What I Learned From Riding the Greyhound From San Francisco to New York

I have a tendency to procrastinate, so naturally I didn't even attempt to look for a plane ticket home until December 7. Upon seeing the price of a round trip ticket for the holidays (about $1,200), I had a mini-meltdown.
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WASHINGTON,DC -APRIL 27: Greyhound Bus station, on First St. NE due to be closed and the facilities moved into Union Station, on April 27, 2011 in Washington,DC. ( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan/For Washington Post)
WASHINGTON,DC -APRIL 27: Greyhound Bus station, on First St. NE due to be closed and the facilities moved into Union Station, on April 27, 2011 in Washington,DC. ( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan/For Washington Post)

Two years ago, I rode a Greyhound bus from San Francisco to New York to get home for the holidays. I have a tendency to procrastinate, so naturally I didn't even attempt to look for a plane ticket home until December 7. Upon seeing the price of a round trip ticket for the holidays (about $1,200), I had a mini-meltdown. Fifteen minutes later, in an act of sheer desperation, I purchased my $216 Greyhound ticket. My itinerary included 31 unique stops and 5 bus transfers over the course of 75 hours. I'm pretty sure I never would have booked a cross-country bus trip if I wasn't staring down the barrel of a $1,200 credit card charge, but once I did, I started to get excited about my long weekend on the bus. I'd have the opportunity to see parts of the country I had never seen before, and I was interested in meeting other people riding a Greyhound bus across the country in the days before Christmas; I figured they'd be interesting people. Many of my friends, colleagues, and family members were not so optimistic. My mother spent weeks desperately sending me price quotes for airline tickets, and at my company holiday party, my boss asked me if I was being paid enough.

Over the course of my trip, I did end up meeting a number of interesting characters. The man I sat next to from Oakland to Reno boarded the bus unsure if he had just been robbed, and he spent the duration of the trip playing a weathered PlayStation Portable he claimed to have found on the streets of Oakland. While waiting for a delayed bus in Salt Lake City, I met Jim, sporting a ponytail and decked out in all camo. Jim hailed from Alaska and claimed to make his living mining gold and hunting caribou passing through his land. He lived in a remote cabin with no electricity, but fortunately for Jim he was being wooed by a princess from a nearby Eskimo tribe. My seatmate from Salt Lake City to Denver was a 38-year-old homeless woman with a labret piercing. My ability to fall asleep so easily while surrounded by strangers confirmed to her that I was a "good guy." From Denver to Kansas City, I sat next to an evangelist headed home to Baton Rouge. She traveled with a copy of T.L. Osborn's "Healing the Sick" and spent large portions of the ride praying with friends on her cell phone. She was an incredibly positive person and repeatedly filled the bus with cheers of "2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate?! The bus driver!" any time he relayed good news about our journey.

Although I met many colorful people on the Greyhound, my trip also had many sobering moments. As the bus drifted across the Great Basin Desert, I heard a mother warn her young daughter, "Stop before I pop the fucking shit out of you."

"I'm really good at saving money. I have $268 in my checking account," said a woman behind me as I drifted asleep.

During one delay in a Greyhound station, I heard a group of twenty-somethings debate the merits of Job Corps and AmeriCorps -- they discussed which program looked better on a resume, which one left its alumni with more useful skills, and whether it was easier to do recreational drugs as a Job Corps or AmeriCorps member. In Topeka I watched a bus driver kick a confrontational man in a confederate flag baseball cap off the bus, leaving him at a gas station just off the highway. Many passengers carried all of the belongings to their name in a backpack. For me this was an adventure; for many others it was their only way home.

The trip itself was not the romanticized, great American road trip I had envisioned in the days leading up to the trip. Although Greyhound serves thousands of destinations, with many daily departures, it does not do so in a particularly enjoyable way. The company seemed to oversell almost all of its buses. My tickets entitled me to travel on a particular bus route, but not a particular bus that departed a station at a particular time on a particular date. Ridership was given on a first come, first serve system; in the more remote parts of our great nation, the next bus wouldn't arrive for another six or twelve hours. Greyhound isn't necessarily to blame; simple economics dictates how the company operates, and it is entirely possible they are doing the best they can to fill a gap by offering a service few others do. This created an almost constant sense of desperation and anxiety in every Greyhound terminal I visited, which was exacerbated by the company's poor information dissemination practices with regards to delays and scheduling. At various points during the trip, I felt trapped and hopeless, with waves of ennui washing over me. It was nearly impossible to absorb and enjoy the beauty of the American countryside while travelling on a Greyhound. Rather than feeling liberated, as one might expect on a lengthy road trip, traveling on the bus made me feel like a prisoner.

What I eventually came to realize (around hour 35) is that while I had chosen to ride the Greyhound across the country to save on a plane ticket that I could have actually afforded, many of the people around me were not so fortunate - the bus was their only option. Although only a few people on the bus were going as long as I was, many of them were using the bus to travel significant distances, often many hundreds of miles. The fact that so many people are left without a more reliable option for long distance transportation is troubling. Most current innovation in transit seems to focus on ride-sharing apps (e.g., Lyft and Uber) or high-end, high-speed options like the Elon Musk's Hyperloop. These options are not targeted to the citizens who currently ride the Greyhound, and that population would almost certainly find them unaffordable. This means they would continue to depend on the same low-quality, low-cost options. Good transportation systems have the potential to be great equalizers that allow people from different walks of life and socioeconomic backgrounds to share common spaces and incentives, but a stratified transportation system can equally do wonders to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Nathan Heller touched on this in an October 14, 2013 piece for The New Yorker. He wrote:

If a system isn't working well, your neighborhood entrepreneur will build a better one. The approach has clear benefits for transportation, but it has risks, too. Say you're a lawyer who rides the Muni bus. You hate it. It is overcrowded. It is always late. Fed up, you use your legal expertise to lobby an agency to get the route fixed. And the service gets better for all riders: the schoolkid, the homeless alcoholic, the elderly Chinese woman who speaks no English. None of them could have lobbied for a better bus on their own; your self-interested efforts have redounded to the collective benefit. Now the peeved lawyer can just take Leap. That is great for him. But it is less good for the elderly Chinese woman, who loses her civic advocate. Providing an escape valve for a system's strongest users lessens the pressure for change.

Greyhound's strongest users have already exited via the escape valve, and the situation seems like it will only get worse as time goes on.

Since 2012, I haven't felt compelled to ride the Greyhound bus again, although my memories from the trip have made me thankful every time I am able to get back to the East Coast quickly and safely by plane. As we continue to improve our cities and towns, and the transportation within and between them, it is worthwhile to consider not only the efficacy of proposed solutions, but also the degree to which they service citizens across the entire socioeconomic spectrum. Rather than searching for ways to replace existing transportation options that some consider low quality, we should be searching to improve them such that the self-interested efforts of a few can benefit everyone. I'm sure Jim from Alaska would appreciate it.

For more from Dave, you can follow him on twitter or visit www.daveholtz.net.

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