14 Public Bus Safety Tips From a Lifetime Expert

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Buses are un-glamorous. Slow. Inconvenient. But so darn easy and economical in comparison to most other modes of transit! Here are some bus safety tips and the (partly subconscious) things I do every day to avoid being targeted (especially as a demure sized minority female).

Public transit is a happy win-win for our wallet and the environment. The incentive to continue going car-free is there. The perk comes to a total savings of $1,500+ a year for my husband alone because his employer pre-pays for his bus fare! No pre-paid $1,500 voucher shouldn’t go to waste!

Now with that said, some city bus routes can be more dangerous than others and these are the things I tell my husband to do every day to make sure he returns home safely to me.

Lifetime “Experience”

There are buses that cross over less reputable neighborhoods. Our suburban-esque residence is separated from the rest of Seattle by a bad stretch of road called Aurora. It’s both locally & historically known for being the breeding ground for hookers, druggies and the cops that follow them. We ride that line almost every day.

It is not a fun ride.

There are people you see who are truly down in the dumps. The other day, I sat next to a woman whose angry, unstable conversation on the phone aired to the entire bus that she was likely going to lose custody of her children because she’s “using” again (I didn’t catch all of it, I was blasting heavy metal to drown it out). The snippets I did catch was when she shouted at the top of her lungs. It was really awkward to have everyone stare over with critical and/or pitiful gazes.

The main bus line that connects us to everything in Seattle is a state-of-the-art new bus system that is timed like clockwork for every arrival between 10 to 15 minutes. It sounds amazing (and it is a nicely implemented) but during mid-day, that bus line is a super smelly gem. Summer has hit and there is enough sweaty B.O. that makes me wonder how the drivers handle these work conditions.

Despite the new state-of-the-art buses, the Aurora line is known locally as “the ride on the ferry to Hades” thanks to the high number of vagrants and a cohort of very run-down people who ride that route.

I’ve lived in San Francisco a large portion of my life. San Francisco is a pedestrian and car-less paradise…as well as the hobo capital of the world, probably. I don’t have a sensitive stomach to public buses because I grew up around the ghetto. I don’t claim to know it all but eh, I don’t think I’m off by much.

Bus knife fight? Seen it.

Bus phone theft? Seen it.

Grown adults kicking in the bus door just because they couldn’t make it in time before the doors closed? Oh, yes.


Resting B— Face

Do you not have an RBF? Maybe cultivate a small one. If they smell friendliness or naivety then you might have yourself a problem – or at least a very awkward conversation that will end in you being asked to “spare a couple dollars” for a druggie or alcoholic for good measure. Happened to me a few times – not on the bus exactly but at the bus stops. Much less now that I started practicing my RBF. You have to be mindful of your surrounding at the bus stop just like on the bus.

I rather “spare” my dollars to the reading club at the public library, thank you very much.


Zen Mode

Is that man sitting 2 seats away from you screaming profanities to himself? Well, he’s actually not because you’re ignoring him. You are in zen mode. Your headphones are on (either pretending to listen or drowning out all else.)


No Eye Contact

If they don’t exist – there’s no need for eye contact. You see where I’m going with this? For the love of God, don’t make eye contact. I know it’s inhumane to ignore people but I was not born to save the world. I just need to get from point A to point B.


Do Not Wear Clothing with Logos

Do you work for a locally despised tech giant that is even-handedly pushing affordability out the window? Has your employer been accused of pushing those on the cusps of homelessness, into homelessness? Yeah, awkward.

Does your company make so much money that they can shower their lucky employees with corporate swag with their logo stamped on everything? The swag Jared gets is actually nicer than our own stuff.

On to my point: hide the logos. It’s going to be like putting a bull-eye on yourself. Stealth wealth is here to stay. If you want to go extreme, Jared keeps his hands folded over his chest sometimes during the entire bus ride because that’s where the logo on his shirt is.


Pretend You Don’t Speak English

This one works pretty well if you can keep a poker face and know another language. I did all the time when I was a high schooler taking community college classes on the bad side of San Francisco. A shirtless man once came up to me and asked me if he could borrow my cellphone to call his girlfriend. Yes, of course, random shirtless man in the street – of course, I’ll let you use my cellphone to call whoever you want.

