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Transportation Around America

This is the third post in the Ultimate Planes, Trains & Automobiles Trip series.

I recently took a trip that covered about 1200 miles with stops in three major American cities. I got around exclusively by means other than personal automobile. That's to say, I made a trip that most Americans will never make. How'd it go? Overall, very well. I posted a a recap of my Amtrak train ride last week. This post will cover everything else.

Public Transit
There were two notable things that happened on public transit during the trip. The first is merely amusing, the second is a little more serious.

(from Flickr user wallyg)

On Friday night I walked up to one of the credit/debit-only machines at the 34th Street subway station. After dipping my debit card twice without success, a middle-aged guy came up behind me and asked "what country are you from?" Because apparently the ability to swipe a debit card is a concept foreigners struggle with more than Americans? Moving on...

My friends and I got down to the platform and waited for about five minutes before two police officers started yelling "no downtown trains! No downtown trains!" Wanting to know what was going on, a crowd formed around one of the officers, trying to get to the bottom of why there was no service and what to do about it. The officer said something to the effect of "there was a heinous crime that occurred between 59th Street and 55th Street. We think the perp is running on the tracks, but I don't know anything else, I barely caught that piece of info on the radio." Aside from being annoying, the incident demonstrates the serious problem that some transit systems have informing the public of important events. Especially in New York, there's really no good way for riders to get this information. Cell phones don't work underground and most stations don't have any system in place to disseminate information to passengers.

Bus Travel
I rode BoltBus from New York to Baltimore on Sunday night. Overall this was a good experience, the ride was comfortable and quiet and we departed and arrived right now time. Nonetheless, two things are worth pointing out.

(from Flickr user Stephen Rees)

First, boarding was a minor disaster. The whole idea behind BoltBus and its competitors is that people get picked up on the street corner; so it's just like riding a cross-town bus, expect it goes much further. It's different, at least, in the sense that most passengers (not me) are traveling with huge suitcases and other bulky luggage. This makes for a very crowded street corner. And for whatever reason, once the bus pulls up, people start behaving like animals to get on board. Maybe I just had an unusually rowdy bunch on my bus? But if that type of thing is the norm, it probably needs to be addressed.

Second, the boarding of luggage was highly inefficient. Again, I didn't 'check' any bags, but plenty of people did. Since it was pretty much up to the passengers and the driver to load and unload the luggage from the bus, the results were pretty predictable.

Air Travel
My Southwest flight from BWI to CLE was on-time and lived up to the standards Southwest has set forth. After riding on a train and a bus, the flight reminded me how much time has to be tacked onto a trip by plane simply because of how long it can take to travel to and from airports. While I still support air travel more than your typical urbanist, I also think it's evidence of badly needed transit service connecting cities and their airports.

Commuter Rail
I rode MARC's Penn Line from Baltimore to DC. Overall I was quite impressed.

(from Flickr user skew-t)

For 7 dollars, it hardly broke the bank. The train arrived in Baltimore right on time and the ride down to DC was pleasant. My only complaint is that when I walked into Baltimore's Penn Station, it was very unclear how to buy MARC tickets. After asking 2 or 3 different people, I learned that they can be purchased at the Amtrak ticket window or an Amtrak kiosk. Good to know... too hard to find out.

Taxi Cabs
I have seriously mixed feelings about taxis. On the one hand, I feel like they are a huge waste of money. For short trips, they're not prohibitively expensive, but I also feel like I could walk or bike a short distance for free. For long trips, they can be prohibitively expensive, for me anyway.

(from Flickr user [phil h])

At the same time, I want other people to use them, because I think cities need to have them available as a transportation option. Otherwise a city winds up like Cleveland, which has a few taxis, but that require prior arrangements or reservations to use, and even then, they are questionably reliable. I've also had mixed experiences with cab drivers. I swear that every time I rode in a taxi while I lived in Dallas it was a horrifying experience. But I've had very friendly cab drivers in Las Vegas and other cities. I probably haven't ridden in enough of them to draw any definitive conclusions.


Kristen said…
It's interesting how the NY system has no intercom at all or at least a working one. Also, the folks at GGW have no love lost sometimes with MARC, so the lack of info on buying tickets didn't surprise me. Really interesting about the Bolt Bus, I would expect that to be the slowest. Taxis, I have mixed feelings. They tend to be a last resort if the Metro is broken or airport parking is more expensive and I'm alone.
herrVebah said…
NYC is actually the exception, not the rule anymore, when it comes to allowing intercity buses to board at street corners. Most cities have "cracked down," if you will, on street side loading. For instance, in Boston, most (if not all) Chinatown buses no longer pick up and drop off in Chinatown because the city requires them to use the South Station bus terminal. In DC, for the most part, bus companies now use the Union Station bus terminal or the large City Center parking lot where the old Convention Center used to be. I wish NYC would do something similar, since the boarding process around Penn Station for Bolt/Mega buses or at various street corners in Chinatown for the remaining Chinatown bus companies is a huge pain to both riders and passers by.

Also, I've also found that the crowds on BoltBus tend be a little rowdy. We had a drunk guy who couldn't figure out how to open the bathroom door freak out because he thought somebody was in there and was taking too long. The driver had to pull the bus over and "subdue" the guy. I think people who are really looking for piece of mind are willing to pay the little extra for the NE Regional train.

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