There have been a few questions/comments about buses recently. As it was a particularly damp weekend, and I had a pile of ironing to do, I hope you don't mind but I thought it might be useful to write up a locals guide to using the buses.
Most visitors to London are happy to contemplate using the underground but I think many are a bit wary of using the buses. This is a real pity because the London bus network is excellent and when used in conjunction with the tube will really speed you around the city. It will also provide a real opportunity to travel like a Londoner :-)!
The following is based on my experience of using a bus stop at South Kensington every morning where I am able to watch the confused public transport travelling tourist in their natural habitat...........
I think it covers everything..........?
Each bus stop will list all the buses that stop there with a chart showing onward destinations for each bus and an approximate time table. Approximate in that it doesn't give exact times but does provide intervals eg every 5-8 minutes.
Each bus stop has a round red sign on top with a letter to help you identify that bus stop on tfl maps etc. They also now have a small square sign just above the timetable with a 5digit number. If you text this number to the number provided or enter it into the bus countdown section on the tfl website on your smartphone it will provide you with details of when the next buses are due at that stop. ( I will get to countdown details later)
Many bus stops in the centre of town also have shelters with bench seating.
These will have more detailed maps of all the stops in the local area and destinations you can reach. As usual these maps are easier to use than explain!
Identify where you want to go from the list of possible destinations. It will show the number of the buses that goes there and from which bus stop.
The map is similar to a tube map with different colours representing each route. A key is provided. At the centre of the spider of lines there is a small map showing the letters and locations of local stops. Use this to find the stop you need to get use for your journey.
On most shelters there are two maps, one for day buses and one for night buses.
The night bus map has a blue background to help people tell the difference. This fails miserably and I regularly have to tell people they are looking at the wrong map. All night bus numbers start with an N. So if the map you are looking at is telling you to get an N bus and it isn't after midnight you are looking at the wrong one!
(Night buses are a rite of passage for young Londoners. Definitely the sign of a good night out if you end up on a night bus! They all start from Trafalgar Square which is therefore pretty lively at 2am on the weekend! If you find yourself there, no matter how much you want to and how good they smell DO NOT buy a burger. You have been warned!)
Bus "Countdown" information
Many bus shelters now have a countdown indicator board which, as the name suggests, counts down the arrival of the buses so you will know how long you will have to wait. These are usually pretty accurate, traffic allowing. In my experience they are less reliable at the start of a route because they rely on the driver to leave on time and turn on their side of the system. This means that buses can occasionally appear and disappear from the board which can be a little annoying but nothing to worry about. The system works with gps so doesn't take into account traffic delays etc. So 3mins can turn into a 6min wait. But it can't be helped. When a bus is nearly there it will say "due ". For the same traffic reason a bus can be "due " for a couple of minutes which can be annoying. ( My south ken bus stop has this problem and one morning a commuter started muttering about the "due" status. Momentary panic ensued amongst other passengers that we were experiencing an antisemitic rant! )