I took the Fairfax Connector bus down Maple Street last night, to run an errand at the other end of town. I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. I’m hooked. This is not your grandfather’s city bus.
In this post, I am first going to go through the mechanics of it. E.g., link to the website that does the real-time tracking of the buses. Then give you my impressions.
Bus Route 463
The Fairfax Connector 463 route runs up and down Maple every half hour, from about 5 AM to about midnight. It can stop at almost every intersection along Maple.
Buses use the same Smartrip card that the Metro system uses. (Or cash, if you have $2.) Touch the Smartrip to the blue pad on the fare box as you enter. Pull the cord over your head when you want to get off. Transfers with two hours are free, so a quick round-trip up and down Maple costs a total of $2.
The whole system is GPS tracked and internet connected. For starters, just like Metro, a computerized voice announces what stop is coming up next. But most importantly, you have several ways to know exactly when the next bus is coming.
Texting is the crudest but easiest way to know when the next bus will arrive. Just follow the directions on the bus stop sign. For connector buses, Text FFX and the stop number (on the sign) to 41411. (For Metrobus stops, text WMATA and the stop number to 41411). They’ll text back with how long you’ll have to wait.
I’ll defer an extended discussion of internet-based approaches to the end of this page. But the bottom line is, it’s vastly less confusing than a traditional paper map with a jumble of printed bus routes. Let software sort it out for you.
Maybe I just hit them at a good time (around 7:30 PM on a weekday, returning around 8:30 PM). But my impressions were: brand new, spotlessly clean, comfortable, quiet, easy to use, great view of the street.
And relaxing. No joke on the last one. When was the last time you took a trip down Maple and felt relaxed? Once you’re on the bus, traffic is not your problem.
The other thing I learned is that Maple Avenue is kind of pretty at night. I got to be a tourist in my own town. From those high-up bus windows, you get a great view of the establishments that you otherwise just pass by.
On this trip, I finally realized how the Vienna Inn stays there (absolutely packed at 8:PM on a weekday). I saw that Sweet Leaf was doing good business, but Starbucks was not.
The trip drove home what a pedestrian barrier Maple is, at my end of Town. I had to get back across the street to get home, and, aside from jaywalking, the choices were the HAWK light and the corner of Maple and Nutley.
There’s a bus stop at the HAWK light. But I have to say, even when that light is fully red, and you have the walk sign, you have to look both ways before setting foot into the street. People blow right through the first few seconds of red without a thought around here. They probably don’t realize there’s a pedestrian, standing 2′ away from the road, getting ready to set foot in the road. And it’s not clear they’d slow down if they did.
So I came away with a suggestion for the timing of the HAWK light. I realize they have it set to produce minimal traffic disruption. That stays a solid red for just about exactly as much time as it takes to cross the street.
But I think that the pedestrian walk signal should lag the red light by another couple of seconds. People are so used to clipping the red lights here that they don’t even think about it. And if you step into the road when the walk signal lights up, you’re gambling on being hit by a car driving at speed.
I think this should be a particular concern for the HAWK light to go up to serve Madison students. This will be at Madison Drive (just west of Maple/Nutley). The quicker your reaction time, and the faster you move, the more likely you are to get hit by a red-light runner. My impression is that another couple of seconds’ delay might be prudent.
For me, on Maple, the bus makes for a much slower trip than a car. For example, from my house (Glen Ave) to Whole Foods is four minutes by car, 10 minutes by bus, and 19 minutes by foot.
But, of that 10 minute “bus trip”, seven minutes are spent walking to and from the bus stops. The bus-based trip isn’t slow because the bus is slow (for this amount of distance, at any rate). It’s slow because it’s a hybrid of bus and foot travel.
For those of you with better phones than I have, you can go to the Fairfax Connector website, pull up a map or text, and click on your stop. (Here’s the link for their map optimized for computers, not phones.) Click the “routes” button and select 463. All of the other routes that run through Vienna are numbered on-or-about 463, so while you are there, you can check out other places you can go. (The sole exception is the Vienna – Pentagon express bus, which is lower down the list).
There’s also a text-only link optimized for phones. For that one, you click the route, then the direction, then the stop, to find the next bus. Not as cute, but just as functional.
As I write this, there’s a bus heading West at the corner of Maple and Nutley. And there’s a bus getting ready to leave Vienna Metro. On the live map, you would then click a stop to see the arrival time.
On the phone-optimized text-only links, you have to pick your stop, and then it will tell you the arrival times. Bus is just about there, and another bus will be along in about half an hour.
There are other ways to access the route maps and times on-line. You can find a list of all routes directly relevant to Vienna on this page, and download .pdf copies of individual route maps.
And Google maps has a surprisingly friendly interface for planning more complex bus trips — the “schedule explorer” option. For a given origin/destination pair, it will tell you your fastest combination of bus and walking, for various start times.