Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

In theory, riding a bus is a pretty simple process: you wait at a stop until one arrives. You get on and pay. You ride, and when it’s time, you pull the cord and get off.

With SEPTA, it really is that easy…some of the time. Other times, it’s not always totally self-explanatory, whether you’re a visitor who’s here for a few days or a local who’s ridden Philly public transit hundreds of times.

SEPTA’s bus system is large, and sees heavy use relative to the system’s other transportation options. The transit authority has a fleet of about 1,400 vehicles, which travel along 125 routes that carry nearly half SEPTA’s total ridership (the stat was 49% in 2019, the most recent data available).

Unlike trains or subways, of course, buses run on the street next to regular car traffic.

That means they’re susceptible to traffic jams, detours for utility work, and slowdowns because of inclement weather, among other snarl factors. These things can add up to make it feel like on-time buses following regular routes are more like an exception than the rule.

What do you do when there’s a hiccup? We put together this comprehensive guide to taking the bus around Philadelphia, with everything from what to do if a bus isn’t showing up to the ways you can pay for your ride.

Finding your stop and figuring out when the bus will come

SEPTA buses don’t have a universal frequency pattern — it all depends on the route, the time of day, and whether it’s a weekday or the weekend — so it’s important to have an idea of the schedule before you go, unless you want to wait at a bus stop indefinitely. You can find SEPTA’s regular bus schedules on its website and their app, or you can look them up using a third-party app (more on that soon).

SEPTA bus stops are always marked with a sign, usually right near the corner of a street. The sign should have the number of the route, along with the name of its final destination.

Make sure you’re getting on the bus going the right direction, especially if you’re boarding on a two-way street. If you’re using a smartphone app, it should indicate the general direction of the bus next to the route number — and the same thing should be written on the sign you’re waiting at and on the bus itself.

To track the bus in real time

At a few dozen stops around Philly — mostly in Center City and University City — you might find some fancy displays with real-time tracking that make it super easy to figure out when the next bus is supposed to come. Most stops don’t have these.

For everywhere else, a transportation app will (likely) do the trick. Some crowdsourced suggestions: Google Maps, Transit, Moovit, Apple Maps, the SEPTA app itself.

The app you choose mostly depends on your preference for how things are arranged, along with the type of information you want to get from it.

The Transit app, for example, integrates information from other users to guesstimate how on-time certain routes usually are, and uses that info to give adjusted time estimates. Google Maps can offer a look into how crowded a bus usually is at a given time of day, or what the temperature is like on board.

The SEPTA app allows you to save favorite routes and quickly pull up real-time arrival info for those, but it’s not the best for figuring out how to get from point A to point B if you don’t already know which bus line(s) you should take or where you need to get off. That’s in contrast to many of the third-party apps, which will show you possible routes if you type in a destination address.

Pro tip, though: Predictions and real-time tracking aren’t always accurate down to the minute, and the reality of traffic means a bus could start running late or early at any moment. So try to get to a bus stop a few minutes early, if you can.

What if the bus isn’t showing?!?!?

You might run into an issue where a scheduled bus just isn’t showing up.

In that case, you should probably start by checking the route’s service alerts (available on the SEPTA app/website, and generally also pushed to third-party platforms as well). Sometimes operator shortages can cause specific buses to get canceled.

You might also want to check if there’s a detour and you need to board elsewhere. More on that in the next section.

If none of these tips work… SEPTA customer service probably has the best answers, at least from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends. Call 215-580-7800 or tweet at @SEPTA_SOCIAL.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Dealing with detours

SEPTA buses deal with around “several thousand” detours in the city each year, according to Mike D’Agostino, the director of surface transportation.

For the vast majority, he said, SEPTA posts physical signs at bus stops indicating the length of the detour and where riders should board the bus instead.

If the signs aren’t there, D’Agostino suggested it could be because they’ve been torn down, the detour is only going to last an hour or two, there’s a moving protest that wasn’t planned, there’s snow and plowing is going to continue changing routes, or SEPTA didn’t get notice soon enough and is rushing to get signage up.

What if you want to check for detours before you head out so you can plan an alternate route? It’s not always easy, but there’s a few possible approaches.