I responded to in Mandarin “我不懂英文” – I don’t speak English. He didn’t believe me but I kept at it and fiend ignorance. Eventually, he slinked away.

Which brings me to the next point…

Hold on Tight to Your Phone

This is really my phone haha. It’s about 6 years old and as you can see: I was born drunk and clumsy. You can also see why no one is going to steal this baby! Woot woot!

Your smartphone is worth a pretty penny to desperadoes on their last dollar. If it’s an iPhone, you’re probably holding at least $500 in your hand. Imagine that. Just a stack of cash in your hand or next to your head – along with a lot of personal information and PayPal/credit card linked mobile accounts! It’s a goldmine.

I’m not sure why people are so freaking surprised when their phone gets jacked. Do not display an incredibly expensive gadget loosely in your hand or distracted on the bus! Logic!

Watch The Load You’re Carrying

OK if you’re carrying something big in a crowded bus and there’s already a disgruntled person near you – that might cause some trouble. I’ve seen this happen, but just once.

A man who looked to be some sort of mountaineering expert was carrying a huge load of camping and climbing gear. He swung around and naturally his bag went with him. It knocked the already disgruntled guy behind him who instantly took it as a chance to defend himself and instigated a fight. Mountain man didn’t back up or hold off, he was just surprised. There was some shoving back and forth. The man who instigated the fight was kicked off the bus on the next stop but mountain man stuck on, although not without looking completely embarrassed.

Mind Your Surroundings

I’m really bad at this because I’m team drown everything out. Don’t be like me. Mind your surroundings! There are 2 exits on a standard bus. There are sometimes 3 exits on a long bus. Sitting near the exits seems like a natural thing to do to feel safe but might not always the case because the perpetrator wants a quick and fast getaway themselves.  If it’s a crowded bus then watch those nearest to you.

A few years ago, a classmate of mine had her phone stolen. Two other high school aged guys just came up and swiped the phone from her hands. They immediately jumped up and OUT the bus window WHILE the bus was moving. I mean…wow the stupidity…this is what I mean by desperate people. They’re small time petty criminals in the making.


Do Not Leave Anything Under Your Seat (Thinking You’ll Remember It)

Uh, yeah, basically what I just said. It’s not a life-threatening thing but I’ve lost a good few umbrellas thinking I would remember them. One of the bags I lost had Kuromi printed on it and it was so cute…sad face

Photo of Me and Frugal Asian

Do Not Leave Wallets Exposed in an Unzipped Bag

2 months ago, I had my pretty neon pink handbag wide open and surprise, surprise my wallet went missing after I got off the crowded bus on Aurora. Needless to say, I was asking for it. I’ll admit to that. Goodbye wallet with my SS card, ID card and $250 in gift cards. Sigh.


Don’t Carry a Bright Pink Bag

Oh is this specific? My bag was also a bright neon pink. What in the world was I thinking…


The Bus Driver is Here to Help (Even If They Appear Standoff-ish)

They have to help you so don’t be shy. It’s their job and everything is tracked so you can give feedback anytime. There are unique bus ID numbers and each driver is clocked in at that bus, at that route, at that time. You don’t even need to know the bus ID number, just call the city operator with the number of the bus (like 45 or 3), direction and time. They can track it from there, easy peasy. I didn’t know this until 6 months ago, I wish I did before. More people should.

Honestly, public transportation workers are not going to win any service awards. In fact, most of them seem to hate their life. Especially the transit workers in San Francisco. I have never seen so much attitude and misery concentrated in an occupation before. Everyone has a chip on their shoulder. I would think it’s a pretty cushy government job!

Seattle public transit employees are friendlier. The drivers here even say hello when you step on and good-bye when getting off. If you move further North into the suburban around Seattle, the drivers start looking like Santa. Bearded and jolly…that retirement is around the corner. 😛


Carry Protection

Pepper spray is not a good idea. Someone on the bus I was on sprayed pepper spray (not sure at what or who) and everyone around in the crowded bus got a dose of it. Poor innocent bystanders. We had to evacuate. It’s potent stuff. I think a mini taser is better or at least a whistle.


Don’t Stand Out

I see some people sitting down on the bus and they use their hands to brush away invisible dirt. Yo, it’s the bus, you’re not wiping anything away. That seat has housed a million butts and it will house yours the same. Some people put newspapers down and sit on the newspaper instead. That just makes you seem like a total jerk. Are you too good to ride the bus? Are you too good to recycle that sheet of newspaper after you’re done?


