How to take public transit in London – Bus Edition

Taking transit in London (or indeed any large city) is quite an experience.

Now, I’m no stranger to public transit – I took the bus to school all through high school and my early university years, and I’ve ridden the sky train in Vancouver. In highschool, I went on trips to Toronto and Montreal and experienced what it’s like to ride on an underground subway. I’ve ridden the bus in San Francisco and taken trains throughout Europe. But none of this quite prepared me for the reality that is London’s transportation system.

For starters, it’s MASSIVE. When I first got here, I asked my sister-in-law if there was a guide to all the bus routes that I could get somewhere – or at the very least a map of them (I was thinking along the lines of the bus guides that BC transit publishes in Victoria) and she laughed at me. Why? Because it would be pretty much impossible to get all of the buses and routes onto a map like that. And if they put it in a book it would be the size of a phone book. There are SO many buses here, probably at least 300 different routes – some that go into central London, others that just cover parts of different boroughs (kind of like the different regions of the city – like Gordon Head, or Fernwood in Victoria). Some buses have routes that take nearly 2 hours to complete because they literally go from one part of the city to another (and because traffic in London is no peach!). Basically the bus system here is so vast and complex, that trying to put it on paper would be a full time job in and of itself.

So how do you figure out how to get somewhere? How do you know you’re on the right bus, or where to catch it or when? I learned, not long after arriving here, that bus stops/shelters are your friend. They are filled with helpful information. For example, at every bus stop, there’s a list of the bus numbers that stop there at the top, and a posting of the schedule (although sometimes the schedule for the bus you want isn’t there). The schedules seldom list the exact times the bus will come because if they did that, with the traffic in London, no bus will ever be on time! So some of the smaller buses/routes have specific times, and busses in the early morning and later evening usually have some specific times, but for most buses it says something like “Every 8-12 minutes”. So even if you’ve just missed a bus, you’re usually not having to wait too long (the most popular routes are usually more like 4-6 min or 6-8 min).

Aside from bus time tables, the shelters usually have a map of the immediate area that lists all the routes/buses that pass through that general region (not necessarily that stop). Published under and around the map is a list of popular destinations so you can easily figure out which bus you’d take to get there, and from which stop you’d take it. Every bus stop has a red circle at the top of it with a letter printed on it in white, so there’s a matching red circle and white letter next to the places you can get to from that bus stop – it’s very useful. The stops are also posted on the map so you can figure out how to get to the correct bus stop from where you are (they’re usually within a couple blocks or less). This has helped me get unlost on more than one occasion.

Once you’re on the bus, if you’re lucky enough to get a seat, you might get jostled a bit – the ride tends to be a bit jerky, and it’s not unheard of for the people standing around you to lose their footing and nearly fall on you. If you’re standing (which happens a lot – Londoners who take the bus often have to stand, particularly in the busier times) you definitely want to hold on to something and brace yourself – you’re likely to go flying at least once!!! (I haven’t injured myself yet! Huzzah!)

I’ve noticed, that depending on the time of day, the types of people riding the bus changes. In the middle of the day on weekdays (particularly during breaks) you see lots of mums with young children and older people with their carts doing their shopping and things. The morning brings out the business people, dressed nicely and heading to work – most of them either sit quietly, read a book, listen to music or browse/text on their phone. It’s rare (but not unheard of) in the morning to see people talking on their mobiles on the bus. If you’re bussing slightly later in the morning (ie, closer to 8) you’re going to see lots of kids on the bus – most of them over 11 taking the bus to their schools – they’re kids, so of course they can be rather excited and noisy, but I’ve usually got my ipod on so it doesn’t bother me.

In the afternoon, you start to get rush hour(s) – people coming home from work or school and you see all kinds of people on the bus. This is usually when the buses are the most busy – often there are 2 or 3 mums or dads with buggies and the buses are usually packed. These are the times when you want to get ready to exit the bus at least a stop early because you have to weave through people just to get to the doors – that’s just the way it is!

On weekends, and on most bus routes that connect to tube stations, you’re likely to see a few people with suit cases or other luggage. There are several airports in London that people access either by tube or by train and a big international train station at King Cross/St Pancras so it’s really common for people to travel with luggage.

Most people I’ve encountered on the buses have been quite pleasant. You often find yourself sitting or standing next to a stranger and smiles are exchanged or understanding looks. It’s a big city with close to 8 million people in it, but for the most part, people are pleasant – most of them keep to themselves, go about their business and rush from point a to point b.

Taking the tube or the train is a different experience all together – but one I shall write about another day.


2 responses to “How to take public transit in London – Bus Edition

  1. Tell me you use this website when you have to plan ahead (and sorry if no one has told you about it before). I couldn’t imagine trying to figure out how to get from A to B without this (one caveat is that it doesn’t always tell you the fastest or best route, but it can help):

    • HAHAHAH! I can’t believe I forgot to mention that. YES I use TFL all the time. I only rely on the bus stops when I end up somewhere unintentionally and need to navigate another way – or if I get lost. But most of the time I do use tfl before I leave the house. It’s incredibly useful, particularly the first time you go somewhere (I often find a better way after!)

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