The Bus Stops Here: Tips for the Untrained Rider

There are three steps to riding the bus:

Step 1: Get on
Step 2: Pay
Step 3: Get off

It really is as simple as that. And once you get your routes down, which takes an Internet connection and a memory, you are set.

Wait, you have questions? Where to go, how, when? Fine, fine. Below is a breakdown of the major points, and a few details, of riding the bus in metro Detroit.

SMART buses: The SMART buses are the suburban system that travels in Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties. Their coverage is limited inside Detroit (more on that below). They have red and orange stripes along their sides. The number and name of the bus is posted on the front and the back. SMART bus numbers are in the hundreds. For instance the Woodward Local bus is the 450/460 bus. The Michigan Ave bus is the 200. The 9 Mile bus is the 710. SMART buses have bike racks.

DDOT buses: The DDOT buses run in Detroit. They have green and yellow stripes. The bus number and name is located on the front and back just like SMART. These bus numbers run double-digits – the Woodward bus is the 53, the Caniff bus is the 8, and the Michigan Avenue bus is the 37. DDOT buses do not have bike racks.

Bus stops: Finding a bus stop for both the SMART and DDOT isn't necessarily hard. SMART stops are designated with SMART signs. They are red with the SMART logo. Since SMART is the only game in town outside of Detroit (in the three counties), all bus stops are SMART. Inside Detroit there are SMART bus stops, though less frequent.

The DDOT bus stop sign looks somewhat like a "No Parking" sign. About two years ago this sign replaced the easily recognizable green and yellow DDOT signs -- some are still around and faded. A DDOT bus will stop at any bus sign inside the city of Detroit -- inside the city a SMART stop is never far from a DDOT stop.

Bus signage: Most of the stops lack signage beyond designating it is a stop. This goes for both SMART and DDOT. Some DDOT stops have route signage illustrating route length and stops – there are a few in Capital Park – but all stops lack schedules. SMART signage, when it does exist, is very vague and non-committal.

Here's an example: The SMART 9 Mile Crosstown bus runs from Northland Mall to Greater Mack in St. Clair Shores. The sign along this route has a graph that basically says something like this: Weekday: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. every 45 minutes. It also lists something just as vague for weekends and holidays. Does it hit that stop at 9 a.m., 9:45 a.m., or somewhere in between? Your guess is as good as ours.

Route and time information, besides whatever the person sitting next to you knows or the bus driver can provide you, doesn't exist inside the bus either. So ask.

SMART coverage: SMART buses cover most of Wayne (except a few communities like Livonia, which opted out of SMART's services) and Oakland counties and the southern half of Macomb. Frequency is always an issue with Detroit and Metro Detroit bus transit. Along heavily traveled corridors, like Woodward and 9 Mile, waiting 15 to 20 minutes (sometimes less on Woodward) is normal. On other routes, like the Michigan Ave 200 bus, 45-minute waits aren't uncommon.

There are a few SMART express lines running along Ford Road, Jefferson, one coming from the Gibraltar Trade Center, and one coming from Wyandotte, all going into the city. There is the 445/475 Woodward Limited bus that is somewhat of an express route. It stops are, well, limited going through Detroit. It's a fast route that can sometimes get you downtown from Ferndale in 20 minutes.

Certain buses run at night, too. Night buses, however, stop at 2:30 a.m. or so and starting up again at 4:30 a.m. So be sure to check your route for night buses, as well as Saturday, Sunday, and holiday schedules. They are all different.

SMART coverage in Detroit: On weekends and after six, the SMART bus will pick up at stops where people are waiting (as well as drop off at requested stops) going into and coming out of the city. It's called their "Open Door" service. During peak hours of going to and coming home from the 9-5-work day, it's a bit confusing. There is no hard and fast rule. I've been on buses that stop and pick up whenever, and I've been on buses that will only stop at the SMART designated SMART stops, which, really, is what is supposed to happen. DDOT takes care of the city; SMART helps with the longer trips from inside the city to the suburbs and vice-versa.

