The speed of transit alone can be intimidating.Seattle has a great transit system. It has good coverage, reasonable prices, and runs more or less on time; it also scares the crap out of me.

Transit can frustrate normal people, adding autism adds anxiety to every part of the process. Let’s start with busses running late, or, even worse, early. It seems like busses up here have that Pacific Northwest mentality about schedules; five minutes late is on time. But they run even later, and sometimes early. Not knowing if you’ve missed your bus is frustrating. If you’re on the spectrum, such deviations from the expected are anxiety inducing. If I get to the stop exactly on time, uncertainty nags at me. “Did the bus come early? No, it’s just running late. But what if I did miss it? It’s never on time. But you’re the only one here; the bus picked everyone up already.” When the bus finally comes five minutes “on time”, I’m already a nervous mess.

If the bus and I arrive at the same time, then comes the next problem: knowing when to get off the bus. This is harder than it seems. For a while, my route home had me get off at the Russell Rd. stop. Unfortunately, there were three Russell Rd stops. So I look out the windows to see the stops. But this is Seattle; rain and fog, especially at night, can make seeing out of the bus impossible. Sometimes, you trust to luck and walk the extra block or three if you time it wrong. But again, there’s the extra anxiety from being autistic. Missing a bus stop weighs much more heavily because of how we think.

The routes themselves can be confusing. For example, routes 71-74 all seem to go to the same place. The only difference between routes 158 and 159 is the size of bus. But then 166 and 169 go to completely different towns. Get on the wrong bus without realizing, and you can be a river, two lakes, and many miles away from where you meant to be. Yet another source of anxiety

The last is personal, but I doubt I’m alone. Not knowing where I am really freaks me out. It has to do with my sense of direction. My mental map isn’t geographical. It’s more relational. I know specific paths to get to specific places. I may know how to get from A to B and from A to C, but B to C might be a total mystery, even if they’re only blocks apart. Take me outside my memorized paths and I can become profoundly lost. IF the streets are in a numbered grid, and IF I know the address of one of my known locations, I can maybe find my way, but I would be in a constant state of fight or flight until I reached someplace I knew.

And all of this doesn’t even touch on the sensory issues of transit.

So if I can’t drive in Seattle, and the transit system is so terrifying, how is it that I get around? With the help of my favorite piece of assistive technology: my smartphone. A smartphone takes most of the fear out of using transit.

1. Busses not on schedule: There’s a lovely app named One Bus Away that tells me what busses are late, what busses are early, and by how much. It updates every couple of minutes. If I get to a bus stop four minutes late, I’ll know if I’ve missed my bus before I even get there.

2. When to get off the bus: Every smartphone has GPS these days. One Bus Away also has GPS mapping, so I can use either it or the native maps app to see where I am and my upcoming bus stop. So not even Seattle’s wet and misty weather can keep me from seeing my next stop.

3. Confusing bus numbers: With Google Maps, I don’t need to know the busses themselves. Google Maps plots a route to my destination and I can take the busses it tells me.

4. Fear of not knowing where I am: Again, Google Maps and GPS make this a non-issue. I have my position on a map, and I can see the locations of all my regular destinations. If that isn’t enough, I can have Google plot a route to get me where I need to go. Always knowing where I am is a tremendous relief.

If I didn’t have a smartphone, I don’t think I could survive Seattle. It’s too big and confusing for me otherwise. But with my phone, I can navigate it like a pro. Such a very small thing, and yet it does so much for me. And I thought I didn’t rely on assistive technology. This is just one example of why I think everyone on the spectrum should have a smartphone.

Do you or someone in your life have trouble navigating big city transit or traffic? How do you manage?


  • Christian Francies says:

    I very much sympathize with this. Public transportation is terrifying for me; the fear is possible irrational, but it goes back to a childhood paranoia of being getting on the wrong bus and being whisked away to lord knows where before I’m even aware of it.

    I could not easily travel in a big city without my smartphone. It’s the only thing that makes it possible for me, and even then, it’s still a strain on my nerves as I second guess everything. But having a second guess is much better than no guesses at all I suppose.

  • Jester Queen says:

    Ohhhh my friend. A blog post shall follow.

  • Luna Lindsey says:

    I managed to avoid public transportation most of my life. Now and then I’ll take a bus to a major event downtown, but usually I’m with other people which really helps. For a couple of years, I took the 555 from Northgate to Bellevue, because it was one bus that dropped me off in the same block as my office. When we moved offices, I tried to do the two-bus transfer thing, but that left me standing at a stop on the side of a freeway for 20 minutes and I couldn’t handle the sound and rain, so I went back to driving.

    When I visited DC, I used the subway system with ease. The subway is easy to understand and on-time. It took me to all the places a tourist in DC wants to go. If I lived there, it might be different, because then I’d have to use busses to get to the smaller areas.

    Driving comes with its own frustrations, and I hate parking downtown or trying to navigate tricky situations with tons of traffic. I do manage it, and it seems to get a little easier over time.

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