transportation. Look at each transition point and destination as a space to potentially explore and enjoy. If you have open-ended plans, the bus running late or missing a connection becomes much less stressful, and you can still make your scheduled event on time.

You deserve to have fun and enjoy your life, so use your public transportation as a way to do so!

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    1. Katie,
      Thanks! I’m all about making things easier for folks, especially when I’ve been through it so much and had so many days where I’ve gone ‘oh, if only I’d remembered…’ It’s important to be prepared and feel safe when traveling. Whenever it’s safe to do so again. *sigh*

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