Thursday, August 23, 2012

How to Commute on the Bus in Birmingham, Alabama

Over the past 2 weeks, I have been commuting in Birmingham on the bus.  I've used it for a couple of pleasure trips and some business trips.

My first trip was a Saturday exploratory trip.  I live in Cahaba Heights, so I peddled my bicycle up the hill to the Summit. The 280 Limited Stop route leaves the Summit for downtown hourly weekdays at 20 minutes after every hour, and weekends at 40 minutes after every hour.  There are two stops at the Summit, one on the road and one with a covered shelter.  The first go of it, I didn't know about the covered shelter.  When I showed up, I was glad to see others also waiting.  It meant something was coming.

My first trip started with the 2:41pm Inbound Saturday bus.  The other two gentlemen waiting were employees from the shops at The Summit.  I could tell by their attire, with logos of local companies.  Honestly, on this trip, I was as fresh as it gets.  I didn't know what was about to happen, and I had many questions on my mind:

  • What am I going to do with my bike?
  • Will the bus get here sometime today?
  • How will I pay to ride the bus?
  • Where will I get off the bus? As the routes and stops are sparse on the website.
The guys at the bus stop answered a couple of my questions about fares and bikes.

As the bus arrived, I am sure I stuck out like a sore thumb to the other men waiting.    I popped up like a jack-rabbit, grabbed by bike, and waited for the bus to navigate the final 200 yards.  The other two men calmly let the bus meander.

I could see the bus had a bike rack on front.  The bike rack was in the up position.  Great! I had to figure out how to use this puppy.  So, I just started pulling levers and finally found the silver bar that lowers the rack just after the bus driver rose from his seat to assist me.  Then, I placed my bike on the rack and affixed the restraint to my bike.

Walked around, boarded the bus and it was packed--easily 25 people on the bus.  Looking around, they were from the shops up and down 280 and they were heading back home.

The bus made it to Five Points South in just 12 minutes.  I chose to get off the bus at Five Points South because I had no idea what I was doing.  So, I got off the bus as Five Points.  Then I rode my bicycle down the hill all the way to 2nd Avenue.  I found Urban Standard and worked there until my outbound bus departed at 6:10pm.

I arrived at 5:55pm at the Central Station on 1st Avenue N.  This time, bording the bus was old hat. My only surprise on the outbound bus was the number of stops in downtown before heading to The Summit.  I learned the bus stops actually have bus route numbers on them, and those bus route numbers  are important to navigation.

Best thing about the bus?

First, let me get this out of the way: the bus is better than most people think.

Secondly, it is different. I've started to feel good about the capability of someone to live in Birmingham without an automobile.  As I'm riding the bus, I've realized I could leave my house, get on the bus, go to the downtown station, board an Amtrak train, and head to New Orleans or New England.

Third, coldest air conditioning in the South.  ~ 72 degrees.

Worst thing about the Bus?

It is the website.  It is impossible to read.  Sometimes, it is impossible to know what is about to happen without having prior experience.  To overcome this, you should take some exploratory trips.

Why is the bus always empty?

The bus is empty when it is going to same way most of the cars are going.  Generally speaking, the bus is full of people when it travels the opposite direction of rush hour traffic.

One morning, I caught the 7:20am inbound bus at The Summit.  The outbound bus was standing room only, with a full bike rack on the front.

What are the must haves?

  • $1.25 fare cash (dollar and a quarter)
  • General idea of where you want to travel (know some of the routes).  iPhones wouldn't load the terrible Flash based maps on the site -- so you can't make adjustments easily while mobile.
  • Newspaper and a hat a-la Mad Men
  • (Optional) My bike has made it easy to get where I want to go.  Also, it has made it easier to recover from boarding mistakes.