Sim-plicity: I am a San Francisco bus driver

Christopher Livingston at

Having retired from world-saving heroics, Christopher Livingston is living the simple life in video games by playing a series of down-to-earth simulations. This week he becomes a bus driver in a simulated San Francisco, which somehow takes even longer than waiting for a bus to arrive in the actual San Francisco.

Pop quiz, hotshot! There's no bomb on a bus. (Isn't that a relief? A bomb on a bus would be terrifying and require some heroic actions by cop who presumably knows the rules but chooses not to play by them, and you're not a cop, you're a bus driver.) However, it is rainy and humid, so the windows of the bus are streaked with water and completely fogged up. You need to embark on your route but you can't see through your windshield. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?

However you answered, you're wrong! You're not even on the bus yet. You're not even on your way to work. You haven't even left your apartment! So it goes in Bus & Cable Car Simulator: San Francisco, a simulation that is... how shall I put this? Not. Messing. Around.

The simulation starts me off at my apartment, a tiny studio in San Francisco. Parked outside is my pickup truck, so after spending a few moments enjoying my dingy bachelor pad (the lights in the bathroom can be turned on and off!), I climb in and hit the gas, peeling out into traffic. Except I'm not peeling out into traffic, I'm not going anywhere, because nothing is happening. Ah-ha! I need to start the truck first. I turn on the engine, hit the gas, and peel out into traffic, except, again, I don't. The parking brake! Of course. I disengage the brake. Now can I peel out into traffic? Nope. There is still a distinct lack of traffic-peeling-out-into occurring. Shift the truck into drive! Okay, NOW CAN I PLEASE ACTUALLY DRIVE? I can, and do.

A place like this will run you about $2,800 a month. Not pictured: your two roommates. Ah, San Francisco!

A few moments later I arrive at the bus depot, except I don't, because the depot is not, as you might expect, conveniently located a couple blocks away from my apartment, but instead halfway across the entire city of San Francisco, a trip that takes a good twenty minutes. This is not some rough approximation of San Francisco: this is San Francisco. It's not beautifully recreated, as the graphics in this sim are not at all good, but it is definitely meticulously recreated. They didn't leave out any streets or hills or neighborhoods to make it all fit, though they did leave out quite a bit of physics. Bumping into other cars at low speeds sends my truck flipping and rolling, leaving me wedged between other vehicles, lampposts, and buildings.

This is the wrong way to get on a bus. The right way involves more shoving.

At last, I reach the bus depot and find an office containing my supervisor, who gives me a selection of dozens of bus routes to choose from. It's obviously tempting to pick one that crosses the Golden Gate Bridge or some other picturesque location, but I consider the fact that it's taken me a half-hour to even get to work and decide to start small. I pick a short route from 10th & Mission to Townsend Street, which promises to be a quick seventeen minute journey. We can laugh about that prediction later.

For now, it's time to get on the bus. First, I have to pry open the outer door of the bus, slowly, bit by bit, then enter the bus and sit in the driver's seat. Next: turn on electrical power to the bus. Then, start the engine. Then, wait for enough air pressure to build up in the system to actually operate the bus, which takes a couple minutes. Then, I turn off the parking brake, put the bus into gear, and hit the gas. Hey, that wasn't so hard!

Except, I'm faced with the issue I mentioned at the start of the column: It's raining and humid, so I can't see through my windshield. Windshield wipers, obviously, solve the water issue, but what about the fogged interior of the windshield? Well, there's a window defogger on the bus. To repeat: there is a button you can press to defog the windows. In fact, there are roughly a million little toys to play with. I can slide open my driver's side window for added ventilation. I can turn on the light over my seat, or turn on the lights in just the passenger area. I can open the front and rear doors independently, and I can lower and raise the bus to allow easier access for passengers. If you've ever wanted to drive a vehicle with two different kinds of brakes, you're out of luck: this bus has three.

