Saturday, July 4, 2009
A Sad Dog This Greyhound
Recently I traveled to Hilton Head, South Carolina, via Greyhound bus. A friend of mine who had been abroad for the past two years was vacationing with family in the Palmetto state. I was both broke and eager to see the South, so Greyhound seemed like a wonderful idea, despite the twenty hour trip time.
Greyhound is a critical part of our national transportation system; not only does it serve those who cannot afford to travel via rail or air, it provides access to rural areas not served by the same. Thus it is a national shame that it's such a terrible way to travel.
I suppose the first indication of the problematic trip to come was the four scheduled transfers I would have to make; every time one has to change vehicles there is an opportunity for something wrong to happen. Thing is, the trip actually had at least seven changes between Philadelphia and Beaufort. While the trip down was without incident coming back a bus driver not only placed an unscheduled pit stop, but his break took four times as long as he mandated us to have (he said, “be back in five” but he took twenty, minutes). This meant that we were forty five minutes late for our 3 AM connecting bus to DC. Greyhound, which was normally pretty scrupulous about having an extra bus to accommodate excess passengers, did not have any buses ready to take the entire bus full of people traveling north and we waited until six in the morning before we caught the next transfer. Miscommunication and lack of information were endemic on the return trip, drivers not sure of connections, ticket agents giving information contrary to drivers’ understandings, etc.
Transportation is as much about information as it is about reliability, and Greyhound failed in both regards.
What was even more ironic was how little of the US I actually got to see. While I had not made it out west to the grand deserts, or long plains of Kansas and Nevada, I had assumed that the difference between the South Carolina and Delaware would be more pronounced. Good Magazine recently profiled the loss of distinctive highway rest-stops across the country, shuttering due to shrinking state budgets and ballooning McDonald’s concessions dotting interchanges and the like. However its not just a matter of unique architecture. It’s the entire roadway, the landscape of the system. While states have begun to build “context sensitive” roadways — highways and interstates that are more sensitive to the topography and local context — our national highways are still anonymous and say little about where we are driving. I mean any state with such towns as Coosawatchie should celebrate its local heritage along the highways in more ways than just signage.
It's this anonymity, lack of reliability and misinformation that drives most Greyhound customers crazy. I did not see one person happy to be traveling by Greyhound. It wasn’t just that the drivers were forced to lecture us about good behavior at the start of each trip (sad not simply because of the resigned and exasperated tone with which they gave that speech but that it was necessary at all). Rather people were obsessed with people cutting in line and the manners of the people around them; with so much out of their control people looked for some way to exert control of their environment. The only point of humanity during the whole trip was when the bus driver woke us up to announce that Michael Jackson was dead.
Greg suggested in one conversation that BoltBus, a subsidiary of Greyhound known for catering to college students and urban professionals, is proof that Greyhound discriminates against the poor (i.e., if BoltBus can run on time, with clean buses and friendly customer service, why can't Greyhound do that for the rest of the system?)
While I suspect that there are matters of scale that wouldn’t translate, the criticism at the heart of this is right. However this is not a matter of one single carrier. In their recommendations for the next transportation authorization bill, “The Route to Reform,” Transportation for America calls for a national transportation system “that allows for seamless travel using multiple modes, vehicles, or transportation providers.” Traveling from a big city in Pennsylvania to a small town in South Carolina should be easy and reliable (and multi-modal) for people of all income levels.