Have Patience

Remember the zen thing? You’re still doing that!

Sometimes I see women with baby strollers…oh my…the extreme awkwardness that comes with trying to push a jumbo stroller filled with the screaming baby onto the bus using the handicap ramp with several other onlookers and bystanders waiting right behind and then blocking the main walkway  on the bus some more before the bus driver could come over and push up the seats to make room for the stroller…now do it all over again on the way off the bus.

Have patience. We plan to live car-free as long as we can before we conjure up a baby. Buses and babies do not mix. I would freak out if a stranger reached out to touch my baby (which has happened before and the look on the mom’s faces was a mixture of total horror and false politeness.) I don’t blame them. Don’t touch other people’s kids, man. Another tip should be if you don’t want any trouble to keep your hands to yourself.


Buddy System

This is pretty popular for new riders who have never really been on the bus alone. There is definitely safety in numbers.

Sorry to be lame but I do feel safer with my husband around to hold. He’s this 6-foot tall guy and that’s probably more threatening in contrast to something like me.

Mommy Bonus!

Miss Tarynkay’s ace-in-the-hole mommy & bus advice: if you have to ride the bus with a baby, put the baby in a sling. People aren’t as likely to get up in the baby’s face if the baby’s face is in your chest. Also, it’s much easier to maneuver without a stroller.

My friend has one of those baby slings and it was so expensive ($80 for fabric?) but she has used it for everything including transportation making it a frugal and wise choice.

It’s Not That Bad

It’s not that bad! 🙂 Or else I wouldn’t be a huge supporter for riding public transit! How many things in this life are win-wins? Bus safety and neighborhood concerns are largely dependent on geographic location but it’s always a frugal & convenient amenity to have around.

My bias (towards more dangerous neighborhoods) sampling is probably a lot worse than what you will experience. An overwhelmingly large portion of bus riders keep to themselves and nothing bad really happens even in the worst of it. I know these tips work because I’ve seen and been the guinea pig on occasional of what happens when we’re not watching out for our surroundings.



I dug down to think of the tips I use every day. Some brilliant readers out there want to contribute something?! I know y’all smart 🙂 I’ll add it to the post.


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39 thoughts on “14 Public Bus Safety Tips From a Lifetime Expert”

  • This is such a great post, Lily! It’s packed with helpful tips for public transit riders. I was literally holding my breath while reading about your experiences on the bus.

    I ride the Metro in DC every day. We’re fortunate to live in the better area of the city. But I have been on train rides in areas where I literally tried to be as invisible and emotionless as possible. Bad things do happen on the train. I hesitate to even wear a nice dress to work because I’m paranoid.

    Stay safe in Seattle! xoxo

    • In Dallas public transportation is non-existent. It’s awful, therefore I don’t take it. Actually, I don’t take it because it wouldn’t pick me up anywhere near my house or drop me off anywhere near work…soooo….

      But man do I wish we had public transportation.

    • Oh good it’s not just me. We both dress in rags on the bus. I wonder how many people on the bus are actually millionaires in disguise…

  • Yes!!! These are great!

    What I use the seedier end of any line, I’ll usually tuck my headphones away. There was a string of thefts of phones in the area, and they would target people with headphones since it was likely they had a smart phone. Especially if you have expensive ones…

    Avoiding eye contact and feigning deafness help in uncomfortable situations everywhere too. I, unfortunately, have a ‘come talk to me please’ face. I’ve spent so much time talking to strangers on planes, buses, parking lots, waiting for streetlights, line ups… My American friend always accuses me of being too Canadian 😛

  • I seriously love your writing… I look forward to your posts because I’m guaranteed a few good laughs and a smug grin or two throughout.

    This was not exception. I am such a country-bumpkin that I cannot relate beyond my few visits to larger cities, but I’m a total advocate of the RBF. I mean seriously, I either smile like an idiot or have a look to kill… no in between. With those options, I’ll go with RBF on public transit.