Two things about all these controls, these fiddly little details, the immense amount of things you can do with your bus. First, they're all mapped to the keyboard completely intuitively if you happen to be a psychic multi-tentacled alien squid. To kneel the bus, you press K, but to lift the bus, you press F4. The blinkers are the comma and period keys, but the hazard lights are the G key. To open the driver window, press F2, and the air vents is the Insert key. You use W-A-S-D to walk around, but have to use the arrow keys to drive, which when combined with using the mouse to look around, makes driving an awkward chore, both hands crammed to the right side of the keyboard.

Got all that? Good.

The second thing about all the controls, and all the business you have to do just to simply prepare to drive the bus around is OH MY GOD THIS IS SO AWESOME. This is exactly what all simulations should be. Forgive my amazement at all this: I know flight simulators and submarine simulators and space shuttle simulators have this level of detail, but this is a bus simulator. I was expecting, like, to just drive a bus around until I got bored. But I love this.

Okay! As you may have noticed, I'm like 93% of the way through this column and I have yet to actually, you know, drive the bus or pick up a passenger. This is the longest it's ever taken to get to work in a video game since the tram ride in Half-Life. But I'm ready! I hit the gas, head up the street, make my first turn, and immediately become wedged against a lamppost. I can't reverse out of it, I can't power through it, I'm just jammed in there. Even the reset position key doesn't do anything. I'm stuck and I'm causing a traffic jam.

I do what I would do if I were a real bus driver in this situation: I get out of the bus and run away as fast as I can. After sprinting around in a panic for a while, I eventually return to the bus depot and ask my supervisor for the same route again. I give him full credit for not firing me or even changing his expression as he realizes I've left an expensive bus stranded and blocking traffic, but the guy is a bus supervisor in San Francisco, I'm sure he's seen a lot worse. I go through the thirty-seven wonderful steps to get the new bus moving (not sarcasm, I love each and every one of the steps), and I proceed oh-so-carefully to the first stop on the route. A single person is waiting at the stop, so I pull over, apply the brake, open the door, and... the guy doesn't get on the bus. He just stands there, staring straight ahead.

Dude, it's an empty bus in San Francisco! Who cares where it's going, just get in!

I honk a couple times. I open and close the doors. I lower the bus hydraulically to street level, hoping to entice him. Nothing. I just want to give him a ride and he's acting like I'm trying to sell him The Street Sheet. (San Francisco joke!) Finally, I resort to the unthinkable: I open the 40 page PDF manual that came with the game. On page 28, I find my answer: I need to use the on-board bus computer to type in the route and line of the bus so it's broadcast on the display sign. After all, how else will anyone know what bus I am driving and where it's going? I punch in the route number on the computer and the guy climbs on. "Hello, driver!" he says brightly as he boards and takes a seat. Awesome.

I drive on to the next stop. More people are waiting. A woman gets on. "I would like a ticket," she says. Huh! I wasn't prepared for this eventuality, either. There are tickets? I consult the manual again and discover I have to sell her a ticket using the cash register to my right. Eeeeee! I have a little cash register. I also have a little list of what each ticket costs, depending on the passenger (adult, youth, senior, disabled, etc.) and I have to punch in the amount. Oh my gosh. I am in sim heaven.

It even makes little noises like the real thing. I LOVE YOU TINY CASH REGISTER

I continue along my route, happily working my little cash register, letting people on and off, obeying the traffic lights, arriving at most stops safely, though occasionally there are a few little snags. At one point, running a little late due to traffic, I hit the gas too hard, clip another car, and my bus barrel rolls through the air. (I'm amused to hear one of the passengers push the stop request bell while we're skidding upside down.) At another point, I take a corner too wide, collide with another bus, and wind up on my side.

The smaller, shorter bus rolls over in submission to the larger, alpha bus.

Still, I manage to complete the route, and even do the return trip on time with nary an incident. For me, that's a success, and for a bus in San Francisco, that's a freakin' miracle.

Conclusion: THIS. This is exactly what I want from a simulation: to completely and utterly embrace the fact that it's a simulation. To give me little simulated activities that support the main simulated activity, like charging passengers the correct amount with a little electronic cash register along my bus route. To face an issue, like rain or fogged windows, and solve them using windshield wipers and air vents. Details. Minutiae. Little simulated problems I can solve with little simulated solutions.

Oh, and that window defogger I love so much? I took some video of it. Yeah. It's sick, yo.