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Bus Travel: A Thing of the Past ... and Future?

Scott Vogel

The strangers you meet on planes, trains and cruise ships can all be interesting, but for sheer oddball entertainment value you can't beat the folks who take the bus. Conspiracy theorists, get rich quick schemers, people who swear by the Zodiac -- there's really no limit to the wackiness you can be treated to, and all you need is the capacity to nod in appropriate places for hours on end.

There's something about bus travel that encourages this sort of candor, and I think I know what it is: everyone on the bus is acutely aware that everyone else on the bus can't afford any better form of transportation, so putting on airs is simply out of the question. And from there it's just a short mental leap to taking your teeth out in front of a total stranger.

The point to this meditation, and I do have one, is a study just released by DePaul University: "The Return of the Intercity Bus: The Decline and Recovery of Scheduled Service to American Cities, 1960-2007." [PDF] With a title like that, you might think you're in for something excruciatingly boring, and there's some of that, but -- rather like the cross-country bus ride itself -- the report is full of unexpected surprises too.

We learn, for instance, that bus travel was in a state of near destitution -- with precipitous decreases in ridership -- until approximately 18 months ago, when high gas prices and a few enterprising new bus companies combined to produce a situation in which, miraculously, industry growth was somehow possible. And grow it has: Since February 2006, "the number of scheduled runs, or bus departures, across the nation has jumped about 13 percent," according to the study. Companies like Megabus based in Chicago and our own DC2NY are given much credit for this revival. All those newfangled amenities, from plusher seats to onboard movies to Wi-Fi access, are apparently attracting a new kind of bus rider.

And that ... saddens me. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy for the industry, which hasn't had any good news in a long time, and will now hopefully turn its attention to the seemingly impossible task of deodorizing bus station restrooms. spend some of its giddy energy on a few other projects, like cleaning up those bus station restrooms. But I worry that the woman hiding the cat in her purse and the man fleeing Child Protective Services in three states are going to get squeezed out, and that the days of their mind-bending monologues will soon be a thing of the past.

What do you think? Forget that, what's the craziest thing you've ever heard on a bus? That's what I really want to know. Tell me the story. And don't worry, no matter how long it is, I promise to nod my way 'til the very end.

By Scott Vogel |  December 28, 2007; 7:23 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Vogel
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When I was returning from Montreal by bus, I managed to doze off in my seat. A small bump on the highway woke me up, and, a bit disjointed, I leaned over the center aisle to see if I could see any highway signs to figure out where we were. The woman across the aisle started asking me if I'd sprayed anything. Still more asleep than awake, I didn't know what she was going on about. I thought maybe I bit of spittle had come out of my mouth when I woke up. (Yes, I know. TMI.) She went on and on about having had people put of the bus for spraying. To this day, I have no clue what she was going on about.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 28, 2007 9:15 AM

A couple of years ago on a bus from Florida to DC there was a man in the back of the bus loudly going on and on about his hatred for Vietnamese and all other Asians (because we were pretty much all the same?). He went so far as to say he would kill them all if he could. And there I was, half-Chinese with a Korean family across the aisle from me at the front of the bus. Luckily the other passengers on the bus helped get the man to shut up, but the bus driver pretty much ignored all this going on. I refused to ever take a Greyhound ever again. But I took a Vamoose recently and found it to be pleasant. Plus Rosslyn and Penn Station are much more convienent for me than Union Station and the Port Authority.

Posted by: va | December 28, 2007 11:06 AM

This goes back at least 35 years when my grandmother came to visit us in New York, taking the bus from Pittsburgh. Busha was probably in her 50s and the perfect Polish grandmother. Knowing my family's fondness for many of the traditional food that we could not find in Westchester County she packed a large cooler with all sorts of delicacies including at least 10 pounds (!) of fresh kielbasa sausage. Well, even though it was securely packaged and on ice the smell of garlic and other spices began to waft through the bus somewhere near Harrisburg. By the time they arrived in Philadelphia the passengers and driver were prepared to put her off the bus. If not for the local Greyhound supervisor, himself son of Polish immigrants, we would have needed to take a three hour roadtrip to get my grandmother. Needless to say, her future trips came without care baskets of food.

Posted by: AlwaysAnEagle | December 28, 2007 12:40 PM

wow, each one of these stories is fascinating, whether hilarious or heartbreaking. Thanks so much, guys, and keep'em coming!

