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How to Take the Bus in NYC

Travel Insider Guides
by Alexis Wolff Oct 7, 2008
All the tricks for getting across town like a native New Yorker.
Using the bus to get around the city that never sleeps.

THE SITUATION: AFTER a morning feast of bagels and lox at Zabar’s, the
famous Jewish grocery store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, you want to view the Wang Hui exhibit at The Met.

The museum, however, is on the East Side, and you’re nowhere near the cross-town subway. You didn’t budget enough money for a taxi or enough time for a walk through Central Park. If only you knew how to take the bus!

The background: Don’t let your days of yellow school-bus riding inflate your confidence. No matter how savvy a traveler, taking the bus in New York City is hard. The city, after all, is home to the world’s largest fleet of public buses (4,373), which run about 200 local and 40 express routes.

They’re ubiquitous, whizzing past you every which way. If you know what you’re doing they can be quite convenient, but where are they headed, and how do you catch one?

The route: Maps aren’t available at bus stops like they are in subway stations, so print out a copy beforehand, or do what many New Yorkers do: buy a credit-card sized route map, which is available at most city bookstores.

Although some bus routes run north to south, and others squiggle around the city in no particular pattern, buses are arguably most useful (and also most manageable) when commuting between Manhattan’s east and west sides.

North of 42nd Street there’s no subway that runs across town, so the only way to get, say, from Zabar’s to the Met, is by bus. In this instance you would take the M79—the “M” being for “Manhattan,” and the “79” for 79th Street, across which this route runs. Likewise, the M72 takes you across 72nd Street and the M66 across 66th Street, but lest
you think you have the system mastered, the wheels of the M4 never touch 4th Street.

Always check your map.

So now that you know what bus you need, you need to find your stop. If you’ve walked two blocks without seeing either a bus shelter or a tall, round blue sign with a bus emblem and route number,
you’re probably on the wrong path.

Once at the stop you’ll find a schedule (at eye level on the sign’s pole), whose times are good estimates but not to be taken too seriously. What is more useful is the time between arrivals (usually 10 minutes, but longer or shorter depending on the route and time of day). This should be the longest you’ll have to wait.

Getting on: As the bus approaches, get out your Metrocard. Yes, the Metrocard you bought for the subway can also be used on city buses.

But here you’ll dip rather than swipe it, and to avoid letting everyone know you’re from out of town, have your card ready, with the front yellow part facing toward you, the black stripe on the right-hand side and the cut-off corner on the top left-hand side. (If you don’t have a Metrocard, buses also accept cash—but change only. Another rider may also let you “buy a swipe” if you only have dollar bills.)

Riding: In the afternoons and evenings, uptown cross-town buses (like the M79) will be filled with prep school students whose conversations are sometimes as entertaining as a scene from Gossip Girl. Anywhere you ride there will be plenty of phone calls on which to eavesdrop, but if you actually want to talk to a New Yorker your best bet is in the front of the bus, where seats are reserved for elderly riders; they are less likely to be clicking away on a Blackberry.

The bus stop:

Getting off: As you snoop, chat or watch landmarks roll by the window, remember to also pay attention to where you are. Bus stops are not marked as clearly as are subway stations, and driver announcements, when they are even made, are not always comprehensible.

A block or two before your stop, check to see whether the “stop requested” sign up by the driver is lit. If it’s not, push the yellow tape running along the wall or one of the red buttons on the polls marked “stop.”

It’s most courteous to exit through the back door (as it expedites the process of people getting on in the front), but you should know that the door won’t open automatically. You must push the yellow tape, which signals to the driver that you want to get out; a bright green light is your signal that the driver has unlocked the door.

If you’ve pressed the tape and the door still hasn’t unlocked, yell up to the driver, “Back door!”

Advanced bus taking: Once you’ve mastered bus-taking basics, you may wish to try your hand at a few more advanced tricks of the trade.

While most buses stop every two blocks, some—labeled “limited” or “LMD”—stop about every 10, making for an expedited journey. The signpost schedule will tell you approximately when limited buses arrive and where they stop.

You can also get the most of your Metrocard by taking the subway and then the bus, or transferring from one bus to another—all for one fare. As long as you swipe and dip within a two-hour window, you get two rides for the price of one.

Proud of your New York City bus expertise? Skip the $40 taxi to LaGuardia for your flight home. Catch the M60 (which runs up Broadway, and then across 125th Street) and ride it right to your gate.

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