Charles Petzold

Business Trips and Public Transportation

May 24, 2009
New York, NY

Whenever friends come to New York for business trips, I'm always rather surprised by their promiscuous use of taxis to get around the city. Certainly it's well known that New York City has one of the most extensive and (mostly) reliable mass transit systems in the world. It's not just for the people who live here!

Over the past several months I've been travelling to several cities in the U.S. and Canada to deliver three-day courses in WPF programming and Silverlight programming in connection with the Microsoft Metro program. Increasingly I've been trying to take advantage of public transportation systems. It's gotten to the point where — well, to the point where it's become something of an obsession.

I don't like renting cars — or driving at all for that matter — so I make it a point to get a hotel within walking distance of the site where I'll be conducting the class. To a New Yorker, "walking distance" is generally anything within two miles, although I'd be willing to stretch it. I particularly like doing classes in the heart of a good walking-around city like Chicago or Vancouver, where there's also some interesting restaurants and maybe even a bookstore in the neighborhood. But I've also been able to get around by foot in Mississauga, ON and Mountain View, CA as well.

Getting to and from the airport is always interesting. Some cities excel at providing airport access via public transportation; other cities, not so much. Again, Chicago and Vancouver are great in that respect: You feel guilty of at least two deadly sins (sloth and gluttony) if you don't take mass transportation to and from the airport.

Obviously Web resources have become increasingly helpful in planning economical business trips. Google Maps provides generally reliable walking and public transportation directions in addition to driving directions, and most cities have sites for their mass transit systems, including maps, schedules, and route-finders.

This past week I conducted a three-day Silverlight course in Dallas (more specifically, Irving) — a city whose sporadic sidewalks and scorching sun (even in May) present some challenges to the aspiring walker.

My hotel (red marker) was actually quite close to the site of the class (blue marker), and it seemed reasonable that I could walk between them:

View Class and Hotel in a larger map

When I zoomed in on the map, going via N. MacArthur Blvd seemed best, yet I couldn't see any sidewalks on an overpass I'd have to take, and that made me nervous. For the public transportation option, Google Maps recommended the DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) bus 308, which was a fairly direct route on N. MacArthur Blvd, but it wasn't clear to me that I could even reach the bus stop on the hotel side.

After spending way too much time on the DART site, I found a more foolproof bus strategy, via the North Irving Transit Center (green marker), one of several DART hubs that allow transfers from route to route:

View Class and Hotel in a larger map

I could catch the 301 bus right outside my hotel, take it to the North Irving Transit Center, where I could transfer to the 310 bus that stopped at West Royal Lane and Sierra, which was then a simple walk to the building where the class took place.

Moreover, the 310 bus also serviced the North Remote Parking area of the Dallas Fort Worth airport. That clinched it. When my trip began on Tuesday, I got to LaGuardia Airport by the standard method (the uptown N train connecting with the M60 bus in Queens for a $2.00 fare), and when I arrived at DFW, I took the free shuttle to the North Remote Parking area, and I was ready for the 310 bus with my three dollars in singles to purchase a DART Day Pass:

I took the 310 from the airport directly to the class site to set up my stuff on the machines. Then I hopped on the 310 again, transferred to the 301 at the North Irving Transit Center, and checked into my hotel. At that point, I knew the two lines I needed: In the mornings I bought a Day Pass and took the eastbound 301 and westbound 310, reversing the trip in the evening.

I found the buses rather underutilized — at least the ones I took. I don't think I was ever in a bus that was more than half full. They don't run very frequently: Generally about every 30 minutes during rush hour, and every hour otherwise. Most single trips on the DART cost $1.50 (less than the New York City rate of $2.00) but there's no free transfer between buses. That's where the $3.00 day pass comes in handy.

The buses indicate the next stop with an LED display, apparently triggered by GPS. It's roughly accurate, and only once did the bus go by my stop without alerting me it was coming up. Many of the bus stops are just poles stuck in the grass, so you really need some sense of what direction you're going so you know which side of the street to wait on.

The only time I really got into trouble was one evening when I took the 428 into Dallas to have dinner at a Red Lobster, and then couldn't figure out how to get back. I probably should have realized I was entering a confusing bus zone when the map contained a "helpful" insert for my destination that looked like this:

On the last day of class, one of the developers attending the class offered to drive me back to my hotel, and I could see for the first time the overpass I would have navigated if I had walked between the hotel and class. The overpass wasn't quite as accomodating to pedestrians as a New York City bridge, but I really could have walked between hotel and class had I been willing to tramp over beautifully manicured lawns and not minded cars buzzing close by.

As my Saturday departure date approached, it slowly dawned on me that the 310 bus I had taken from DFW does not run on weekends. Fortunately the only other bus to the airport (the 408) does not have that shocking deficiency and it connects with the westbound 301. The morning of my flight, the 301 was a little late, and I missed the 408 and had to wait 45 minutes for the next one, reinforcing the two rules of using public transportation:

When I arrived at LaGuardia, I caught the M60 bus and the N train back to my apartment.

Total non-flight transportation costs for the whole trip: $19.00.

Exploring the apparently obscure Dallas mass-transit system: Priceless.