How to find out if there’s a detour

The most accurate and up-to-date information on detours is on the SEPTA app and real-time system status page, said Chris Valentín, chief officer of bus operations.

If you download the SEPTA app to your phone, you can opt into push notifications for detours and other alerts relevant to your most-used routes. To do that, search for the route status under the “Alerts” section and choose the option to subscribe.

A note for anyone using a third-party app: SEPTA’s detour messages get pushed through sometimes, but they’re not necessarily complete or accurate.

If you prefer to talk to a live person to figure out the detour situation, you can call customer service (215-580-7800). You can also tweet @SEPTA_SOCIAL, monitored during the hours mentioned above.

Buses with detours anywhere along their route should have a “BUS DETOURED” message flashing across the bus’s outer display screen. If you get onto a bus with this message, you can tell the driver where you’re getting off and ask if you’ll be affected on the way back, Valentín said.

How to read detour messages

The explanations of detours on the SEPTA app are far from intuitive. That’s because they’re the same messages SEPTA drivers see, according to Valentín, so they’re essentially a “guide for the operator.”

You might see abbreviations like “NB” and “SB” (northbound and southbound), “L” and “R” (left and right), and “RR” or “Reg Rte” (regular route). You might also see these terms spelled out.

If you see one of these messages about your route, it’s probably best to interpret them with a map in hand to visualize which way the bus will be driving and whether you’ll be using the affected part of the route. If you’re not great with maps, calling customer service is a good bet, Valentín said.

Where you can get on or off if your stop is detoured

When buses are on diversion, i.e. not on their regular route, they’re supposed to stop at the replacement stops that correspond with their typical stops. They’re also supposed to let riders off at any intersections that have other transit stops, or “major intersections” where it’s safe to do so, according to Valentín, SEPTA’s chief bus operations officer.

Buses are also supposed to be on the lookout for potential riders when they’re on diversion.

SEPTA Director of Surface Transportation D’Agostino gave an example. If a bus that usually stops at 8th and Susquehanna ends up detouring via 6th Street, there would be a sign at 8th and Susquehanna directing riders two blocks over, and the bus driver would know to be on the lookout for riders at 6th and Susquehanna.

Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Paying for the bus

Buses accept two forms of payment: cash or SEPTA Key. (Sorry, no credit cards.) Kids under 12 can ride for free with a paying adult.

If you opt for the cash option, you’ll have to pay a flat $2.50 per person on every bus you ride.

A SEPTA Key card costs $4.95 up front, but after that you can save some money. Using it for the bus means each trip costs just $2. That fare comes with free transfer to another bus (or trolley or subway) within two hours. A second transfer is $1, as long as it’s within the two-hour timeframe that starts with the initial trip.

Riders with disabilities can apply for a reduced fare card to get half-priced fares, and senior citizens (anyone 65+) can apply for a card that will give them free rides throughout the SEPTA system.

Getting and refilling a SEPTA Key

Important to know: You can’t buy or refill a SEPTA Key on the bus itself — or at most bus stops.

You can get or reload a Key card at any of the following:

  • A transit or regional rail sales office
  • A fare kiosk (located at all Broad Street Line and Market Frankford Line stations, some bus loops, and 1234 Market St., the SEPTA HQ)
  • An external retailer

If you get frustrated while navigating the Key kiosks, know that you’re not alone, and that they’re actually much improved from when they first rolled out.

Once you have a SEPTA Key, you can refill your travel wallet (or buy a flat-rate daily/weekly/monthly pass if that makes sense for your situation) by:

  • Using the SEPTA smartphone app
  • Using the SEPTA Key website
  • By phone with SEPTA Key customer service at 1-855-567-3782
  • Anywhere you can buy a SEPTA Key

Registering the Key after you buy it will allow you to apply the $4.95 you paid for it toward future SEPTA rides.

Getting off the bus

This part is definitely pretty simple. When the bus is approaching your destination, pull one of the yellow cords by the window, or push one of the red “STOP” squares on the poles by the back door.

Tip: If you’re waiting for your stop by the back door, you might have to ask the driver to open it for you once the bus is there.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...