Monday, September 26, 2011

Just hop on the bus, Gus

Although the rickshaw, the Conestoga wagon, and the railway handcar are arguably less comfortable modus tranportandi, if I were to nominate my least favorite means to get from Point A to Point B, I would have to say it’s the bus.

Put me behind the wheel of a Beetle and aaahandcar[3]aim it toward the West Coast, and I could happily do a cross-country trek, stopping to smell the roses, smile at the prairie dogs, and eat lemon meringue pie, served by waitresses named Mabel, in “Eat Here” diners along the way.

Romance of the rails? I’m there. With the exception of a flea-bitten night spent in a Spanish sleeper car, I have never been on a train trip that I didn’t enjoy. To me, the major pitfall of long train travel is that you inevitably fall asleep during part of it, so you miss some of those woebegone towns that aren’t even whistle-stops. How can you not love clackety-clacketing along, wondering who lives in that remote outpost – the one in the way-far distance with the night-light burning?

When I was a kid, we would alternate train trips with car travel from Worcester to Chicago to pay our bi-annual calls on my mother’s family, and both methods have their distinct pleasures.

As for boats, while the idea of a long cruise doesn’t hold much appeal to me, I do like commuter boats. Most recently, I took one with my niece Caroline from Provincetown to Boston after a weekend at the Wellfleet home of my sister and her husband. I was a bit under the weather on that voyage, so I mostly dozed, but I was alert enough to realize that we must have been experiencing the tail-end of Bear Week in P-town, as Caroline and I were among a small non-male, non-burly, non-hirsute cohort on the trip.

As long as the seas are calm, boats rock!

I wish there were a fast boat from Boston to NYC. Now that would be something.

Plane travel I have always enjoyed.

From my first leavin’ for Europe on a jet plane in 1973, when I didn’t even know how to fasten the seat belt, to this past weekend’s shuttle to NY, flying is something I like to frequent – body cavity search and all.

But the bus?

Alas, while I have had any number of bus trips in my life, I can’t say that there were many that I looked much forward to, with the exception of the annual Junior Catholic Daughters trip from Worcester to Boston to watch the thrilling film at Cinerama (the 1960’s version of IMAX)  – whee! – and eat at the Eli Whitney Restaurant on Route 9 on the way back. (I’ll tell you, we knew how to live large when I was a kid.)

Fortunately,  most of my bus trips were relatively short, the longest two being a school-bus trip to Washington to protest the Viet Nam War, and an attempt to Escape from New York via bus one Thanksgiving Evening. Fall asleep at Port Authority. Wake up three hours later passing Yankee Stadium. Can this be right???? The horror.

But mostly I no like the bus, and, given a choice between bus and a mode of transportation to be named later, I will opt for the great unknown.

I understand that there is actually a nice bus to NYC from Boston, but I haven’t been on it as yet, When I think bus to NYC, my thoughts stray to the Fung Wah and Lucky Star $10/trip wrecks that I see occasionally on the Mass Pike, engines smoking and/or pulled off to the side awaiting rescue.

Despite my antipathy towards buses as a way to go, I read with interest a recent study from the American Bus Association which found that, if we stopped subsidizing plane service in 38 smaller, off the beaten path cities, we could save close to $89 million in taxpayer money each year. Which seems like an amount worth saving, especially when you keep in mind that it could nicely pay my upcoming (in the not so distant future) Social Security and Medicare tab, and then some.

The average cost of providing service would be reduced by as much as $291 per passenger, according to the Washington-based trade group’s study. Rather than considering only air service for these cities, the U.S. should “look at what makes the most sense,” Peter Pantuso, the association’s president and chief executive officer, said on a call with reporters today.

The cities analyzed were those within 150 miles of a decent sized airport that have service from pokey town airport a to decent sized city AIRPORT B underwritten.

I well understand that backwater second-tier cities want to have airport service.

As anyone who lives in a city like, say, Worcester, Massachusetts, is well aware, it’s almost embarrassing not to have a humming, viable airport. But Worcester-ites are served by several airports within 50 miles of The Heart of the Commonwealth: Logan, Manchester, Bradley (Hartford), and Green (Rhode Island). Because these airports are relatively close at hand – an easy drive – Worcester may not be one of the tax sucking cities with subsidized to-and-fro flights.

But White River Junction in Vermont is.

As are Jamestown, NY; Mason City, IA; Greenville, MS; Laramie, WY; Altoona, PA; Muscle Shoals, AL; Kingman, AZ.

All worthy places, no doubt.

But are they worthy of an average $291 per passenger air travel subsidy just so that travelers can save face by flying, an altogether more upscale means of travel, rather than arrive via the lowly bus?

The study examined the viability of bus service as an alterative in about one-fourth of the 153 communities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico that receive air subsidies.

Savings could be greatest in Jonesboro, Arkansas, located 79 miles from Memphis, and Kingman, Arizona, 103 miles from Las Vegas, the study said.

Taxpayers provide $801 in subsidies per passenger for airline service to Jonesboro and $651 per passenger for Kingman service, according to the study.

Using buses instead of planes would also save 5.7 million gallons of petroleum a year and cut carbon-dioxide emissions as much as 63,500 tons, the report said.

Saving money, plus cutting emissions?

What’s not to like?

Much as I sympathize with the desire of someone to get out of Kingman, Arizona as rapidly as possible – I have driven through Kingman, and, thus, know whereof I speak – is it really worth spending $651 to underwrite every pilgrim who wants to visit the birthplace of Andy Devine?

I think not.

“Transportation policy needs to focus on moving people and goods efficiently, and not necessarily being sexy,” said Shirley Ybarra, senior transportation policy analyst with the Reason Foundation [one of the co-sponsors of the study].

Nope, bus travel is decidedly non-sexy, but that’s no reason why the folks in Kingman et al. can’t just hop on the bu.


Link to the study.

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