This article omitted the first name and affiliation of John Townsend. He is a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
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Back on the Bus: D.C.-N.Y. Travelers Line Up for Low Fares, High Value
As if the driver's chatting weren't disconcerting enough, the passenger across from me had a special talent for mimicry. He sang along with a woman's cellphone ring every time it blasted. When I awoke from my daze, set to the soundtrack of Verizon, I looked up to see Chinese characters on a sign. I was overjoyed, until I read the rest of the lettering: Brooklyn. Two men jumped out, but no one else was allowed to exit.
We were set free in Manhattan after 1 a.m., more than five hours after leaving Washington. As I plotted my course to the subway, I watched the driver collect the trash from the bus and toss it out the door, onto the street. I stared at him in disbelief; he shrugged and drove off. I picked up the detritus and tossed it in the can. That garbage was an apt metaphor for my Chinatown bus experience, and I put it where it belonged.
That was the worst of my rides. From there, things only got better, minus some bungles: On my first attempt to ride Greyhound, I ignored the company's suggestion to arrive an hour before departure. (It's first come, first served, first go.) When I showed up 30 minutes in advance, the bus had already filled up and taken off. I was stuck with Peter Pan and the gnawing knowledge that I could have been traveling on one of the dog's sleek new vehicles, which come with leather seats, WiFi, outlets, cup holders and much-appreciated seat belts.
On Vamoose, one of the more veteran players (established in 2004), I sat among three Hasidic brothers who passed food and Hebrew texts to one another. Because I was in between them, we ended up chatting about religion, science and literature. The engaging conversation lasted from the New Jersey Turnpike to Bethesda, our end point. A few days later, racing to catch Tripper Bus in the afternoon heat of New York, I did not have a chance to stock up on water. At the pickup spot near Penn Station, I was greeted by a giant cooler of cold bottled water, free to all passengers. Once aboard, I noticed no toilet paper. I e-mailed customer service and received a reply: "Sorry to hear that. If you let the driver know, he will be more than happy to give you a roll of toilet paper." The bus driver graciously pointed out a whole supply near the lavatory.
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The little perks mattered immensely and were a sweet tonic on what could otherwise be a mind-numbing journey. (With heavy traffic, the trip can last up to six hours.) But the more I rode, the more I understood the wider picture of bus travel. Overall, the industry has shaken its sordid reputation, emerging as a shiny chariot with a solid track record. The bus resurgence has been "a remarkable recovery of an industry," said Joe Schwieterman, a professor of public service and director of DePaul University's Chaddock Institute for Metropolitan Development. "Intercity bus travel is back and is now part of mainstream travel."
According to a study by Schwieterman, in 2007-08 the economic downturn, the spike in gas prices and airline cutbacks led the intercity bus industry to post "its biggest one-year gain in service in a half-century."
Credit goes mainly to the new convoy of buses, which appropriated the Chinatown model, then gave it a substantial upgrade. This new species offers curbside pickup and drop-offs, cheap fares, clean restrooms, express service, online reservations, free WiFi and loyalty programs. Neither Amtrak, currently exploring WiFi service on trains, nor my car can make such declarations.
The bus fares undercut Amtrak and, depending on the number of passengers, personal vehicles. One-way fares on the train start at $49, compared with $1 to $30 on the bus. As for my car, Townsend determined that gas for my make and model would add up to $43.78, plus about $20 for tolls. The buses also earn hugs from carbon-emission watchers. According to such experts as Schwieterman and the ABA, one bus can potentially eliminate 55 cars from the road. The Union of Concerned Scientists' "Getting There Greener" guide notes that a couple can halve their carbon output by taking the bus and leaving their hybrid car in the garage.
All said, having covered more than 2,000 miles on the bus and dedicated 55-odd hours to life on the highway, I feel a kinship with the bus and its riders. It delivered what it promised: me to New York. What's less certain is: Which bus will I book next time I travel to Manhattan? I have my pet lines, but in the end, it really depends on price, time and location. I do, however, know what I won't be taking: the train or my car . . . or New Century.