A Bus Named Desire

Daniel Brooks

In days of yore, taking a bus in Moscow was no picnic. Only those who rode the bus all the time understood the ins and outs. Veterans of the bus service were a special breed who knew the routes of Moscow’s buses, trolleys, and streetcars by heart. They could go across town for a pittance and in the case of retired Russians, for free. They knew exactly where to go without a map. If asked for directions, every route could be named and a debate about the best option discussed at length. The knowledge was in their heads. As is often true in Russia, the directions were not always clear. You had to know in advance, or ask questions all the time, to get information about public transport above ground.

Until about three or four years ago, many of the buses and trams in Moscow were grimy and leaned to one side. Some were connected to overhead power lines. Often, the connections to the power lines would disconnect, causing everything in the bus lane to come to a halt. A long line of buses would line up in a traffic jam behind the one that was stuck. The bus passengers who hung around, waiting for the bus to be fixed, would look out of the window or stand outside smoking. Lacking smart phones, many people read books and newspapers. A bus driver would go outside in the freezing cold, driving snow, wind, rain, sleet or blazing sun and use a long rope to connect the trolleybus to the overhead power lines. It took a long time. The driver was dressed for driving a bus, often without a hat or even a scarf in the cold winter months.  Instead of gloves, the bus drivers often had standard issue canvas mittens. These were drivers with backbones of steel. A small crowd might gather and provide emotional support or just loiter. Only one person could man the rope. It came down to driver versus power line.  Eventually, the bus would be fixed and slowly, the crowded buses and trams would slowly trundle off. Later on, it would happen again at another place and another time.

At first, when the new bus lanes opened up in Moscow, I was peeved. It was wrong, setting aside road space for buses and taxis instead of cars such as mine. Gradually, I realized the buses were often moving faster than the cars in their own special lanes. For the first time in decades, drivers began thinking about going somewhere without using a car. At about the same time, new buses, trams and trolley buses showed up and the old ones underwent repair. The buses almost uniformly became horizontal. For many years now, payment for a bus can be made using a special card, just like in London and other European cities, called a Troika. At my apartment on Leningradsky Prospekt, buses multiplied like mosquitoes in a swamp during the summer. They began to trundle by every five minutes or so.  Whenever I want to have an exciting time at the nearest shopping center, I can hop on any number of buses that stop outside my apartment building. Going downtown to Red Square on public transport is a piece of cake. It can even be enjoyable, ambling down the road like sailors in a sea of immobile car traffic.

Until the recent football championships, the bus stops had little information about what buses were coming and where they were going. The bus maps were confusing, involving a lot of colored lines and small print. The bus stations mostly lacked route maps. To get information, cadres of retiree bus users could be called upon. Using only their memories, and without looking at a phone, they could explain what bus to take right off the bat. Often the advice was incorrect, taking you to the wrong place, where more retirees could be found. Once you took the wrong bus, other retirees could direct you onto the correct one.

Then came clarity. An app recently became available in Moscow called Yandex Transport. It not only shows what route to take and when your bus will arrive, it shows where your bus is located before it comes to your bus stop on your device. As you stand waiting for the bus, you can stare at your phone with a purpose other than admiring such social media postings as jokes, fabulous accomplishments, ads for new devices, videos of the amazing deeds of small children and pictures of unconsumed food. There is no need to talk to any retirees at all or anyone else for that matter. The app shows all the buses around you, proceeding up and down the map on your phone like a slow moving, old fashioned video game. As you locate a bus on your phone, you can look up and see the same bus in real time as a physical presence, visible without any app at all. I enjoy watching all the buses go up and down Tverskaya Street as I ride the bus. The only thing missing is a bus symbol becoming a round, colored object that opens its toothless jaws and consumes another one.

Nowadays, most bus stops have bus shelters with benches, sometimes occupied for long periods of time by men with scruffy beards and shopping carts containing their worldly belongings. While looking at your phone, it’s possible to stand in the bus shelter, protected from the elements. This is good for your phone.

The retirees are still on the bus in force. The ladies often wear berets and mostly look similar to one another and the men prefer overcoats purchased many years ago and often have impressive eyebrows. Their knowledge of the bus routes is in their brains. Some of them can be seen reading newspapers, as if they haven’t realized that print media has mostly gone by the wayside. The next generation won’t know. Memorizing bus routes is about to become an extinct skill, like penmanship and using a map.

The bus cadres remain alert. Yesterday I took a bus and some guy was travelling without a smart phone. He asked the bus driver for directions by shouting into the bus from the sidewalk, before getting on the bus. The retirees had the chance to show what they were made of.  Several spoke up at once, giving bus route advice mostly to each other, since the guy outside couldn’t hear a thing. They contradicted one another. I think the retirees know their glory days on the bus are about to fade. There will soon be no need for their knowledge. Someday, it will be a thing of the past, like typewriters and fax machines.

Payment for a bus ride is now done on an honor system. You hop on your bus, using any door, just like in Holland or Germany and pay without going through a turnstile. If you don’t pay, the fine is 1000 Rubles. Not much. The fines need to go way up. I always pay, making sure everyone sees me as I swipe my bus pass. As a foreigner I would not want to let down our side.

These days the buses I use are brightly lit and they smell great. Everything is spic and span. An overhead screen shows the next stop and it’s announced loudly by a recorded voice. The buses rarely tilt to one side and or break down. They are everywhere. While the Russia economy might not be growing impressively, Moscow’s buses are making great strides towards a well-organized mass transit future. Thanks to my transport app, I’m on the forefront of bus travel. Now, all I need is somewhere to go.


Daniel Brooks Copyright 27 October 2018