Mass transit's ninth circle

The low price includes limited space, screaming children, and dueling electronic devices. Also, watch out for the lava.

Posted: July 15, 2011

The bus ride from Philadelphia to New York takes approximately 7,200 seconds. I know because I have felt every single one of those seconds slowly tick away in the East Coast mass-transit purgatory known as the Megabus.

The Megabus combines the best and worst of modern transportation. It's cheap yet unreliable. It features technological perks like WiFi and air-conditioning, but ignores basic human rights like legroom and personal space.

For those whose lives have been stretched along the Eastern Seaboard by the pull of career, family, and academia, the Megabus is an unfortunate mainstay, a masochistic means of getting from point A to point B.

The first thing you should know about the Megabus is that it will be late. You arrive an hour early, and there are already a hundred people there, half going to Baltimore and half to Buffalo. All are in a single serpentine line wrapped around the abandoned parking lot that doubles as a Megabus depot. In charge of the parking lot is a single, small, probably underpaid man in a bright jacket, who is tasked with simultaneously organizing the line, loading and unloading baggage, addressing customer complaints, directing traffic, announcing arrivals and departures, checking tickets, and, when called for, holding impromptu arbitration hearings.

The line comprises a smorgasbord of people motivated by the fact that a Megabus ticket costs a small fraction of the price of a train ticket or even a tank of gas. Every one of them feels just as you do: personally offended that the fates have conspired to put him here.

Word spreads through the line that a bridge is out or a highway has flooded, further delaying the bus and provoking a collective groan not unlike the noise a support beam makes before it snaps. Eight strangers single you out as a voice of reason and ask whether this is the bus to Boston. You explain that you're taking the bus to New York, which does not exclude the possibility that the bus is continuing to Boston, though it seems unlikely from a logistics standpoint.

When the bus finally shows up, the carefully tended line you've stood in for two hours collapses like a subprime mortgage, and a mass of elbows and fingernails jostles and claws for the doors. Somewhere, a baby starts crying, a piece of luggage spills its contents onto the parking lot, and the asphalt cracks open and spews molten lava.

Somehow, you get on the bus. You spot a completely empty set of seats in the back. It is glorious. You take the window seat, lean your head against the window, and put on headphones.

Just as you are about to drift off to sleep, a 300-pound tourist sits next to you. Over the course of the next 7,200 seconds, he tells you everything he did in the past week, recites his favorite Walt Whitman poem ("O Captain! My Captain!"), shows you 87 blurry pictures he took, and explains the difference between margarine and butter. You nod politely.

Behind you, a well-dressed young professional is working with the team back at the office to finish a PowerPoint presentation that was due "ASAP! Right now! Yesterday!" Across from you, a teenager is taking full advantage of the free WiFi to watch a bootleg of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, dubbed in German with the volume all the way up. In front of you, a family consisting of a single parent and five young children, all pumped full of amino acid-flavored energy shots, is playing mobile video games that make liberal use of high-pitched sound effects.

You hit bumper-to-bumper traffic about the time the baby starts crying again, and the highway cracks open and spews not only molten lava, but also noxious gases and fireballs.

Of course, there are alternatives to the Megabus. The Bolt Bus, for example, is a relative bastion of comfort and punctuality. But we all know you booked this ticket at the last minute, and the Bolt Bus sold out weeks ago. You could opt for the so-called Chinatown bus, but sometimes it's not even a bus; it's just a guy listening to talk radio in a Dodge Caravan. And a select few people know a rail route to your destination that involves SEPTA, NJ Transit, and PATH, but if you miss one transfer, you might find yourself spending the night on a bench in Newark.

Even taking into account opportunity costs, pain and suffering, and the long-term health effects of legroom deprivation, the Megabus remains, sadly, the cheapest way to travel. So we ride on, Megabuses against the rush-hour traffic, borne back ceaselessly into the abandoned parking lot.


Eric Mustin is a recent graduate of Pennsylvania State University and a member of The Inquirer's Off Campus board of contributors. He can be reached at mustin.eric@gmail.com.

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