Posted by: scottvogel | December 28, 2007 1:15 PM

On my way to Pittsburgh from Wilkes-Barre one friday. I had the distinct privledge of riding with a bunch of Job Corps guys and I think a few others. Since the route goes from Wilkes Barre to Harrisburg ( than a change) it stops in Hazelton and Pottsville on the way down. Since I work nights, I was trying to sleep, but forgot my ear plugs. These guys talked the whole way to Harrisburg about their adventures selling drugs, their favorite handguns, best ways to pass piss tests. One gentleman was telling a tale about trying to steal a car the night before, because he didn't want to take the bus. Needless to say I wasn't able to take a nap until I got on the next bus. A few months ago I took Amtrak from Denver to Albuqurque. The first part of the trip is by bus from Denver to Raton NM, where I picked up the Southwest Chief. The bus looked like a
Greyhound, but it was a different company, can't remember the name. Anyway on the first part of the trip two women were bickering the whole way. Not sure if they were relatives or a couple. After they got off I was treated to hearing a phone conversation, for about 45 minutes. Very interesting. The man was one of those very Zen types. He was urging whoever he was talking to, to just go outside in the rain and sit under a tree and just listen to the rain.

Posted by: rja112 | December 29, 2007 12:58 AM

Amtrak is subsidized by $60 per passenger by the federal government, yet Greyhound and the other bus companies get no hand outs. In fact they are the target of numberous taxes and fees and, if they earn a profit, owe a portion of that too. And yet, buses use far less fuel per passenger mile than Amtrak because Amtrak trains are much heavier than buses. If America ever got serious about energy conservation, we would pump money into developing a better bus system, not a better train system.

Posted by: Folger | December 30, 2007 8:31 AM

Folger, an interesting idea, but there are problems with it. One of the main problems with a LONG bus ride is the time spent on the bus. One is able to move only from your seat to the bathroom ( which is not usually a place anyone WANTS to visit.). At least on a train you can move a little bit more, visit the lounge car etc. Also if you move all the people that currently travel by train on the Northeast Corridor into buses you will almost have to have a separate bus lane along I95. Not to mention needing to double the size of some bus stations in the cities that have lots of people catching trains. But more energy efficient buses wouldn't hurt.

It would be nice if Amtrak wasn't subsidized. But if they priced tickets at the point that they wouldn't need to subsidize, it would be cost prohibitive for most consumers. For someone who's company is picking up the bill, it is a non-issue. For those that travel on their own dime: commuters, students, leisure travelers, cost is a major factor when considering transportation options. Time is also another important factor. A few years ago I took the train from Philly to Montreal. There is only one train per day. It took approx. 13 hours. We were at the border for over an hour ( took off one passenger who was visiting from England, but she didn't have her return plane ticket with her) In order for me to catch the train, I had to spend the evening before in Philly ( the train left around 5 AM) On the return trip, I had to spend another night in Philly before I could catch a bus home. But, the inconvience was sort of worth the low price I paid for the train ticket. But my next trip up to Montreal, I am going to fly. I would rather spend an extra 2 nights in Montreal, than in NYC or Philly.

Posted by: rja112 | December 31, 2007 1:44 AM

I took the bus home from southern Mexico in 1997. I'd spent all my travel money and I barely had enough for my tickets: one to get me to the border, the other to get me to Cleveland, Oh. The trip to the border was strangely normal. After crossing the border in McAllen, TX, the first stop was San Antonio. Two hours into the ride (it was somewhere between 10 p.m. and midnight), the madness began. A fleet of police cars approached and pulls the bus over. Cops get on, asking passengers for passports and ID and barking questions to confirm citizenship ("Who is the president of the United States?!?! Who was George Washington?!?!? -- with accents so thick, it sounded stereotypical. And yes, they also wore wide-brimmed hats.) They ordered everyone off the bus and sent the police dogs on. Barking ensues. And off come the cops with kilos and kilos of cocaine. I swore I was on an episode of COPS and expected cameramen to pop up from behind the bushes. I don't really remember what happened after that. Our luggage and belongings were searched and I think Greyhound sent a second bus to pick everyone up. Because of the delay, I missed my bus in every city after that and I vowed never to take the Greyhound again.

Posted by: Fay | January 2, 2008 12:52 AM

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