For tourists to unfamiliar with urban areas, bus routes especially can seem impossibly arcane and difficult to decipher. Enter the transit navigator: a great website breed that helps you get between any two points in dozens of cities without getting behind the wheel of a car.
Transit navigators beat subway maps because they include buses, and they hold your hand: they tell you how to get to the bus or subway stop from your origin point, and walking directions to your destination, too.
Many cities have had transit navigators for years now. But New York is only getting around to building sites now, and in typical NYC fashion, they have two competing sites.
We plugged a wide range of routes throughout the five boroughs into both sites. The independently-operated Hopstop (www.hopstop.com) came up the best for travel everywhere but Staten Island.
Pop down to hopstop.com and make sure to pick the "Subway + Bus" option on the "Transportation Mode" menu for the best directions. The site has been around for months now, but has only recently added all of the city's regular bus routes.
Hopstop aced trips from Manhattan hotels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the hipster neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the Bronx Zoo and Battery Park. The site gives you walking directions to your subway or bus stop and then recounts every major station you pass on your trip -- great for knowing when you're "almost there."
Trips123 (www.trips123.com) is more ambitious, but also flawed. Run by a council of New York-area governments, it aims to give transit directions everywhere from northern New Jersey to New Haven, CT.
Trips123's computers tend to suggest impossibly short transfer times, and sometimes very weirdly suggest you go backwards to go forwards. For instance, we tried to punch in a trip from a Queens home to a resort hotel in Montauk, and Trips123 gave us two minutes to leave a subway station, walk two blocks, buy a commuter rail ticket and get on a commuter train. That's impossible. In another situation, Trips123 suggested we get on an express train that overshot our station and take the next local train back, instead of just waiting for a local that would have gotten us to our destination without switching.
And Trips123's coverage of suburban bus systems is patchy -- while it can tell you how to get to the train station nearest the DIA:Beacon art museum or the Woodbury Commons shopping mall (to use two popular suburban attractions), it then leaves you standing by the platform calling a cab, even if there's a bus that might get you the rest of the way.
Still, Trips123 has its uses -- it tells you what trains to take to your suburban destination, even if the schedules may not be quite right. If Trips123's connection times look improbable, you can click through to the various member transit authorities' websites to find the next train.
Both Hopstop and Trips123 understand the names of many major landmarks, like "Metropolitan Museum of Art" or "Bronx Zoo." For other locations, like famous neighborhoods, try using frommers.com or Google to search for the street address of a business in that neighborhood, and enter that address into the transit navigator.
Many New York City tourists restrict themselves to attractions in midtown or downtown Manhattan because of a fear that other areas are too far away. Hopstop and Trips123 let you see how long it really takes to cross the five boroughs, and beyond -- and let you expand your horizons.
Getting Around in Other Cities
New York is way behind on the transit-navigator front. Other cities have had door-to-door transit instructions on the Web for years. LA, for example, has an excellent navigator that brings together dozens of suburban bus systems. Slogging around LA by bus still takes plenty of patience, but the LA MTA shows you how you can do it.
You'd also probably be surprised at the comprehensive bus systems in cities like Portland, OR and Dallas, TX. Sure, it'd probably be best to drive in these places, but transit navigators show you that it isn't necessary by a long shot.
In London and Paris, meanwhile, chaotic European city planning can make those cities feel like mazes. The local navigator sites make it clear how to get to the Tower of London, Hampstead Heath or Versailles Palace from anywhere you are.
Some of the better navigator sites we've found include:
- Boston: http://trip.mbta.com/cgi-bin/itin_page_dhtml.pl
- Chicago and suburbs: http://tripsweb.rtachicago.com
- Dallas, TX: http://tripplan.dart.org
- London: www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl
- Los Angeles: www.mta.net
- Paris: www.ratp.info/informer/anglais/index.php
- Portland, OR: www.trimet.org
- San Diego, CA: www.sdcommute.com/Rider_Information/Trip_Planning/index.asp
- San Francisco and suburbs: www.transitinfo.org
- Washington, DC and suburbs: http://rideguide.wmata.com
- Index of all public transit sites in the USA: www.apta.com/links/state_local