  • Ha! You ARE so gangster!!! I used taxis and public transportation in upstate NY for 5 months. I took the bus in Scottsdale, AZ for 6 months. I’ve also rode the bus to work and back (25 miles each way) each day in southern California for 4 months, from Long Beach to Orange County, via the Pacific Coast Highway, overlooking the ocean. Neither were switchblade territory but I think many of your tips are solid regardless of neighborhood. The patience thing is huge! I listened to music, podcasts, read, etc. I people-watched a lot and created imaginary stories about their lives. Would you believe one lady was an accountant by day and super villian by night? No? Yeah, me either. Point is, enjoy it if you can. I’ve had a car now (the first car I ever named) and I actually thank her everyday (out loud) for getting me and my daughter safely to wherever it is we’re going. I take care of her better than I ever had any other car and even made up a song about her. I’m grateful for my time on public transit because it made everyday with my Itsy-Bitsy Prius a gift.

  • Maybe SF is scarier than NY, but I just tell people no. (I’m a friendly 5’2″ white girl in a dress who buses to work each day from Harlem.)

    I refuse to fake anything, especially unfriendliness. I compliment people’s outfits on the bus, I thank the bus driver every day when swiping my metrocard, and I never reign in my bubbliness. I want the world to be a friendly place.

    Luckily, when someone is being inappropriate, saying no without JADE-ing (justifying, apologizing, defending, or explaining) works well.

    “No, I can’t give you anything.” “No, I don’t feel like making conversation right now.” ‘No, I don’t want to date you.” Friendly, but firm, then the headphones go back in. My experience has taught me that “no” shuts a conversation down much better than any excuse, because there is no specific argument to it. 99 out of 100 times I am left alone.

    The closest I’ve ever come to being assaulted in over a decade of city transport riding was by a methed up kid on the 2 train who responded to my, “No, I can’t give you anything” with “So you’ll just let me DIE!?!?” as he punched the train doors in frustration.

    People looked up from their phones. I kindly said “No, I can’t give you anything,” again. He moved on to the next guy, who fearfully gave him a dollar. Later on I passed him again as I went through the turnstile. He was crouching, counting hundreds of dollars.

    In over 3000 days of eventless transit trips, I’ve only felt in danger 2 or 3 times.

    Keeping your handbag close and closed, and not forgetting your stuff under the seat is great advice for the inexperienced bus rider. And yes, yes, yes, don’t be afraid to call the operator or police to report a problem!

    But I don’t want people who are inexperienced on the bus to read your post and think that they are in danger. Buses, even through bad neighborhoods, are generally a safe place, with cameras and witnesses. The police can get to you on a bus just as fast as they can get to you in a store. It’s a sad world if we think we have to travel with a personal metal cage around us just to be safe from one another. 🙁

    Kudos to you for taking the bus, Lily. The more “normal” people who take the bus, the more “normal” a place it becomes, which will make it a viable option for those who would otherwise be scared- reducing everything from traffic to air pollution to foreign oil dependency.
    Meow recently posted…Can Learning to Cook Make you a Million Dollars?

    • Holy cow jumping straight over the moon, Meow! Your comment was stuck in the spam box and thank goodness I checked it! That’s so long and INCREDIBLY helpful. I think SF and NYC are more similar than they are different. Seattle too.

      I’ve ridden the bus my entire life and I have said no before (it does work very well) and I’ve also just completely ignored them by pretending my headphones were on full blast. I don’t think I felt danger more than 2-3x either but I have seen more than once instance of violence (thankfully not at me or anyone I know.)

      “The more “normal” people who take the bus, the more “normal” a place it becomes, which will make it a viable option for those who would otherwise be scared- reducing everything from traffic to air pollution to foreign oil dependency.”
      YES-YES-YES. I mean EXACTLY. GIRL you are life!!! Right now, we’re just too dependent on cars (in the majority of places in America) that I don’t see a massive change, super sad.

  • This is a great list! I’m a fan of drowning out also and RBF. I didn’t live in the sketchiest place in SF, but there were definitely quite a few scary people who rode my bus–one woman was very schizophrenic and would say some violent things repeatedly. I definitely felt on edge, but that was one of the (thankfully) very rare occasions of actually sensing any danger.