The best thing to do is to check your SMART route for details either on the Web site or give them a call at (866) 962-5515 and ask them (and ask them to send you an amazingly useful SMART map free of charge, too).

DDOT coverage: DDOT buses cover Detroit. Some buses do venture out of the city limits. For instance the Dexter 16 bus runs up to Northland Mall at 9 Mile, between Couzens and Greenfield. (Check schedules for your route.)

Frequency of buses, again, is an issue. Like SMART, DDOT pushes out more buses in heavily traveled corridors. The Woodward 53 bus comes nearly every 10 minutes, which isn't bad for this heavily traveled corridor. (With SMART and DDOT, the Woodward corridor sees about 30,000 travelers a day, which is a lot denser than other cities with a light rail system.)

DDOT has five express routes running inbound from 6 a.m to 9 a.m. and outbound from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. hitting Crosstown, Grand River, Dexter, Woodward, and Gratiot. Any bus in the 70s is an express route. Grabbing the 73 Woodward bus from the State Fair Grounds in the morning is a leisurely 15 to 20 minutes downtown. Also, DDOT express routes are $2 and not the normal $1.50 fare.

Schedules (where to find them for both systems): Unfortunately, schedules aren't posted at bus stops or inside buses. You can get schedules online at the DDOT and SMART web sites. They both have options to print out pocket schedules for your routes. The WSU student services office in the basement of the Student Center on campus is another place to pick up schedules for both DDOT and SMART, as well as that super handy SMART maps and SMART bus passes (the only DDOT pass available at this office is the monthly regional pass for both buses). The Student Center is in Gullen Mall, across from the undergrad library. You can also call both SMART and DDOT for schedule times. You can also pick up schedules downtown at the Inside Detroit Welcome Center at 1253 Woodward, where the Merchant Lofts are located.

SMART bike racks: There are bike racks on the front of SMART buses that hold two bikes. Bikes cannot go inside the bus. If you're traveling with a bike and a bus pulls up with two bikes already dedicated to the bike rack, well, you are out of luck. You shrug your shoulders, the bus driver shrugs his or her shoulders and they speed off. There is a video on the SMART Web site that does a good job of explaining what to do. Even without the video, it's quite self-explanatory. You squeeze the handle on the rack, pull down, place you're front tire where it says "Place Front Tire," pull up on the hook that holds the tire in place, and you're done. Easy Parcheesi.

Don't forget to get your bike when getting off, however. Some bus drivers want you to tell them you're grabbing your bike, some don't. You have to decide which is which. I was yelled at once. "You gotta tell the bus driver you're getting' your bike," she yelled at me, repeating it over and over again. I told her next time. She shook her head and sped off. ALWAYS put up the bike rack. The wrath of a bus driver can be harsh. Their tones are sharp, and their looks are sharper. Obey the rules and put up the bike rack when finished with it. Bus drivers remember faces.

DDOT bike racks: … do not exist. But, keep your fingers crossed.

Fare: General fare for one ride is $1.50 for SMART and DDOT buses. You can pay with coins and/or dollar bills. The fare consol is pretty easy to figure out. Throw the coins in the coin slot on the left or slide the dollar bills into the console on the right (or a combination of both). Whatever you do, make sure it equals a buck-fifty. You can get a transfer for 25 cents. A transfer allows you to jump on another bus within three hours of its purchase. If you want a transfer just drop $1.75 in and say, "Transfer please." Or something along those lines. It is the same procedure for both SMART and DDOT. If you're over 65 fares are cheaper and transfers are free. If you're under 44 inches, you're probably not reading this, but you can ride the bus for free – as long as there are only three of you. Also, have exact change, it's easier. But if you don't, just ask the driver for a change card. He'll print you out one that will come out of the consol where the transfer comes out of.

Passes: The passes are a little more complicated than throwing a handful of coins into a slot. However, it is a better deal. SMART and DDOT both have their own individual passes unless you get the monthly regional SMART/DDOT pass for $49.50. It doesn't go by 30 days of purchase but by the month. This allows you to ride unlimited for the entire month on both buses.

SMART has 31-day general fare passes for $47. Seniors and kids have the same 31-day option, too, just cheaper. SMART also has $11 (sold for $10) and $22 (sold for $20) cards available, which work, essentially, as a gift card. You can ride for the amount of money on the card – you do the math. It's a good deal for the infrequent rider. You can purchase these passes at the WSU student center, designated transit centers, or online. Check the SMART Web site for purchase locations. The people at SMART are looking into getting SMART passes into CVSs and other local retailers to make it easier for potential riders. As of right now, though, it's not an option.

DDOT has weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly passes available. You can purchase DDOT passes at any CVS within Detroit or other designated locations. Check the DDOT Web site for a complete list.

If you have a pass, which is easier than a handful of change, swipe it through the card reader on the console – like a credit card machine at a grocery store. Do not put it in the slot on the right. Transfers come out of there. If you put your monthly card (weekly and bi-weekly cards, too) in that slot, for example, and it doesn't come out, well, you're out of luck. There is also zero replacement for passes lost or stolen. So, hold on to that, it's like gold.

Stopping and getting out: There is a cord that lines the inside of the bus. As you approach your stop pull that cord. In the front of the bus, above the fare console, "STOP REQUESTED" will light up in red letters and a little indicator lights up for the driver. When it stops, get out. Watch your step and say, "Excuse me."

Getting to the airport: You can pick up the 125 Fort St/Eureka Rd SMART bus downtown at a few stops and take it to DTW. It's about an hour and a half journey, but it'll take you there. Check the schedule for details and times. Here is a SMART breakdown for getting to the airport.

Getting to Ann Arbor: Switching from the road to rails for a second … if you want to get to Ann Arbor, right now the only way is Amtrak. There are three trips daily at 7 a.m., around noon, and 6 p.m. The purpose of this line is to take people to Chicago, so it's not exactly ideal for a quick jaunt over to Ann Arbor. Also, you can't take your bike on the Amtrak.

Getting to Windsor: There is also a tunnel bus to Windsor that has pick ups and drop offs at Cobo, Hart Plaza, Campus Martius, and Joe Louis Arena. So, just in case you wanted to head on over to our northern neighbor – though Windsor is south of Detroit – you have options.

Riding tips: Carrying change and getting transfers can be cumbersome. Picking up a pass will free up time and space and clear away hassle. For someone who is looking to ride frequently check out the regional monthly pass. Unlimited riding on both buses for the month, and it's only 50 bucks. Getting one of these passes is like a tank of gas lasting an entire month. If you just plan on riding one bus or the other, monthly DDOT and SMART pass options are available, too. Also, check with your employer. GM, for instance, has a program that pays for their employees bus passes if they want to ride.

For infrequent SMART riders the $11 or $22 Valu passes are a good idea. They are like gift cards; you just use them until they run out.

More tips from the experts

"Get an umbrella and use the bathroom," a rider, who uses the bus five days a week, told me. Now, depending on the length of journey and strength of your bladder, using the bathroom may be irrelevant. However, the umbrella, beyond having fare and knowing your schedule and routes, could save your life one day.

"I'll leave in the morning and it's beautiful," the rider said. "By the time I get out at my stop it's pouring – I always have an umbrella."

Beyond the umbrella, bring some patience. Waiting is a big part of riding the bus. Sometimes you'll get lucky and catch one quickly, but more times then not there will be a wait (especially if you're transferring).

Get used to personal space invasion. Get ready for odd smells, sudden stops, the occasional ornery driver, and, of course, saving a few bucks on gas. Be proactive in finding out the information. Bus info isn't easily given up.

Finally, be a little ambitious and courageous. Get out and take that first step toward Detroit mass transit.

To get information on DDOT routes, fares, and schedules (not to mention compliment and complaints) call (313) 933-1300 or toll-free (888) DDOT-BUS (336-8287). Monday-Friday, 6 a.m.-6 p.m.

The same with SMART call (866) 862-5515.

Photographs by
Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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