    Thankfully no one has ever tried to take my stuff. The other day I saw a woman walking down the street with her backpack open and her laptop RIGHT THERE IN PLAIN SIGHT. A true recipe for disaster…

    Now I get to ride the transbay bus home, which feels much safer since it costs more to get on, and there are fewer stops!
    Jing recently posted…Buying Coffee Is Worth It

  • I concur about SF bus(Muni) drivers, they are rude for the most part and grumpy. They just want to drive their route without any distractions and call it a day. Good thing Seattle bus drivers seem friendlier.
    The most important thing is to have common sense when taking any type of public transit and all the tips you mentioned are just have a common sense especially a RBF. XD

  • In my state and actually in many others it is perfectly legal to carry a concealed handgun on public transportation as long as you get the training and have a permit. It is vastly more effective than a taser, which is a great device for making really big scary people angry at you. Both my wife and I got our training and permits together. The entire class almost were couples doing the training as a date night event. It isn’t legal in most northern cities but it is many places in the south.

    • Interesting tidbit Mike!!! I took one shooting range class (it was a date package from Groupon) and I was so surprised how much guns weigh when I held it. And the cost! The guns were $5,000 each!!!

      • Well, there are some big and expensive guns but for concealed carry there are many light and small and inexpensive handguns. When I carry I use a Taurus PT 738. It is very small, weighs 10 ounces, holds 7 rounds, and costs just under $200 US dollars. It is so small it will fit in my running fanny pack and so light I can distance run with it if I’m in a sketchy area. Of course to carry in most states that allow it you need a one day training course and range certification but that is kind of a fun experience anyway. I think a permit is about $50 for five years.

        • I forgot to add, Seattle does have concealed carry permits allowed but it appears that public transit vehicles and stations prohibit concealed carry so it is a moot point where you live anyway. Plus unless someone is very well trained, and I’ve been trained in hand gun marksmanship and defense by a licensed police academy, I would not recommend them carrying a concealed weapon. In the hands of an untrained person a handgun is a real hazard to everyone nearby.

        • Oh that IS silly! 2 days ago there was a fight that broke out at the bus stop I was at (the fight was over something like $10.) I think I felt more unsafe at bus stops than buses (but if I can’t bring anything on the bus I’m definitely not going to have one at the bus stop.)

  • Great tips! I will add- if you have to ride the bus with a baby, put the baby in a sling. People aren’t as likely to get up in the baby’s face if the baby’s face is in your chest. Also it’s much easier to manuever without a stroller.

    • Perfect Tarynkay!!! Thank you! I think I’ve seen that before – I wonder why not more people do it. I will add it to the post and credit you!

  • These were such great tips! I rode public transit in Seattle and loved how efficient it was. And your “我不懂英文” tip is GENIUS. Like I can’t believe I never thought to use this in more awkward life situations [like being awkwardly hit on, bad customer service, etc].

    And I’m sad for the loss of your cute umbrella- I lost one that also had the cute bunny on it. Why are Asian umbrellas so much cuter?
    Ying-Navigatingadulthood recently posted…How We Maintain A $280 Monthly Grocery Budget For 2 People In Boston

    • Lol I know right! I told my husband Western cute is Snoopy. Asian cute is Pikachu (plus like 100 more Pokemon just as cute). Pikachu is most definitely cuter than Snoopy!

  • Your posts are so funny. Look out for Lily with that taser. Ouch!

    Sounds like some pretty solid tips. Not much public transportation in NC so no tips to add.

    I remember the first time I went to Boston I rode the subway the whole time. I was trying to be friendly chatting people up and kept getting the cold shoulder. I was like what the heck is this crap. Then I started meeting all the crazy subway folks and was like oh okay guess I better pretend like I hate everyone and put my head down.
    Grant @ Life Prep Couple recently posted…Staying Fit While Traveling

    • Thanks Grant and Oh my GOD. You didn’t! Oh that’s embarrassing! You’re never suppose to talk to anyone! No one! I’m literally LMAO-ing hahahhaaha. Oh yes, RBF it and pretend you hate everything.

  • I love how you mentioned that you should carry protection just in case. I am very paranoid that somebody will hurt me while I ride a public bus. I will be sure to carry protection such as pepper spray like it was recommended; I want to be able to defend myself.
    easton memmott recently posted…State Museum of Pennsylvania

  • I like how you said that public transit is a happy win-win for our wallet and the environment. I was thinking of taking public transport to school this year. Thanks for the advice on public bud safety.

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